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February 1, 2006

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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, and Outcomes.”

“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 research.

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 and outcomes.

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.

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