BAD BEHAVIOR AT WORK ‘NO BIG DEAL’
FOR MANY EMPLOYEES, UH RESEARCHERS SAY
Psychologists Study Relationship between
Counterproductive Work Behaviors and Emotions
HOUSTON, Feb. 1, 2006 – Counterproductive work behaviors
(CWBs) are commonplace in any occupational environment. Whether
it’s harsh treatment of co-workers, surfing the Internet on
company time or taking home office supplies, every workplace has
its share of employees engaging in harmful activity.
Conventional wisdom holds that anger and frustration provoke such
actions, but University of Houston researchers have discovered that
the causes of these harmful behaviors may not always be triggered
by negative emotions. In fact, many workers said they had calm dispositions
when engaging in CWBs.
Lisa Penney, assistant professor of industrial and organizational
psychology, and doctoral students Megan Tunstall and Emily Hunter
recently documented their findings in an award-winning paper, “A
Closer Look at Counterproductive Work Behaviors: Emotions, Targets,
“Traditional models that explain CWBs focus on how these
behaviors are responses to anger and triggered by stress or conflicts
with co-workers or supervisors,” Penney said. “What
we found, however, is CWBs may not always be reactions to anger.
In fact, a large number of subjects indicated that they felt fine
and believed that their actions were no big deal.”
Penney, Tunstall and Hunter surveyed more than 200 subjects, who
were asked to recall a period and place where they engaged CWBs
and to describe the incidents in their own words. Those surveyed
also answered queries on whether they were targeting a specific
person, group, or object; how they felt at the time psychologically;
if anyone saw them perform the behavior; what happened afterward
and whether any harm was done. Participants were recruited on the
UH campus and using StudyResponse, an online tool used for behavioral
Data were broken down into subjects’ emotional states and
the types of CWBs committed: abuse, theft, production deviance (purposely
working ineffectively), withdrawal (arriving late/leaving early,
taking long breaks), and sabotage (destroying/defacing company property).
Information was also collected based on CWB frequencies, targets
Forty-three percent of the study’s subjects who committed
theft indicated that their emotional state was fine/neutral while
only 10 percent responded that they were angry when performing this
action. Other significant percentages of fine/neutral responses
included subjects who engaged in withdrawal (22 percent), production
deviance (21 percent) and sabotage (20 percent). The only CWB without
an occurrence of fine/neutral feelings was abuse.
High percentages of anger were primarily found in subjects who
attested to incidents of abuse (52 percent) and sabotage (60 percent).
The study also collected data regarding the outcomes of CWBs. More
than half of the subjects reported that their CWBs rendered no harm
to others or the organization. Even in instances when the outcome
was clearly negative, several respondents maintained that no damage
had been done.
“Many people are simply not aware of how their behavior affects
others or the companies that employ them,” Penney said. “In
fact, 60 percent of the subjects who responded that they engaged
in abusive behavior indicated that no harm was done. So, even when
people are mistreating co-workers, they may not realize the harm
they’re possibly inflicting.”
This study, Penney said, is an eye-opener for researchers who previously
focused their energies examining CWBs and outcomes that were triggered
by anger. By realizing that CWBs can be related to a wide range
of emotions and not just angry or aggressive ones, further research
can be conducted and perhaps lead to intervention techniques.
Since completing their study and the paper, Penney, Tunstall and
Hunter were named the recipients of the John C. Flanagan Award by
the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologists (SIOP).
The Flanagan Award is awarded annually for best student contribution
to the SIOP Conference.
About the University of Houston
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and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate,
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in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and
service with more than 35,000 students.
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