Effective Negotiation: When Does Expressing Sadness Work?


Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, (Advanced Online Publication, 2015)
Article: Weep and Get More: When and Why Sadness Expression Is Effective in Negotiations
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

 

People are always claiming to know what factors contribute to effective negotiation, but a new study shows that expressing sadness can work in certain situations. The authors begin with a really interesting anecdote to illustrate:

 

“At the peak of the Cuban missile crisis, Robert F. Kennedy, a close aide to U.S.President John F. Kennedy, talked with Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin. In this critical exchange, Robert Kennedy acted quite emotional by expressing sadness dramatically. He “was almost crying.” “I haven’t seen my children for days now,” he said almost breaking down in tears, in a sad way, “and the President hasn’t seen his either….I don’t know how much longer we can hold out against our generals,” according to the Soviet account (Allison, 1971; Divine, 1988; Khrushchev, 1970, p. 51). In response to the sadness conveyed by Robert Kennedy, Soviet Premier Khrushchev thought that “We could see that we had to reorient our position swiftly” and he “sent the Americans a note saying we agreed to remove our missiles and bombers” (Khrushchev, 1970, p. 51). Although many factors influenced Khrushchev’s decision, this anecdote suggests that expressions of sadness may be effective in securing acquiescence in conflict and negotiation.” (Sinaceur, Kopelman, Vasiljevic, Haag, 2015, p. 1).

 

As scientists are oftentimes inspired, but never satisfied with anecdotal evidence, the authors conducted three different experiments to investigate whether expressing sadness leads to more favorable negotiation outcomes. The experiments used simulated negotiation situations with easily measurable outcomes. One part was given training on how to act during the exercise, sometimes being told to show sadness, sometimes told to repress emotion, and in one experiment, told to show anger.

 

WHEN IS SADNESS EFFECTIVE IN NEGOTIATIONS?

Results show that expressing sadness was effective in gaining more favorable negotiation outcomes, but only if one of four conditions is met. In these specific four scenarios, the listener who was exposed to sadness was moved to feel more concern for the person expressing the sadness, and therefore made more concessions to that person during negotiation. These are the four situations in which sadness works:

 

  • The person expressing sadness is perceived to have a low amount of power. People who are powerful don’t seem to need our commiseration as much as people who are more helpless.
  • The listener knows that there will be future interactions with the person expressing sadness. It’s more likely that people will invest in interpersonal relationship-building through commiseration when there is a good chance of working with that person in the future. It’s easier to be cold and indifferent to someone when you don’t have to ever see them again.
  • The listener believes that the relationship is collaborative. The interpersonal relationship aspects seem more important when collaboration (instead of competition) is supposed to be taking place.
  • The listener believes that it is inappropriate to blame others. Sadness, say the authors, conveys the sense that nobody is to blame for the current situation, and sadness is the only thing left to do. When the listener agrees with this, the expression of sadness gains more sympathy.

 

The researchers say that sadness can be more useful than anger. The first three situations were specifically chosen because research shows that anger does not work in those situations. In the fourth situation, sadness was pitted against anger, and results show that sadness was more effective. It’s easy to think that displays of anger are useful during negotiations, if only for the intimidation factor. This study shows otherwise; sadness—which might be avoided because it is perceived as showing weakness—is actually more effective in multiple different scenarios.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This study shows that sadness can be effective in gaining more favorable negotiation outcomes. However, one of four situational conditions must be present for this to work. These four situations also happen to be times when anger does not work, providing a major advantage to the emotion of sadness. Does this mean that we should all “fake-sad” during negotiations? Should we teach ourselves to cry on demand? The authors caution against this tactic, arguing that it presents very real ethical concerns. However, if sadness is one of the things that we feel, repressing it to appear “tough” might be a poor strategy. By harnessing the natural concern that human beings feel toward each other, displays of sadness might not only be the natural thing to do, but also the effective thing to do.

