Business Psychology

Article No. 325
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Deviance and Self-Esteem

New research solves a puzzle and offers a new way to reduce deviant acts.

There is one time when firing someone is easy, even satisfying: when he steals from you. Making a payroll isn�t always easy. Sometimes, there�s a sacrifice, and then, to discover this violation of trust, this betrayal! The downside, of course, is that the person has been making money for you, and that will stop. He was trained and experienced. Now, there�s just a hole where he was. Other people are affected. The person�s family, the kids, and other employees may have depended upon him. He may not be easy to replace.

So, there is loss, but life goes on. In time, there will be recovery . . . if it doesn�t happen too often, and if the amount stolen isn�t too great. But if your luck is bad, employee theft could bring down your business.

Theft is an example of deviant employee behavior, but there are many entries in this classification, including sick leave abuse, harassing unpopular employees, diverting company resources for personal use like photocopying personal items, and helping yourself to office supplies, tools, and building materials. Most people in business could add entries to the list, but is important to realize that the list is long, and the loss is great.

What drives deviant behavior? That question has occupied an army of researchers for a very long time, and one group believes they are closing in on the answer. This group believes the answer is self-esteem. People with high self-esteem do not commit deviant acts. People with low self-esteem do. These researchers follow two lines of reasoning.

The first maintains that people behave in ways that are consistent with their image of themselves. People who think of themselves as honest and upright don�t commit deviant acts. People who think of themselves as low life do. They are driven to maintain consistency in their self-image. This line of reasoning leads psychologists to warn parents not to call their children disparaging names in times of anger lest they create young people with low self-images that drive them to commit deviant acts.

In the second line of reasoning, self-esteem serves as a buffer against the stresses of life. People with high self-esteem are not deeply affected by life stresses. People with low self-esteem are affected, and when things go badly for them, they act out their frustrations in deviant acts.

These lines of reasoning are simple and elegant, and research studies generated from them should show consistent relationships. They should show that the reasoning is correct. They don�t. For years, researchers have been repeating their studies, and the findings are maddeningly inconsistent. It�s like heating water and finding no consistent temperature at which it boils.

Lance Ferris, from Singapore Management University, is one of these researchers, but he came armed with a new idea, one he hoped would reveal a consistent relationship between self-esteem and deviance. He was successful.

Self-esteem, he points out, comes in two varieties. The first is global self-esteem. This is an overall value judgment of oneself. The second is contingent self-esteem. It is also a value judgment, but it�s tied to a specific setting and to standards from that setting. For example, in the military, a good Marine has specific qualities that are driven into the minds of recruits. To value those qualities in oneself as a member of this group is contingent self-esteem.

Ferris guessed that people at work would vary in the importance they assign to doing well in their work environment . . . their workplace-contingent self-esteem. Further, he guessed that workplace-contingent self-esteem was important in driving deviant acts. He was right.

Ferris� research found that when people feel it is important to them to do well at work, they avoid committing deviant acts, and it doesn�t matter if they�re actually doing well at work or not. It only matters that doing well at work is important to them.

Nearly everyone has first-hand experience with contingent self-esteem. For example, adolescents who get stressed about their looks and the reception they get on any given school day, members of athletic teams, fraternities and sororities, and so on. If you think about how these contingencies get established, you will begin to see how you can use this in your business. You can foster contingent self-esteem by noticing the good work of your employees and letting them know you value it. You can reward good work and punish poor work. You can be a role model for your employees and conduct your business honorably. You can reach out beyond your employees to people whose opinions they value, like parents and spouses, and foster their support for the importance of the work you do. Both the military and high schools reach out to parents, and it�s not unusual to follow a car with a bumper sticker that identifies them as parents of a soldier or a student. You will find an unexpected benefit if you foster work-contingent self-esteem: a reduction in deviant acts by your employees.

Reference: Ferris, D. Lance, Douglas Brown, Huiwen Lian, and Lisa Keeping (2009) When Does Self-Esteem Relate to Deviant Behavior? The Role of Contingencies of Self-Worth. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1345-1353.

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