Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 240
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Acting Out at Work

Researcher explores the link between emotions and actions at work.

"Acting out" is a term you've probably heard if you've raised children. Teachers use it to explain why our children misbehave. Their actions reflect their feelings, the teachers say. They act bad because they feel bad, and parents armed with this insight are invited to explore their own actions and the home conditions they create which might cause the bad feelings. Fix the home and the feelings will improve, then the acting out will stop. That's the logic.

It was inevitable that someone would apply this reasoning to the workplace.

In fact, several researchers have explored this logic in the last dozen years or so, and several interesting findings have emerged.

For example, job demands are an employment feature that affects people. When job demands push the limits of an employee's abilities, they cause employees to feel anxious and fearful.

Social support from coworkers does not relieve fear or anxiety. However, social support does relieve sadness and depression.

When people receive favorable outcomes based on procedures that favor them, they feel guilty. And when people receive unfavorable outcomes based on procedures that favor others, they feel angry.

Kibeom Lee, from the University of Western Ontario, recently made a contribution to this ongoing field of research. But instead of concentrating on the link between job conditions and emotions, he focussed on the link between emotions and actions.

Lee explored the feelings and thoughts associated with three kinds of common workplace behaviors. He named them workplace deviance behaviors, organizational citizenship behaviors that benefit the organization, and organizational citizenship behaviors that benefit other individuals.

Examples of workplace deviance behaviors include stealing from an employer, excessive time spent on breaks, and performing personal work on company time. Examples of citizenship behaviors that benefit organizations include attending meetings that are not required and making suggestions to improve organizational functioning. An example of citizenship behavior that benefits another individual would be providing assistance without being asked.

Lee was interested to learn if workplace deviance behaviors were preceded by calculated thought or by negative emotions. He found them to be evenly divided. About half of the people in his study who engaged in deviant workplace behavior did so with cool intent to benefit themselves at the expense of their employers. The remaining people who engaged in workplace deviance did not plan it out. Their actions were preceded by hostility. Their actions were impulsive.

Lee found that citizenship behaviors that benefited the organization were preceded by a desire to pay back the employer. When people felt grateful for their jobs and for the benefits they received, they sensed a need to pay back their employer, to "even things up," so they attended meetings that weren't required and thought about ways to improve the work.

Finally, Lee found that citizenship behaviors that benefited other individuals were preceded by fear. When people were anxious and fearful at work, their coworkers reported them to behave in helpful ways for them. Lee was stunned by this finding. It was exactly the opposite of what he expected, and he advised that we interpret this finding with caution. Yet, there it is. It won't go away.

People feel in certain ways, and their feelings affect their behavior. Employers benefit, or they are hurt.

Supervisors are in a unique position to notice people's feelings at work and to influence them. Lee's work offers three suggestions: 1) Hostility is a dangerous emotion at work. Supervisors should not arouse it by their own actions and should defuse it when they recognize it. 2) Supervisors should point out the benefits of employment. Doing so may arouse a desire to even things up by employees. And 3) Supervisors should notice employees' emotions at work and they should be careful not to unnecessarily arouse negative emotions.

Reference: Lee, Kibeom, and Natalie J. Allen (2002) Organizational Citizenship Behavior and Workplace Deviance: The Role of Affect and Cognitions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87 (1), 131-142.

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