Organizational Newcomers: Conflict Can Lead to Worse Performance


Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, (Advanced Online Publication, 2015)
Article: Breach of Belongingness: Newcomer Relationship Conflict, Information, and Task-Related Outcomes During Organizational Socialization
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

 

Organizational newcomers are those employees who are “just off the boat” and are still trying to figure out how work is done at their new organization. Sure, HR-led orientations may be useful for some things, but there are certainly job-related specifics that require more detailed information from people already doing the job. A newcomer’s ability to acquire this information may be the difference between good and bad job performance. New research (Nifadkar & Bauer, 2015) helps us understand what can go wrong in this process.

 

RELATIONSHIP CONFLICT AND INFORMATION SEEKING

The research was conducted longitudinally (over several different occasions) and found several relationships that explain the process of how new employees seek and receive information that is valuable to learning how to do their job. The first finding is that interpersonal or “relationship” conflict with coworkers can lead new employees to avoid asking these coworkers for the valuable information they need. The authors explain that the feeling of conflict leads to social anxiety, which makes asking for help seem risky. It makes sense, right? If I think you might put me down or yell at me, I’d probably be less likely to ask you for help.

When poor relationships with coworkers make seeking information from them more difficult, newcomers instead turn to their supervisors to seek the much needed information. According to the theory used by the authors (“belongingness theory”) people have a natural desire to establish good relationships or feel like they belong. If employees feel distant from co-workers, they may feel more drawn to supervisors, and therefore identify these supervisors as a good source of obtaining information.

 

LACK OF INFORMATION LEADS TO POOR PERFORMANCE

The authors also found that when newcomers have bad relationships with coworkers, the newcomers end up seeking less information and eventually obtain an inadequate amount of information. This is despite the fact that they may be drawn to seek this information from supervisors. It seems there is no true replacement for the type or quantity of information that can come from people working alongside of you. Results show that the overall lack of seeking and getting information led these newcomers to worse task-performance at their jobs, as measured by supervisors and by self-evaluations.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This study shows that organizational newcomers are negatively affected by conflict with coworkers. When conflict occurs, newcomers seek less information and get less information. Ultimately their job performance suffers because of it. For this reason, say the authors, organizations may want to pay special attention to finding ways to shield newcomers from conflict. While we can’t expect relationship conflict to be eliminated entirely, we need to recognize how damaging it can be to employees who are still finding their way in the organization.

Also, say the authors, organizations need to make sure that coworkers are involved in the socialization of newcomers. Corporate organization-wide orientations have their place as far as explaining certain company policies, but there seems to be an element of job information that is uniquely gained from coworkers. This knowledge, if passed along to newcomers, can result in better job performance. Finally, when newcomers avoided their coworkers, they instead sought information from supervisors. If conflict is occurring in the workplace, managers and leaders should recognize the added role of information provider that they need to take on. This might lessen the harmful effects of relationship conflict, and help newcomers adjust and learn.

Good Moods Encourage Speaking Up at Work


Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, 2015
Article: How and When Peers’ Positive Mood Influences Employees’ Voice
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

 

We can probably agree that speaking up at work is a good idea when employees have constructive things to say. They might have insight into how something can be done more efficiently or an idea that leads to better results. Researchers in this study (Liu, Tangirala, Lam, Chen, Jia, Huang, 2015) focused on this type of speaking up—the kind that involves making productive suggestions—as opposed to criticism. Interestingly, they found that good moods go a long way in determining whether someone will speak up at work.

 

WHEN THE LISTENER IS IN A GOOD MOOD

The two part study consisted of a scenario-based lab experiment (“what would you do…”) and a real-world evaluation of employees and their tendencies. Results show that when the listener or “target” is in a good mood, people were more likely to speak up. This is because of psychological safety, meaning the speaker felt safe in making a suggestion. When the listener is not in a good mood, psychological safety is lower. In this case, the speaker may fear rejection, being ignored, or being made fun of, and is more likely to choose to remain silent.

