Business Psychology

Article No. 336
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Working Self Concept

New findings in a business setting confirm the tactics of our parents.

If you were a grandfather with a yard full of leaves and a visiting nine-year-old grandson with time on his hands, you might try to enlist his help to do some raking. Here are three examples of how you might approach him: 1) "Johnny, your Grandma says you're a really hard worker. How about helping me rake some leaves?" 2) "Johnny, your Grandma says you're the hardest worker of any of the grandkids. How about helping me rake some leaves?" or 3) "Johnny, your Grandma says you're lazy. How about helping me rake some leaves?" Which of these do you think will bring the best response?

The subject here is self-concept and how it impacts behavior. Either of the first two comments would have worked.

People want to know how others see them. For example, we look in our mirrors before leaving for work. We do so to check ourselves. We have an image of how we want to look, so we check the mirror to see how closely we approximate that image, and then we usually make some adjustments. We fix our hair, straighten our ties, adjust our lipstick, and glue down our cowlicks with hair gel. It's the same process with other aspects of ourselves, too, but we don't have mirrors for those qualities.

Johnny wants to know how others see him, and he also wants to know what others expect of him and what they think he is capable of doing. Steve Farmer calls this the "looking glass self."

Steve Farmer is a professor at Wichita State University in Kansas, and he recently completed a study which examined the link between employees' perceptions of their looking glass selves as workers and actual on-the-job behaviors. Specifically, he looked at two common behaviors, helpfulness and industriousness. He found that the more people believed that others saw them as helpful or industrious, the more helpful and/or industrious they actually were.

Now you might think Professor Farmer only discovered the obvious: helpfulness and industriousness come first, and then feedback from others confirm these qualities, but Farmer believes there's more to it, and he sees an opportunity for business owners to impact employee behavior.

People hunger for feedback to inform their looking-glass selves. It guides their attention and their actions. When Grandpa mentioned Grandma's comments, helpfulness and industriousness were brought to Johnny's attention. He hadn't been thinking about them before Grandpa spoke, but he was thinking about them after he spoke. Once Johnny was aware of these qualities, he was primed to act them out, and Grandpa told him how to do so. Raking was a way to enact his identity as a hard worker, so he would probably make a pretty good effort on the leaves. This was the pattern that Farmer found in his study of 278 employees and 51 supervisors, but remember the third choice. If Grandpa had mentioned Johnny being lazy, then Johnny would have felt compelled to enact that identity, and the leaves would have stayed where they were.

I recently explained these findings to a supervisor sitting next to me at a meeting, and she slapped the table top and exclaimed "That's my mother and her 'best sweeper' tactic." She went on to explain that in her large family whenever there was sweeping that needed to be done her mother would grab the nearest kid and enlist her help by telling her that she was the best sweeper of all the kids. It took years for the children to get together and figure out that they were all "best sweepers."

We can shape our employees' work self-concepts and influence the way they enact these self-concepts on the job. To do so, we need to prime our people by calling attention to core qualities like helpfulness and industriousness. We need to be explicit about behaviors we want. We need to tie these behaviors to the core values that employees share, and we need to look for opportunities to call attention to these qualities and direct actions. Then, when there's work to be done, willing hands are likely to be on the job.

Reference: Farmer, Steven, Linn Van Dyne (2010) The Idealized Self and the Situated Self as Predictors of Employee Work Behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(3), 503-516.

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