How Service Employees React to Mistreatment by Rude Customers

Publication: Personnel Psychology
Article: Service Employees’ Reaction to Mistreatment by Customers: A comparison between North America and East Asia
Reviewed by: Anjali Banerjee

Dealing with rude customers is a universal truth to working in service positions. We’ve all been there, standing awkwardly in the checkout lane as a red-faced customer furiously berates an employee for some perceived injustice or inconvenience. Intriguingly, how employees react to this rude behavior might be influenced by cultural values.

Researchers Ruodan Shao and Daniel P. Skarlicki compared “Service Employees’ Reactions to Mistreatment by Customers” in a hotel chain with locations in China and Canada. These countries were chosen due to their discernible cultural differences, especially the disparity between an individualistic and collectivistic focus.

Individualism is a cultural value that is characterized by a more independent focus, emphasizing personal needs, feelings and autonomy. Conversely, collectivistic values focus on prioritizing harmony and group accomplishments.

The researchers theorized that being berated or otherwise mistreated by customers is stressful to employees, damaging their self-esteem and self-worth as well as consuming mental resources through mechanisms such as ego depletion.

As a result, employees are faced with a choice: They can either replenish these resources by sabotaging the service being provided (for example, by hanging up on a rude customer), or choose to protect their remaining resources by provide the minimum level of service required.

The study found that this choice is made more predictable based on the cultural context. In Canada’s individualistic culture, employees reacted to mistreatment from customers in a more direct way. In China’s collectivistic culture, employees were more likely to react by retreating from providing top-quality services. Both of these reactions have important impacts on customer service.

So what do we do with this discovery? The study’s findings are especially relevant to companies with global chains. By understanding the important role of cultural values, we can better predict the reactions of employees in different countries to stressful situations.

Furthermore, the researchers provided several solutions to the issue of stress caused by customer mistreatment, including a no-tolerance policy for poor treatment of employees, educating managers about these patterns of reactions, and encouraging a social structure at work to help with employee stress management.

In short, organizations need to remember that customers can be jerks. When they are, your employees will be faced with the choice of how to respond. Ultimately, anticipating their reactions based on cultural differences can make a huge difference in your employees’ stress management and customer service.

Consequences of Abusive Supervision

Publication: Journal of Organizational Behavior (January 2014)
Article: Abusive supervision and feedback avoidance: The mediating role of emotional exhaustion
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

We all know that bullying is a problem in schools, but only recently have I/O psychologists become interested in bullying in the workplace.

One form of non-violent workplace aggression is abusive supervision, which occurs when a supervisor exhibits hostile behaviors such as public ridicule, yelling, or breaking promises. Abusive supervision obviously has negative consequences, but in a recent paper titled Abusive Supervision and Feedback Avoidance, Marilyn Whitman and her colleagues were interested in how abusive supervision leads to some of these unfortunate results.

Not everyone is affected by abusive supervision in the same way. However, in a sample of nurses, the researchers found that abusive supervision was related to emotional exhaustion, which in turn was related to feedback avoidance. In other words, when supervisors are abusive, workers often become emotionally exhausted, and as a result they actively try to avoid getting feedback from their supervisors.

In addition, feedback avoidance leads to additional emotional exhaustion, becoming an endless loop of negative reinforcement. While avoiding an abusive supervisor might seem like a good defense mechanism for an employee, it actually tends to make things worse.

Organizations may want to consider eliminating potentially abusive supervisors during the selection process. Applicants who exhibit high levels of authoritarianism and are more likely to attribute others’ behaviors to hostile intentions are more likely to be abusive supervisors.

Organizations could also implement training programs to raise awareness regarding what could be considered abusive behaviors, as well as how to cope with and report abuse.

When Powerful Leaders Hinder Team Performance

Publication: Academy of Management Journal (October, 2013)
Article: When Power Makes Others Speechless: The Negative Impact of Leader Power on Team Performance
Reviewed by: Andrea Hetrick

When we think of powerful leaders, we often imagine people who can get others to do what they wish. After all, power and leadership, by definition, involve the capacity to control or influence the behaviors of others. However, this study by Tost and Larrick shows that having more powerful leaders can actually harm team performance.

Consider two reasons this could be the case. First, leaders who overestimate their own power or who depend too much on their personal power may be less understanding of others’ perspectives, being likely to stereotype, less likely to listen, and more likely to objectify others. Alternately, true collaboration, which involves creative problem solving, idea sharing, and blending of team member viewpoints, happens over time and cannot be commanded as a simple exercise of a leader’s power. These reasons provide a potential explanation as to why too powerful a leader can harm team performance.