The authors also found that the effects of mood are more pronounced in two situations. The first is when the relationship between the speaker and the listener is poor. If it were a good relationship, the speaker might always feel safe in making suggestions. When the relationship is bad, people rely more on moods to guide their behavior, as the moods will signal whether or not now is a good and safe time to speak up.

The second factor that made people rely more on the moods of the listener is when the speaker had a lower social status than the listener. When someone has a higher social status, co-workers are even more afraid of potential ridicule, retaliation, and other harmful outcomes if the comment is not welcome or seen as threatening. This is because the ridicule or retaliation is coming from someone who is regarded as important or who controls resources that might affect the speaker. That’s when people rely on the listener’s mood to an even greater extent.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

When organizations desire improvement, especially for creative processes, they can benefit from employees speaking up. Oftentimes it’s the employees who are directly involved with the work who are best able to suggest process improvements. Nevertheless, this research reminds us that employees don’t just speak up because they are the “speaking up kind”, or are “bold and not afraid to be heard”. Instead, managers need to be aware of the subtle situational factors that can lead toward either encouraging or discouraging speaking up. Sometimes, as in this study, very subtle factors can lead to very different outcomes in the workplace. It might make us want to think twice about strolling around the office in a very bad mood.

Work-Family Conflict Changes How You Do Your Job


Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, 2015
Article: Work–Family Conflict and Self-Discrepant Time Allocation at Work
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

 

Work-family conflict occurs when we cannot meet the demands of work and the demands of family at the same time, and instead must choose one over the other. In this study, researchers (Dahm, Glomb, Manchester, & Leroy, 2015) specifically considered work-to-family conflict, which occurs when people attempt to meet the demands of their job and sacrifice the demands of their family. While past research has shown that this may lead to harmful outcomes, this study gives us greater insight into why this happens. Interestingly, work-to-family conflict can make employees change the way they do their jobs.

 

WORK-FAMILY CONFLICT AND RESOURCE DEPLETION

The researchers say that people experiencing work-to-family conflict suffer from resource depletion, which is when people simply run out of time and energy. This has implications for how they choose to spend time at work. When they feel low on time and energy, they are more likely to choose work tasks that won’t further drain their resources. They’d want to avoid particularly complex or difficult tasks, or tasks that don’t seem to offer immediate payoffs. Instead, they might gravitate toward the “easier” parts of their jobs, or things that provide instant gratification, in an effort to replenish their resources.

But there is a problem with doing too much of the “easy” work and shying away from the difficult work. Self-discrepancy theory says that we are always comparing our “actual” self with our “ideal” self. It’s the difference between what we do and what we want to do. When there is a large discrepancy, we might become depressed or overly anxious. For this reason, avoiding the “difficult” parts of the job may take a psychological toll on people, because they wouldn’t be living up to the expectations that they have for themselves as employees.

 

HARMFUL OUTCOMES OF WORK-FAMILY CONFLICT

The researchers found that when employees have larger discrepancies between how they want to spend their work time (their “ideal self”) versus how they actually spend their work time, they also have lower levels of work satisfaction, physical well-being, and psychological well-being. They also found that these discrepancies are the reason that work-to-family conflict causes lowered work satisfaction and well-being. Basically, work-to-family conflict makes them spend their time on things they don’t want to do, and then they suffer because of it. To top it off, employees suffering from work-to family conflict spend less time on the more challenging parts of their job, which is why they also have lower salaries.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This study highlights the challenges associated with work-family conflict. But not all hope is lost. The researchers make several recommendations: First, if people feel the need to avoid particularly complex tasks, we might want to find ways to make the tasks less complex and more gratifying. For example, we might try breaking larger tasks into smaller portions. Second, we need to be aware of how work-to-family conflict leads us to choose tasks that leave us unfulfilled, which may be the first step in avoiding these poor choices. We can also find ways to “recharge our batteries” and restore our resources. This can be as simple as taking a break during the workday, or engaging in after-work relaxation activities.

