When Does Work Engagement Lead to Harmful Outcomes?

Job engagement is when employees feel immersed in their work and committed to performing to the best of their abilities. Organizations desire job engagement due to its well-documented positive outcomes such as heightened performance and organizational citizenship behaviors (i.e., going beyond formal job descriptions to help out). However, few consider that job engagement could potentially yield negative outcomes for an organization as well. Researchers (Wang, Law, Zhang, Li, & Liang, 2019) explored the relationship between job engagement and various work outcomes through their survey study.


Past research has demonstrated that job engagement can lead to negative outcomes outside of the work domain, such as increased work-family conflict. But the literature has neglected to consider negative outcomes within the work domain. The researchers used something called “extended self theory” to develop a framework that may explain how job engagement could yield both positive and negative outcomes at work.

Under extended self theory, when people are highly invested in the creation or control of something (tangible or intangible) or feel very familiar with something, they become possessive of that thing—going so far as to incorporate it into their identity. Individuals are then motivated to protect and maintain the things they associate with their identity. Because job engagement is characterized by investing the full self into the job, the researchers hypothesized that job engagement may promote feelings of psychological ownership over aspects of the job. This could ultimately motivate both positive and negative behaviors that are designed to protect ownership and control over the job.

The researchers conducted two survey studies to test their hypotheses, the first of which gathered data on employees’ levels of job engagement, job-based psychological ownership, and positive and negative work outcomes. They found support for their framework, in which job engagement was related to psychological ownership over the job. This sense of ownership was related to positive outcomes such as organizational citizenship behavior and proactive behavior. However, the same psychological ownership was also linked to territorial behavior, knowledge hiding, and pro-job unethical behavior. In other words, highly engaged employees were more likely to engage in both organization enhancing and hindering behaviors as a result of their sense of ownership over their job.


Do organizations and researchers need to accept job engagement as a double-edged sword? The researchers deployed a second survey to pursue an alternative route, exploring the effects of two different types of employee motivation on the relationship between job engagement and work outcomes.

The researchers found that the relationship between job engagement and negative work outcomes was more pronounced for those who endorsed “avoidance motivation.” Avoidance motivation is characterized by behavior directed towards minimizing losses (e.g., hiding the knowledge of a coveted job opening). This stands in contrast to attraction motivation, which is guided by seeking and facilitating gains (e.g., sharing knowledge gained from a team meeting). On the other hand, engaged individuals are more likely to engage in positive behavioral outcomes regardless of their motivation orientation. Therefore, the extent to which an organization experiences negative outcomes as a result of job engagement is influenced by the prevalence of avoidance motivation among their employees.


Negative outcomes of job engagement are not a given; however, research demonstrates that can occur. Therefore, in the pursuit of the engaged employee, it benefits us to also be aware and vigilant of the unintended consequences associated with a highly engaged team. The researchers suggest managers take measures to minimize the chances of negative outcomes, such as fostering a trusting team environment where employees respect each other’s work.

Further, awareness of employees’ motivational tendencies can help managers monitor the manifestation of negative behaviors. Managers may find it necessary to implement and communicate policies against maladaptive behaviors to reinforce team expectations. And finally, there is opportunity to apply the concept of the growth mindset to this domain. Companies can embed a growth mindset in their culture and support their employees in one. This growth mindset may help employees understand the benefits of practicing attraction motivation rather than falling into the habits of avoidant motivation.


Win, L., Law, K. S., Zhang, M. J., Li, Y. N., & Liang, Y. (2019). It’s mine! Psychological ownership of one’s job explains positive and negative workplace outcomes of job engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(2), 229-246