This study had several key findings. First, formal leaders (those who hold a specific role in a social hierarchy) who perceive themselves as having a high sense of power spend more time talking in team meetings. As a result, their teams communicate less and performance more poorly than teams whose leaders perceive their own power neutrally. Specifically, formal leads who feel powerful talk more, which discourages open team communication and hinders team performance.

Interestingly, these trends only appear among formal leaders who hold positions of authority, and their level of authority affects these relationships. Explicitly, the more authority a leader holds, the more deference they receive from their team members, and the more they tend to talk in group meetings. When leaders monopolize the floor in meetings, open team communication withers. Unfortunately for these powerful leaders and their teams, open team communication directly influences team performance. So, by talking and not listening, these leaders measureably reduce their teams’ effectiveness. Fortunately, there is a way to correct this troubling behavior. The study found that these effects were eliminated when a leader was reminded that their team members could also make important contributions.

To help decrease the problem of powerful leaders hindering team performance, the authors suggest that organizations should:

    1. Encourage flat organizational structures and egalitarian cultures, which lessen leaders’ perceptions of their own power.


    1. Train leaders to be open in their authority and to encourage team communication.


    1. Promote practices and policies designed to remind leaders of the potential for important contributions from their followers.


  1. Urge members to stand up to leaders who take a dominating approach during social interactions.

These steps could help discourage leaders from using their power in ways that are counterproductive, thus resulting in happier, more productive teams.

Positive Affect: A Balanced Approach to Workplace Implementation

Publication: Journal of Organizational Behaviour (2013)
Article: Too much of a good thing: Curvilinear effect of positive affect on proactive behaviours
Reviewed by: Arlene Coelho

Good leads to more good, right? It is generally thought that creating a positive environment in the workplace leads to increased productivity for everyone. Surprisingly though, there comes a point when positivity in the workplace can actually harm your work environment and result in unfavorable outcomes.

A recent study examines the effects of positive affect within an organizational context. So what is positive affect, exactly? In this context, positive affect specifically means creating a feel good factor (with the help of incentives, salaries, team outings, etc.) among employees. This encourages them to remain motivated and take initiative at the work place, leading to higher levels of job satisfaction, which is beneficial to the organization’s overall effectiveness.

According to research, there are probably two broad explanations for the way positive affect shapes individual behavior.

  1. Being in a positive state stimulates an individual towards concentrating on the positives rather than the limitations of any given situation, which almost always results in a constructive outcome. (Broaden-and-Build Theory)

  3. Individuals in a positive state tend to feel satisfied by the world around them. As a result, they don’t act in ways that create change. They don’t want change, because they are happy. However, this can block an individual’s need seek out better opportunities and stump creativity in the long run. (Affect-As-Information Theory)

Putting together the two explanations, the current research paper suggests that too much positive affect in the workplace, in the form of stress busters and entertainment, only enhances organizational effectiveness up to a point. Once the employees take notice of how well things are running in the organization, they are likely to stop taking initiative and will become more complacent, taking no action to look for new ways of working. Interestingly, a complete lack of positive affect in the workplace also result in complacent behavior — the underlying reason being low levels of energy and motivation

Based on these finding, it is imperative that employers create a positive affect at work through the means of team outings, organizational celebrations, availability of stress busters like board games, access to social networking, etc., in order to keep employees motivated and high on energy levels. However, a careful balance must be maintained to discourage complacency.

Recognizing when efforts to create a positive work environment stop increasing productivity and begin to become distractions is the key. Maintaining a balance at the workplace can be achieved by managers, who need to put out feelers and be sensitive enough their employees to recognize when the organizations efforts to create a positive environment have gone too far.

Goals vs. the Ostrich: When Employees Refuse to Track Progress

Publication: Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2013)
Article: The Ostrich Problem’: Motivated Avoidance or Rejection of Information about Goal Progress
Reviewed by: Arlene Coelho

Some people suffer from the Ostrich Problem. This problem occurs whenever someone knowingly shies away from information that would help them track progress toward a set goal. Despite all the evidence that supports the value of tracking workplace performance, some would simply rather bury their heads in the sand and pretend that everything is hunky dory. These employees prefer not to monitor their progress towards goals set by the organization, even though setting goals and monitoring them is central to good project management, allowing an organization to successfully hit targets. Why then is it that certain people categorically avoid tracking their progress in terms of achieving goals?

The current article suggests that there are situations when people are especially motivated to rebuff information that will point out how far along they have progressed toward their goal. It appears that when an individual feels a strong need to maintain a favorable self-image, the Ostrich Problem is most likely to occur. Another possibility of the Ostrich Problem occurring is when a person has low expectations from the progress report or if they are low on self confidence. At times, information would call for a change in action to achieve the goal and determines a lag in progress and hence is actively avoided. Gaining information that will point out a discrepancy in the current state and desired state could further lower self confidence and result in complete abandonment of their goal; thus, the information is avoided.

