Witnessing co-workers misbehave causes some employees to boost their productivity in order to lessen their own discomfort with the situation, finds a new study recently published in the Group Processes & Intergroup Relations journal.
This urge to work harder when seeing misconduct among peers is especially strong with employees who identify closely with their employer. Brian Gunia, the study's lead researcher and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, said this is because these employees may perceive "an internal identity threat" because of the deviant behavior.
"The silver lining of organizational deviance may be the efforts of the uninvolved," Gunia said in a statement. "The effects of misconduct extend far beyond the deviants."
The study's authors conducted three separate studies of about 200 participants from around the United States. In each, participants were presented with fictionalized examples of employee misbehavior. While the behavior was bad, none of the conduct was serious enough to jeopardize the employer's existence. [See Related Story: Fear of Missing Out Drives Workers' Bad Behavior]
The researchers found that non-deviant employees work harder after witnessing misconduct. However, that extra effort was seen only in workers who identify highly with the organization.
The study found that employees whose identities are not so closely tied to the organization didn't increase their productivity because they didn't sense a threat to their identities.
Gunia said the research revealed the value of group identification and the advantage it can be for both employees and employers. He said the increased effort not only benefits the employer, but also serves as a coping mechanism and potential boost in reputation for the hard-working employee.
"The whole group benefits from increased effort, but individual members and their standing within the organization may improve as well," Gunia said.
While it would be silly for employers to encourage misconduct among their employees in order to boost productivity, the researchers suggest several strategies leaders can take to make the most of these bad situations when they do occur.
The study's authors said one option is to highlight the similarities between the misbehaving employees and everyone else by saying something like "any of us could have fallen into this trap." They believe this could trigger the properly behaving employees to feel associated to the crisis and work harder because of it.
The study's authors said blaming a few "bad apples" isn't the best strategy because doing so tends to isolate and dismiss the problem. They said this sidesteps any assignment of responsibility to the organization's overall structure and leadership.
The research was co-authored by Sun Young Kim, an assistant professor at the IÉSEG School of Management in France.