Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 297
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Thwarted Desire

Researcher investigates disappointment and discovers a new direction of causality.

Have you ever experienced a disappointment in your business and then found yourself neglecting the business and playing more golf? Have you ever experienced such a disappointment and then found yourself making poorly-thought-out decisions? Owning a business can be an emotional roller coaster for many people, and often, the greatest threat to the business is the business owner himself. Neglect and poor decisions undoubtedly top the list, yet few business owners intend this for their businesses.

What happens?

An unlikely answer to this question comes from research conducted by Stefan Thau from the London Business School. Thau wasn�t interested in business success or leaders. His study concerned feelings of belonging within work groups, but his findings have far-reaching implications. His findings touch nearly everyone in all manner of life pursuits, from students in school to retirees adjusting to the changes life brings as we age. They apply to business owners, too.

Thau investigated self-defeating behaviors, and his thesis was simple and straightforward. When people experience a desire for belonging with others in their work groups, they are sometimes disappointed. All manner of obstacles may interfere. Existing friendships may leave no room for another. Rivalries and jealousies may intrude. Vanities and covetedness may poison the atmosphere.

The crucial point is the disappointment. Thau called it thwarted desire, and when people experience it, something else happens, too. Something else emerges. He suspected that self-defeating behaviors would emerge, so he went looking for them.

Thau looked for examples of thwarted desire for belonging among a sample of 482 employees of a large medical firm, 88% of whom were women. Then he looked for two specific kinds of behavior: aggressive behaviors and an absence of helping behaviors. He identified respondents that reported the greatest thwarted desire for belonging, and then he polled their supervisors and found that these employees exhibited more aggressive behaviors and fewer helping behaviors than others, and that made greater closeness with their co-workers unlikely. Their behaviors were self-defeating, but a moment�s reflection on these findings reveals an obvious difficulty.

Of course, people who are more aggressive and less helpful will have greater difficulty establishing close relationships with others. How could this be a new finding? The answer lies in the direction of causality. Thau was able to establish that it was the thwarted desire that caused the self-defeating behaviors to emerge, so the aggression and the lack of helpfulness were caused by thwarted desire.

Thwarted desire causes bad things to happen in people. It causes the emergence of self-defeating behaviors. Thau explained the process.

Thwarted desire impacts two important psychological functions. First, it impacts our sense of self. When we desire something, we imagine ourselves already possessing it. It becomes part of who we imagine ourselves to be. For Thau�s subjects, they imagined themselves feeling a certain degree of closeness with their co-workers. When this turned out to be wrong and seemingly unattainable, then their attention was drawn inward to adjust to the changed reality. Their OKness was challenged, and they needed some time to work things out for themselves. They became distracted. Perhaps they played more golf.

Second, thwarted desire impacts our self-regulation of behavior. We amplify the negative, convert our disappointment into anger, and then pursue short-term goals that express this anger and make us feel better. Thau�s subjects demonstrated more aggression and less helpfulness toward the co-workers who thwarted their desires for belonging. They were angry, and it showed.

Business owners imagine outstanding success. They dream of the Midas touch, that everything they do will turn out well. For some, when disappointment pays its expected call, impairment follows. They become distracted, focusing attention inward, and they make decisions that respond to short-term goals that reflect anger, an anger that covers up deeper feelings of self-disappointment.

Two antidotes immediately come to mind. First, reduce your desires so that real life won�t be so disappointing. If we�re grateful for any sales at all in our businesses, then a drop in sales won�t result in thwarted desires. Second, pay attention to well-thought-out rules. We need to follow them even when we don�t feel like it. If we can do this, the quality of our work and our decisions will remain steady. They will be shielded from our anger.

Thwarted desires are a common event, perhaps a universal experience. Recognizing the threat they pose and the antidotes that are available can help many people - business owners, employees hoping to fulfill their belongingness needs, and many others. Students, for example, can react differently to disappointing grades. Instead of skipping class and putting off studying until cram sessions become necessary, they can follow the rules for learning they already know: attend class, ask questions, and keep up on readings and assignments, even when they don�t feel like it. Even when deep down, they�re angry.

And on it goes. Thau has crafted a breakthrough study that has far-reaching implications, and we will all benefit by keeping it in mind.

Reference: Thau, Stefan, Karl Aquino, and P. Marijn Poortvliet (2007) Self-Defeating Behaviors in Organizations: The Relationship Between Thwarted Belonging and Interpersonal Work Behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(3), 840-847.

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