There are three important factors that affect the extent and quality of tracking progress. Being aware of these factors might help individuals consciously avoid the Ostrich Problem and in so doing help them achieve their project goals. The factors are:

  1. how important the goal is,
  2. how much patience one is willing to exercise till the goal is achieved, and
  3. situational factors (monetary, environmental, etc.) that affect how one behaves in order to reach the target.

The Ostrich Problem should not be confused with instances where the information regarding progress is hard to come by. To illustrate this point, think about an individual who aims at reducing air pollution. Checking levels of pollutants in the air is not only a complex process in itself, but also collating the required information is a difficult task and might be hard to assess. Therefore although the individual might attempt to gather information, the effort will soon diminish due to level of complexity. The Ostrich Problem only exists when information about progress is easily available but is not considered.

At the organization level, employees will often avoid feedback or refuse information that tracks their progress, when they feel they might lose control over their current situation (moved away from a project, or shift in work location). Also, as the current research suggests, employees with low self-confidence and low expectations are most likely candidates of the Ostrich Problem. Bearing this information in mind, project managers can adapt their methods for providing feedback. Keeping employees motivated through the feedback process is of utmost importance while working towards a common goal.

The Ostrich Problem has only recently gained momentum in the research world and there’s a long way to go before a definite means can be suggested to avoid this problem. However, in the interim, understanding the motives of those who refuse to track progress towards goals can help us to make headway.

Workplace Exclusion: The Return of Steve

Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (January, 2013)
Article: A Social Exchange-Based Model of the Antecedents of Workplace Exclusion
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

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Bad Behavior At Work: Are Managers Asking For It? (IO Psychology)

Topic: Counter-Productive Work Behavior, Leadership, Job Performance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (January, 2013)
Article: Blaming the Organization for Abusive Supervision: The Roles of Perceived Organizational Support and Supervisor’s Organizational Embodiment
Authors: M.K. Shoss, R. Eisenberger, S.L.D. Restubog, T.J. Zagenczyk
Reviewed By: Ben Sher, M.A.

stressed_man_portraitCounterproductive work behaviors (CWBs) occur when employees do things that go against organizational goals.  For example, stealing, bullying, unnecessary absence, swivel chair racing, beer pong in the break room, and assaulting the copy machine with a baseball bat when it is out of toner are all classified as counterproductive work behaviors.  I-O psychology research has typically tried to predict which type of person will engage in these devious behaviors.  However, a recent study by Shoss, et al. (2013) has found that certain organizations may also be causing an increase in bad behavior.

What do organizations do that leads to these detrimental outcomes?  The study found that abusive supervision by bosses is to blame.  Abusive supervision occurs when managers belittle their employees or treat them badly.  When this happens, employees have lower perception of organizational support, meaning employees do not feel that the organization cares about them or values their contributions.  The feeling that the organization doesn’t care was exacerbated when employees think that the abusive supervisor embodies the entire organization’s attitudes about employees, and is not merely driven by independent personal motives.

So if abusive supervision makes employees believe the organization does not care about them, what happens then?  Employees may choose to engage in behavior that is counterproductive to the organization as a means of revenge against the organization.  The study also found that job performance may decrease.  This includes lower performance for parts of the job that are formally included in job requirements (in-role performance) as well as parts of the job that are not included in job requirements (extra-role performance).  Once again, when employees perceive that the abusive supervisor embodies the entire organization, these findings were all strengthened.

What can we learn from this?  Organizations that want to reduce counterproductive work behavior and improve their employees’ performance should not view these outcomes as being entirely dependent on the employees.  Organizations play a large role in fostering the kind of behavior that they seek.  This study highlights the detriments of abusive supervision, especially when it appears that the supervisor who delivers the abuse is representing the organization as a whole.  For best results, leaders should strive to emphasize that abuse is not valued by the organization and that abusive supervisors will not be tolerated.

Shoss, M.K., Eisenberger, R., Restubog, S.L.D., Zagenczyk T.J. (2013). Blaming the organization for abusive supervision: The roles of perceived organizational support and supervisor’s organizational embodiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(1), 158-168.

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management




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Should Leaders Care About the Work or the Workers? How About Both?!

Topic: Leadership, Counter-Productive Work Behavior
Publication: Journal of Organizational Behavior (in press)
Article: Effects of Leadership Consideration and Structure on Employee Perceptions of Justice and Counterproductive Work Behavior
Authors: Brian C. Holtz & Crystal M. Harold
Reviewed By: Thaddeus Rada

Although research on a variety of leadership “types,” such as charismatic and visionary leaders, has flourished in recent years, there has also been a return to a basic distinction that was made in the leadership literature many years ago: the distinction between consideration and initiating structure. Consideration refers to leaders’ “people-oriented” behaviors, such as showing respect for followers and facilitating group cohesiveness. Initiating structure refers to clarifying roles, establishing rules, and providing a framework for effective group and individual performance. These dimensions are not mutually exclusive, and some leaders may be high on both, others low on both, and still others high on one and low on the other. With interest in these dimensions increasing, a recent study examined them in relation to two important outcomes: employee perceptions of justice, and counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs).