For managers, say the authors, this research has implications for how work tasks ought to be scheduled. Too much complex work might not provide time for employees to replenish resources. Instead easier and less demanding tasks could be mixed in with the more resource-demanding tasks. Also, a simple change like scheduling complex work in the morning when people may be more alert, might go a long way toward lessening the burden on those struggling with work-to-family conflict.

 

Emotional Intelligence Leads to Good Moods and Creativity in the Workplace


Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, 2015
Article: Regulating and Facilitating: The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Maintaining and Using Positive Affect for Creativity
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

 

Emotional intelligence is good for influencing many workplace outcomes, but can it really lead to creativity in the workplace? Some past researchers believed that the two had nothing to do with each other. They said that emotional intelligence was about figuring out the single best way to handle an emotional situation and creativity was about brainstorming many different ways of doing things. These almost sound like opposite strategies. But new research (Parke, Seo, Sherf, 2015) has found that skills and strategies associated with emotional intelligence can ultimately lead to more creativity in the workplace.

Emotional intelligence refers to the way that people effectively manage their emotions and successfully navigate emotional situations. The study focused on two different things that people with emotional intelligence do, emotional regulation and emotional facilitation. People who are good at emotional regulation can manage their own emotions, or the emotions of other people. For example, during a rough day, they probably have some good strategies for making sure that the potential negative emotions do not ruin the workday. Similarly, they might have ways to deal with the negative emotions of coworkers or supervisors, and make sure that their own emotions remain positive. Emotional facilitation refers to the ability to use emotions toward productive thinking and sound decision making.

 

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE LEADS TO CREATIVITY

This study was conducted on young business professionals and used elaborate data collection techniques that included different sources of data (for example, self-report and managerial ratings) and different ways of collecting the data (for example, both tests and surveys).

The first major finding of the study is that emotional regulation oftentimes leads to improved mood. The researchers found that work environments which call for a low degree of creativity or a high degree of “information processing” (work based on monitoring or using specific information) can prevent many employees from maintaining good moods. This is not surprising; sometimes boring work just gets you down. However, employees who are better at emotional regulation will find strategies that help them deal with more monotonous work. These people will be able to achieve and maintain good moods despite their work responsibilities.

The second major finding in this study is that people who are good at emotional facilitation will be better equipped to turn good moods into workplace creativity. These people will recognize that a good mood provides the perfect boost for doing work that requires persistence, like idea generation or other creative endeavors. On the other hand, people who are not good at emotional facilitation—in other words they are poor at using emotions to do better work—might use their good mood to convince themselves that minimal effort is actually good enough and that they have already achieved success.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This study shows two ways that emotional intelligence can improve the workplace, especially in regards to creativity. Emotional regulation can lead to better moods, and emotional facilitation can help translate better moods into creative output. The authors say that this has several implications for the workplaces that want to foster creativity among their employees. The first is that organizations who require creativity may want to consider hiring employees who have emotional intelligence abilities.

The second implication is based on the fact that the emotional intelligence factors in the study are not merely traits that people are born with, but instead the authors refer to them as abilities that can be trained. While some people might naturally possess higher degrees of emotional intelligence, the rest of us can use various strategies that can maximize our ability to be emotionally intelligent. As an example, the authors mention cognitive reframing, which is a strategy used by emotionally intelligent people that involves “looking on the bright side”. A difficult task might be seen as a challenge or opportunity for growth instead of an annoyance. Organizations can help train their employees to use similar strategies which will help them become more emotionally intelligent, and as this study concludes, more likely to come up with the next big creative idea.

Manager Personality Can Lead to Organization-Wide Performance


Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Taking It to Another Level: Do Personality-Based Human Capital Resources Matter to Firm Performance?
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

 

Is personality related to job performance? This classic I-O psychology question is still debated today, and thanks to the latest research, clearer answers are emerging. A new study (Oh, Kim, & Iddekinge, 2015) shows that the manager personality is related to important organization-wide outcomes. This finding has clear implications for selection of organizational leaders.

