Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 64
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Something Employees Know

Some employees carefully nurture images of being poor employees to manipulate managers and other employees. This research explores their motives and tactics.

If asked to recall an instance of an employee deliberately looking bad and performing poorly, you'd most likely describe an angry person hoping to get fired, perhaps because of a disciplinary sanction, conflict with a supervisor, or a new, hated policy. Would you believe this is just a small portion of the actual instances of employees deliberately looking bad . . . just the tip of the iceberg? That's the surprising finding of Thomas Becker, of Washington State University, and Scott Martin, a consultant.

Becker and Martin posed their questions to 2 groups of people, 28 young adults employed part time (average age 21), and 162 adults employed full time (average age 30). These people supplied examples of employees deliberately looking bad at work, their reasons, the tactics they used, and the people whose impressions they were trying to influence. The researchers sorted these examples into categories to learn what was going on and who was doing it.

One out of every two people they interviewed described cases they'd observed, and one in eight admitted to trying to look bad themselves. Becker and Martin think that's an underestimate, that more people could have written about themselves, but were ashamed to do so.

Managers were the most common target of these efforts, but other employees were targets too. Apparently, fooling the boss was insufficient for many employees. They also tried to fool their coworkers.

Avoiding work, shifting difficult assignments to others, and reducing stress were the most common reasons for nurturing a bad image. After all, sujpervisors seldom pick their least competent people for difficult jobs. And coworkers typically excuse the weakest among them believing they should not be expected to shoulder a full share of the burden. Two thirds of the cases described this motivation. Next came getting fired, using power to hurt others, and gaining rewards (as in "Give-it-to-me-or-else!") as motivating factors. A desire to get fired may find people deliberately harming themselves, or it may reveal a desire to collect unemployment insurance or worker's compensation. Finally, disgruntled employees may perform poorly to damage their employers' business, embarrass mangers, get revenge, or intimidate others.

Not working up to potential and deliberately reducing performance were the most common tactics described. People not working to their potential begin nurturing poor images when they start their jobs; people decreasing their performance start creating their bad images later by neglecting tasks and pretending to be ignorant of necessary information.

Absence from work and displaying a bad attitude were also reported, but they appeared much more frequently among younger, part-time employees, as did broadcasting limitations and pointing out one's own mistakes.

So who uses these tactics? People who use self-handicapping are more likely to use them, like the golfer who uses a handicap to excuse a bad score while relishing a good performance. People who nurture favorable impressions, who are ambitious and volunteer for extra work, are unlikely to use them, but people with low self-esteem are more likely to use this tactic since it is consistent with their self view.

Work settings with hard, monotonous tasks may trigger this tactic, and antagonistic labor-management relations will do so too. Lax management, in which supervisors neglect to assign duties to individuals, will also cause it.

Aside from the ignominy of being fooled by a few of our employees, there are other, more serious consequences of this behavior. Armed with incorrect impressions of employee capabilities, we may impose an unfair burden on our best people while allowing some employees to contribute far below their capabilities. The consequences on turnover, productivity, goals, customer satisfaction, and costs are impossible to quantify.

For managers, this is a blind spot. We imagine other people to be just like we are, with similar hopes and dreams, values and fears. They aren't. Nurturing a bad image at work is the last thing most managers would do. For some employees, it's the first thing they do.

Who are your weakest people? Who is absent from work, late, sick? Who takes the longest breaks? Who lets everyone know when they make a mistake? Who is always busy or absent when difficult assignments are made?

Review the distribution of work among your employees. Who does what? Observe work patterns yourself, and most importantly, act. Assign tasks reflecting an equitable division of the work. Most of your employees will appreciate your attention. The ones who don't may be getting the message you want to send.

Reference: Becker, Thomas E., and Scott L. Martin (1995). Trying to Look Bad at Work: Methods and Motives for Managing Poor Impressions in Organizations. Academy of Management Journal, 38 (1), 174-199.

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