Across two studies using multi-source data, the authors found that both consideration and structure were related to organizational justice in important ways; specifically, structure and distributive justice were strongly related, as were consideration and interpersonal justice. In addition, the authors found that, when consideration was low, higher levels of structure were associated with an increase in CWBs in the workplace.

These findings suggest that, while both consideration and structure are important for understanding leadership, what may be most important is the combination of these dimensions that a leader possesses. As interest in these leadership dimensions continues to return, it is likely that we will gain additional knowledge about how these dimensions interact with a variety of important outcomes.

Holtz, B. C., & Harold, C. M. (In press). Effects of leadership consideration and structure on employee perceptions of justice and counterproductive work behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management




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Are you being treated badly by coworkers? It might just be affecting your home life (IO Psychology)

Topic: Counter-Productive Work Behavior, Work-Life Balance, Stress
Publication: Journal of Organizational Behavior (MAY 2012)
Article: You cannot leave it at the office: Spillover and crossover of coworker incivility
Authors: M. Ferguson
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

Do you have a coworker who is rude to you? Ignores you? Is condescending to you? If so, that’s called coworker incivility and it is probably not only affecting your satisfaction with and performance at work, but also your home life.

In a recent study, Meredith Ferguson investigated if and how coworker incivility affects the marital satisfaction of both the target of workplace incivility and the target’s partner. She was also interested in the role that stress might play in the spillover effects from coworker incivility.

Ferguson collected data from 190 workers and their partners. She found that coworker incivility led to stress that transferred to the family domain; both the target and the target’s partner reported lower levels of marital satisfaction due to the extra stress. The target’s partner also experienced more family-to-work conflict, probably because the partner was taking on more responsibilities to help alleviate the stress of the target.

From an organizational perspective, several implications from this research should be noted. In addition to poor organizational outcomes (e.g., lower work satisfaction, absenteeism), coworker incivility can also lead to negative effects for the target’s home life. In turn, having work-to-family conflict can lead to family-to-work conflict; in other words, negative spillover from workplace incivility may spill back to the organization. Therefore, organizations should take coworker incivility seriously, explain unacceptable behavior, and actively discourage it. They also could provide employee assistance programs for employees who are suffering stress from coworker incivility so that spillover and negative outcomes are reduced.

Ferguson, M. (2012). You cannot leave it at the office: Spillover and crossover of coworker incivility. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33, 571-588. doi: 10.1002/job.774

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management



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Predicting someone’s propensity to morally disengage (IO Psychology)

Topic: Assessment, Personality, Ethics, Counter-Productive Work Behavior, Workplace Deviance
Publication: Personnel Psychology (SPRING 2012)
Article: Why employees do bad things: Moral disengagement and unethical organizational behavior
Authors: Celia Moore, James R. Detert, Linda Klebe Treviño, Vicki L. Baker, & David M. Mayer
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

Organizations obviously want their employees to be ethical. While there are existing measures that are used to predict who will act immorally, the authors of this paper proposed a new construct that they called an individual’s propensity to morally disengage – an individual difference in how people think about ethical decisions and behavior that allows them to act unethically without feeling bad about it.

Celia Moore and her colleagues developed a measure of an individual’s propensity to morally disengage. In a series of studies, they then validated the measure for working adults by showing that the propensity to morally disengage was positively related to unethical behavior after accounting for a number of other related traits, orientations, and emotions. Predicted outcomes included self-, supervisor-, and coworker-reported unethical behavior, decisions to commit fraud, and self-serving decisions in the workplace.

You may be wondering how this paper is relevant to practitioners. This new measure of the propensity to morally disengage predicts unethical behavior, and it is short – it only includes eight items. While it has yet to be validated for employee selection, this measure certainly shows promise for its ability to predict unethical behavior. The authors also found that this measure had a low correlation with social desirability, so it seems to be fairly resistant to test-takers faking their responses to receive a good score. If your organization is using a lengthy integrity test in the selection process for the sole purpose of predicting those who would conduct unethical behavior, then this new measure may be something your organization might want to consider using instead.

Moore, C., Detert, J. R., Treviño, L. K., Baker, V. L., & Mayer, D. M. (2012). Why employees do bad things: Moral disengagement and unethical organizational behavior. Personnel Psychology, 65, 1-48. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-6570.2011.01237.x

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management


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