Past studies considered the relationship between personality and job performance at the individual level. For example, a study might investigate if outgoing or extraverted people perform better at their jobs. These studies only advance the field so far, say the current authors, because job performance is typically measured with supervisor ratings. Even when associations are found—say that extraverted people have better performance—there is room for organizational leaders to be skeptical: Even if extraverted people receive better ratings, will that really impact my company’s bottom line and make us more successful? An astute I-O psychologist would present a utility analysis showing the predicted financial gain for hiring each extraverted employee, but this might still be dismissed as confusing and overly speculative.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL LEVEL PERSONALITY MEASUREMENT

This current study does better than simple individual level-analysis, and instead measures many managers within the same organizations. This allows the researchers to ascertain two important facts. The first is the average level of a personality trait that the organization’s managers have, and the second is an estimate of the typical range (or “variance”) of that personality trait in managers within the organization. Once these two metrics are evaluated, researchers can determine if organizations with certain types of employees do better than others. For example, do “extraverted organizations” fare better than “introverted organizations”?

The researchers surveyed 6,709 managers in 71 different companies. Results indicate that when organizations had managers with high levels of emotional stability, extraversion, and conscientiousness, their organizations had higher levels of managerial job satisfaction and had higher levels of labor productivity (measured by revenue per employee).

When the average levels of personality traits were considered along with the variance or “typical spread” of the personality trait, several interesting findings were reported. Organizations with higher emotional stability had higher levels of job satisfaction, labor productivity, and financial performance (measured by return on equity), and this effect was even more pronounced when there was less variance among managers (in other words, managers were more similar on emotional stability).

Additionally, higher extraversion was associated with higher financial performance, and this effect was also more pronounced when managers were more similar on extraversion.

Openness to experience and agreeableness were related to labor productivity and financial performance, respectively, and these effects were more pronounced when there was more variance, in other words managers were more spread out on the respective personality trait.

 

 

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This study shows that personality is related to organizational level success, specifically when managers are emotionally stable, extraverted, and conscientious. Results generally show that homogeneity is preferable, in other words results were better when managers had similar levels of the personality trait. This means, say the authors, that organizations might want to consider selecting employees who have these traits, and also try to create a singular organizational profile, which might encourage desired employees to initially join the company and subsequently stay as long as possible.

This study also advances the general theory and plausibility of selecting employees based on personality type. The evidence in this study may be more convincing than studies that investigate individuals and focus on performance ratings. By using aggregated organizational-level personality traits and connecting them with the most tangible measures of organizational success, the current authors make personality-based selection a more alluring proposition.

Recruitment Tips: Highlight Person-Organization Fit

 

One way organizations can make recruitment more successful is by stressing person-organization fit. Person-organization fit is a term that I-O psychologists use to describe how compatible employees are with the organizations that employ them. If an organization and a specific employee share values or ideas of how work ought to be done, or if they fulfill each other’s work-related needs, then we might say that there is a high degree of person-organization fit. It’s easy to imagine some of the ways that this would be beneficial to the organization, and past research has indeed supported this idea. New research (Swider, Zimmerman, & Barrick, 2015) took a novel approach by measuring how the perception of person-organization fit fluctuates over time, specifically during the recruitment process.

 

PERSON-ORGANIZATION FIT DURING RECRUITMENT

This study tracked accounting students who were being simultaneously recruited by the “Big 4” accounting firms (KPMG, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers), and measured the applicants’ perception of person-organization fit at several stages of the process. The authors wanted to investigate the relationship between the degree of person-organization fit for a certain organization, and whether or not employees actually accepted job offers.

Results showed that job seekers immediately developed a unique sense of potential person-organization fit with each of the companies that were recruiting them. That is to say, job applicants didn’t wait until late in the hiring process to carefully investigate this potential, but instead used the limited information available to them to develop these beliefs. As the recruitment process continued, the differences between competing companies became more pronounced. Some organizations seemed to “fit”, while others did not.

