Understanding the Workplace
Lauren Simon wants to make work more satisfying and productive, which has driven her to explore common workplace mysteries surrounding career success, like why some workers thrive when faced with difficult circumstances.
“I tend to focus on how people can live up to their full potential at work in ways that are both satisfying to them and good for the bottom line,” she says. “What personality traits or other individual differences seem to dampen the impact of difficult circumstances at work that can prevent us from reaching this potential?”
An associate professor of management in the Walton College of Business, Simon’s most recent research addresses these questions through worker experiences, which range from universal and mundane to disturbing and bizarre. She and her co-authors examined how employees respond to abusive supervisors, the impact of high-email demands on organizational leaders, and how employees who perceive themselves as being over-qualified adjust to the demands of a new job.
Psychopaths in the Workplace
The regional office where Dwight works has more than its share of quirky employees, but Dwight stands out as the one guy who might be dangerous. Obsessed with law-enforcement, martial arts, weapons and survivalism – not to mention a plethora other, more innocuous passions – Dwight also demonstrates a disturbing lack of empathy for his coworkers. And yet it is Dwight, dressed in a suit and tie like all the other men in the office, who consistently ranks as his employer’s top regional salesperson.
Another prong of Simon’s research suggests the secret to Dwight’s success might be found in his relationship with Michael, his boss and regional manager of Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton office. Michael has his own emotional and psychological issues. While not overtly malevolent toward his subordinates, he abuses his power with cluelessness and incompetence.
“It is probably this mindset – Dwight’s inability to consider the feelings of his coworkers – that helps him deal with Michael’s nonsense,” Simon says. “While all the other employees are shocked or trying to figure out what to do, Dwight simply shrugs it off and takes most of what Michael says with a grain of salt.”
In “Are ‘Bad’ Employees Happier Under Bad Bosses? Differing Effects of Abusive Supervision on Low and High Primary Psychopathy Employees,” published in the Journal of Business Ethics, Simon and co-authors collected data from several hundred working adults, including their reactions to profiles of managers portrayed as abusive or constructive, as well as reactions to their own managers’ behavior, and found that one type of personality appears to have distinct advantages when working for an abusive supervisor.
In the worst workplace situations – ‘worst’ here defined by quality of leadership – employees labeled as primary psychopaths, that is, people who possessed personality traits associated with anti-social behavior, lack of empathy and remorse, narcissism, impulsivity and other egotistical characteristics, had access to psychological resources less available to employees who did not have these extreme characteristics. Working for abusive supervisors, individuals defined as having traits high in primary psychopathy reported feeling more positive and engaged in their work, as well as less angry.
Not that that’s a good thing. Simon cautioned that companies should be wary of employees who exhibit these extreme characteristics.
“These situations can easily create a dynamic in which organizations tolerant of abuse end up retaining and empowering more individuals who possess psychopathic characteristics,” she says. “This can lead to abusive behavior all around, a sort of chaotic organizational culture where unethical behavior is more likely to occur. When you reach this stage, it’s really just a matter of time before something happens that damages the organization and its stakeholders.”
How Email Might Be Preventing Organizations from Realizing Long-Term Goals
In another study focusing on factors that influence career success, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Simon and management professor Chris Rosen found that email distraction may have deeper consequences than previously thought in research that delved into the universal phenomenon of email overload and the all-too-frequent feeling that you worked hard all day but don’t have much to show for it. Simon and Rosen developed a model, based on self-regulation theory, to examine the day-to-day effects of email on organizational leaders. They wanted to see if the demands of email could affect the long-term goals of organizations by taking leaders’ attention away from higher level tasks.
Previous studies had demonstrated the harmful effects of email overload but had not focused specifically on organizational leaders. Simon and Rosen predicted that managers, when confronted with high email demands, would exhibit fewer “transformational” and “change-oriented” behaviors – the kind of behaviors necessary for employees in leadership positions – and would instead devote time and energy to more immediate tasks that were less relevant for the organization’s long-term goals.
Over 10 consecutive days, Simon and Rosen surveyed 48 managers. Questions pertained to frequency of emails and their importance to completing their work. They asked managers about their perceived progress on core job duties, and how much time they devoted to transformational tasks focused on the organization’s long-term goals, including inspiring or motivating subordinates to execute the strategies and tasks to achieve those goals.
Their prediction was accurate. Simon and Rosen found that email demands interfered with progress toward organizational goals and had a harmful effect on behaviors desirable of a leader. This was especially true for people with low levels of self-control and managers who worked for organizations where email was less central to job performance.
“It appears that daily email demands have a negative impact on progress toward organizational goals because leaders are diverting resources away from goal-relevant tasks to check, filter and respond to emails that really don’t have much to do with those goals,” Simon said. “Dealing with these interruptions involves cognitive suppression and emotional regulation, both of which consume energy and resources.”
The impact of this distraction might have even deeper consequences. Simon and Rosen suspect leaders’ reaction to email overload has a downstream effect, in that it might be blocking managers from direct and meaningful involvement with their subordinates.
The Problem of Over–qualification and the Effect of Proactive Personality
In “Built to Last: Interactive Effects of Perceived Overqualification and Proactive Personality on New Employee Adjustment,” a study published in Personnel Psychology, Simon and colleagues surveyed 331 new employees of a large financial institution throughout the first 90 days of their employment. Employees who said they were overqualified for their jobs reported fewer work-related positive feelings, compared to employees whose skills and qualifications matched job duties and responsibilities. Those who perceived themselves as over-qualified also felt like they had less autonomy when they began their jobs. These results suggest that perceived over-qualification negatively influences newcomers’ adjustment to the job and probably stunts their ability to see much of a future for themselves in the position.
Digging deeper into the responses, however, Simon focused on employees who possessed “proactive personality,” meaning several things. Characterized as feeling unconstrained by external or situational forces, employees with a proactive personality actively sought opportunities and control of their environment. They perceived their roles liberally, took initiative and persevered until their goals were met. For these employees, the first ninety days on the job looked very different.
“New employees who perceived themselves as over-qualified but also possessed a proactive personality did not report feeling less autonomous or less positive about their jobs upon entry,” Simon said. “In other words, the qualities associated with proactive personality potentially shielded individuals from the negative effects of perceived over-qualification.”
Finding Career and Workplace Solutions
Though distinct, these studies are important, Simon says, because they say something about why some workers thrive when faced with difficult circumstances and others do not. Because they each focus on a psychological trait or some other individual difference that cancels out the negative effects of the difficult circumstance, the studies demonstrate that employers and managers might benefit from knowing more about job candidates beyond their basic skills. The studies are also important because they help explain the role of interpersonal relationships within the workplace.
“At some point, many of us will face less than ideal circumstances at work,” Simon says. “Whether it’s a bad boss, too many distractions, work that doesn’t fully utilize our qualifications, or something else, we might find that our working conditions are preventing us from effectively performing our jobs or living healthy and satisfying lives. These are situations that can negatively impact our careers and the organization’s bottom line. However, we can learn a great deal about how to inform management policy and create better work environments for employees by studying exactly what it is that allows some employees to continue to thrive when work throws them a curveball.”