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Lead Your Team Managing

The Workplace Power Shifts That Make Employees Uneasy

The Workplace Power Shifts That Make Employees Uneasy
Credit: Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

Most employees would agree that it's nice to be recognized at work. But what happens when an employee who was formerly a "nobody" is suddenly the center of positive attention, thanks to a change of circumstances within the company?

You might think this employee would be happy with his or her newfound prestige among colleagues, but a recent study by Ohio State University found that an unearned elevation of status could actually have some negative side effects.

The study looked at a Japanese firm that unexpectedly changed its official language to English. The company's CEO made the announcement a year prior to the study, mandating that all workers would need to take an English language test within two years or risk demotion. American, English-speaking employees at the firm, who made up only 5 percent of its workforce, found themselves serving as a trusted resource when their Japanese co-workers needed help with their English.

Prior to the switch, the company's American employees told researchers they felt lower in status than their Japanese colleagues and thought their advancement opportunities were limited. They did appreciate the status boost after the language announcement, but Tracy Dumas, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of management and human resources at Ohio State's Fisher College of Business, noted that their feelings weren't all positive.

"The American employees knew that they lucked into this change of status and were very aware that the status boost was not tied to their performance or achievement," Dumas said in a statement. "They had a feeling that their good luck was unstable — that another new policy could reverse their good fortune. If you earn it, you feel some sense of control and certainty about your new position within the company, but they didn't have that."

While most companies likely won't undergo a language switch like this, the change in dynamics that occurred among the staff members could certainly happen with any other policy update that suddenly favors a certain employee or group of employees, for reasons beyond their control. Dumas cited Apple as an example, where Steve Jobs elevated designers at the expense of engineers. Their work didn't necessarily change, but designers likely perceived a rise in their value at Apple. [The Skill Successful Workplace Teams Need]

Dumas also said that less obvious scenarios, such as a manager favoring employees that match his or her own personality or work style, could also set perceived status changes in motion, and leaders need to be aware of how those changes affect their entire staff.

"Managers have to consider how changes will shape power and status dynamics and how people work together," Dumas said. "Even employees who have seen a boost in status may be experiencing some negative feelings about the change."

The study, which was co-authored by Harvard Business School associate professor Tsedal Neeley, will be published in an upcoming print issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

Nicole Fallon

Nicole Fallon received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.