These early perceptions of person-organization fit were also associated with whether an applicant accepted a job from one of the companies. Those applicants who more strongly differentiated between companies, and those applicants whose degree of preference increased as the study went on, were more likely to eventually accept a job offer. Overall, when applicants had increasingly better assessments of person-organization fit with a specific organization, they were more likely to accept an offer from that organization. On the other hand, when the applicant’s assessment of the person-organization fit for a certain company declined over time, the chances of that person accepting a job offer from that company were reduced.

 

HOW ORGANIZATIONS CAN RECRUIT THE RIGHT WAY

This research highlights the importance of perceived person-organization fit when recruiting job applicants. Opinions about perceived fit with an organization do not seem to be slowly and deliberately formed only when an abundance of organizational information becomes clear. Instead, job applicants establish their views of person-organization fit from the initial stages of the process. Therefore, say the authors, organizations should make extra effort up front to highlight the ways that their organization would be a good fit with potential employees, for example via their website.

Additionally, the authors recommend that organizations find ways to increase the perception of person-organization fit throughout the various recruitment stages, as the research shows that this is important. Finally, the authors recommend that organizations find ways to demonstrate to job applicants that other competing organizations do not provide similarly adequate fit. Separation from the competition is not only done by demonstrating your organization’s strengths, but also by shining a spotlight on the drawbacks of other potentially enticing options.

Ethical Leadership Inspires Trust and Employee Success


Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Ethical Leadership: Meta-Analytic Evidence of Criterion-Related and Incremental Validity
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

 

Ethical leadership certainly sounds like a good idea, but I-O psychologists will require scientific evidence before being convinced. Is ethical leadership something different from other effective leadership styles or behaviors, and does ethical leadership lead to anything positive in the workplace? New research (Ng & Feldman, 2015) has answered this question. Results show that ethical leadership is a real, distinct idea, and it can indeed lead to positive workplace outcomes that extend beyond the effects of other leadership styles.

 

STUDYING ETHICAL LEADERSHIP

This study was a meta-analysis, meaning it statistically combined results from many previous studies. The philosophy of meta-analysis is that combining results from many studies provides a more accurate estimation of reality than a single study in a single situation.

The researchers explain that ethical leadership occurs when leaders display appropriate and morally expected behavior in all situations. They interact ethically with the people they supervise, as well as demonstrate ethical behavior when interacting with other types of people such as their supervisors or customers. When ethical leadership is demonstrated, results show that subordinates feel more satisfaction with the leader, perceive that the leader is more effective, and have greater trust in the leader.

The authors also found that ethical leadership is related to many positive organizational outcomes, including increased job satisfaction, increased motivation, better task performance, more citizenship behavior (this is when employees go beyond formal job descriptions) and lower counterproductive work behavior (i.e. rudeness or sabotage).

Ethical leadership was also associated with lower job strains (or elements of a job that cause stress), increased commitment, increased organizational identification, and lower turnover.

 

ETHICAL LEADERSHIP LEADS TO TRUST

The authors found a factor that explains why all of the positive outcomes listed above were associated with ethical leadership. The authors used advanced statistical models to show that ethical leaders cause their subordinates to trust them more. For example, imagine a leader admits to making a mistake and marginalizing the work of an employee. The leader says that she will not make the same mistake in the future. Because the leader is seen as an ethical leader, the employee will be more likely to trust her and continue to have positive attitudes about the job and continue working hard. If the leader isn’t trusted, the employee might immediately make negative behavioral changes. The bottom line is that ethical leaders inspire trust, which inspires good work on the job.

Finally, the researchers show that ethical leadership can be can used to predict all of the positive outcomes we’ve mentioned, even when similar psychological traits are also being used in prediction. That is to say, there is something unique about ethical leadership that isn’t covered by other positive leadership styles. As an example, transformational leadership, or when leaders inspire followers to believe in some greater purpose, has also been associated with positive organizational outcomes. Yet organizations are not maximizing positive outcomes by merely hiring transformational leaders. Ethical leadership predicts some significant aspect of positive performance that is not covered by transformational leadership or other similar research-supported concepts. Ethical leadership also predicts some aspect of good performance beyond what is caused by an overall ethical organizational environment. Direct supervisors need to be ethical, not just the organizational higher-ups, say the authors.

 

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR ORGANIZATIONS

This study uses an impressive amount of data to show that ethical leadership is a unique concept that has very positive organizational outcomes. This means, say the authors, that organizations benefit from either training managers to display ethical leadership, or hiring ethical leaders from the start. Positive leadership in other regards will not be a substitute for this, but can work in tandem with ethical leadership to allow organizations to maximize positive outcome such as increased performance and lower turnover. Because this study identified trust as the mechanism that allows ethical leadership to work, organizations can better appreciate and focus on the importance of this interpersonal element when training leaders.

Work Overload and Job Demands Lead to Lower Professional Standards


Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: The Impact of Time at Work and Time Off From Work on Rule Compliance: The Case of Hand Hygiene in Health Care
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

 
Work overload and job demands have been infamously related to many workplace problems, for both employees and employers. However, most research views work overload as something that builds over time, perhaps weeks, months, or years, and can lead to harmful effects that are measured over the long-term. New research (Dai, Milkman, Hofmann, & Staats, 2015) clearly shows that work overload is something that can accumulate over the course of a single workday, and have immediate harmful effects.

 

TYPES OF JOB DEMANDS

In today’s world of work, increased job demands are a common theme. Many workers experience extreme pressure to meet deadlines or to perform work of a certain quality. Other workers may experience role ambiguity, which is when they aren’t sure what they are supposed to do or which boss to listen to. Still others—especially in the service industry—may experience emotional strain from the constant need to regulate their emotions. Finally, “work overload” is probably experienced by most people at times. There is simply too much to do!

Researchers have usually found that when job demands are high, employees start cutting corners and focusing only on the parts of the job that they deem to be essential. Secondary duties tend to fall by the wayside in an effort by employees to conserve their remaining mental resources. Secondary duties are things that employees don’t get directly rewarded for, or aren’t viewed as contributing to the main purpose of the job.

 

WILL DOCTORS WASH THEIR HANDS?

The setting for this study was the health-care industry. Researchers used tracking devices to monitor hand-washing compliance among over 4,000 health-care providers in 35 hospitals. Hand washing is vitally important for reducing the number of patient infections, and it is also something that research shows does not occur as often as it should, as the overall rate of compliance has been documented at less than 50%.

The researchers also explain that health-care providers are a perfect sample for studying what happens due to increased job demands. Has anyone met a nurse or doctor who claims they have an easy and undemanding job?

 

RESULTS ARE IN – WORK OVERLOAD TAKES A QUICK TOLL

Results of the study show that as the workday goes on, employees washed their hands increasingly less often. This effect was even stronger for employees who experienced a high level of work demands. Overall, the rate of hand-washing was reduced by almost 9% from the start of a shift to the end of a shift. This may sound like a trivial amount, but it is not. The authors estimate that, based on the total number of hospitals in the US, this decrease in hand-washing could lead to 600,000 infections per year, costing $12.5 billion, and leading to 35,000 additional deaths.

The authors also investigated how time off in between shifts can help employees recover from high work demands. They found that when employees had more time off between shifts, they had a small increase in overall hand-washing compliance during the next shift. The positive effects of time off were also more pronounced when employees ended their previous shift with very low levels of hand-washing compliance. In other words, if employees had unusually high job demands, they benefitted more from time off than ordinary employees.

Finally, the researchers considered the amount of hours an employee has already worked during the week. Fitting with the overall theme, employees who had worked more hours during the previous week washed their hands even less than other employees as the workday went on. On the other hand, these overworked employees benefitted most from more time off between shifts.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This study clearly shows that the harmful effects of increased job demands and work overload can happen quicker than previously thought. Over the course of a single day, performance of important work-related tasks can suffer, especially those tasks that are viewed by employees as non-essential. Although this study presents a worse-case scenario by focusing on employees directly affecting life and death outcomes, the message applies to all jobs. All jobs require their employees to live up to professional standards, say the authors. These standards are readily compromised when job demands are too high. Which professional standards could be cast aside in your organization?

This study also displays the benefits of appropriate amounts of time off between shifts or workdays, and also makes a case against working an exceedingly high number of hours per week. Employees given time to replenish their mental resources seem to do better at maintaining the professional standards expected of them.

Organizational Justice: Do Employees Give the Benefit of the Doubt?

 

When employees perceive organizational justice, or that their company is being fair to them, positive outcomes are likely to occur. Yet little research has examined how employees form opinions about whether or not their company is just. In some situations, it’s quite straightforward. Let’s say that an employee was denied a raise, but the manager also clearly explained the plentiful reasons for why it could not happen. The employee therefore has the requisite background information needed to determine if the manager and organization were being fair.

But let’s take that same scenario, and imagine that the employee was denied a raise without any explanation. The employee doesn’t have enough information to determine if the organization is really being fair. What will the employee do in such a case? Recent research (Qin, Ren, Zhang, & Johnson, 2015) has shown that when employees experience ambiguity or lack of information that prevents them from assessing a certain “type” of justice, they simply substitute how they already evaluate the organization on a different “type” of organizational justice.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL JUSTICE: DISTRIBUTIVE, PROCEDURAL, INTERACTIONAL

This research studied three types of organizational justice. The first is distributive justice and concerns the allocation of resources, the second type is procedural justice and concerns the process used to determine resource allocation, and the third is interactional justice and concerns the fairness of interpersonal communication. These three justice types can occur in different amounts within the same organization. For example, one company may make unfair compensation decisions (poor distributive justice), but make sure that the bad news is always professionally and sympathetically delivered (good interactional justice).

 

TYPES OF ORGANIZATIONAL JUSTICE AFFECT EACH OTHER

Because the three justice types are completely separate factors, what happens when employees don’t have enough information to assess all factors, but instead only have enough information to assess one or two factors? In this study, the researchers discovered that the quality of justice that the employee can determine, will influence the employee’s evaluation about the type of justice that is unclear.

Let’s give an example of the above: Sarah has a lot of information on interactional justice because she speaks with her boss every day. During these conversations, her boss is always polite, friendly, and respectful, so Sarah gives her organization a high mark on interactional justice. On the other hand, Sarah is relatively new to the organization and she also doesn’t gossip much. Therefore, she does not have much information about who gets organizational resources, or how the organization decides on who gets them. Sarah cannot easily evaluate the organization on distributive justice and procedural justice. In this case, Sarah will assume that because the organization offers high levels of interactional justice, they must also have high levels of the other two justice types.

 

THE ROLE OF PERSONALITY

These findings were replicated in several studies using different samples of people, and the findings were even more pronounced when employees had a high need for “cognitive closure”. This refers to people who are less comfortable with ambiguity. Back to our story of Sarah, if she is the kind of person who needs closure and needs to arrive at decisions quickly, she will be more likely to borrow her opinion about a different justice type and apply it to all types of organizational justice. On the other hand, if Sarah does not need cognitive closure, perhaps she will hold out on forming an opinion until she is with the organization for a longer period of time and has the opportunity to collect more information.

 

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This study shows that employees who have little information about one or more types of organization justice will borrow their opinion about a type of organizational justice that is clear to them. This means, say the authors, that organizations can achieve high marks on all types of organizational justice by focusing on ensuring that at least one type of organizational justice is well-accounted for.

The authors note that this doesn’t mean that organization can get away with being unjust in some regards; eventually the employee will figure it out and reassess their evaluation. However, in certain situations, organizations may not be able to provide employees with adequate information on, for example, the complex reasons for resource allocation. In order to gain the benefit of the doubt from employees, this organization can work hard on a different type of justice. For example, they might make sure interactional justice (based on interpersonal relationships) is clearly noticeable to employees and also very good.