Newswise — Dysfunction is highly contagious. Two Rutgers-led studies examine how counterproductive behaviors and bottom-line thinking spread through the workplace, ultimately hurting productivity.

The first study, published in the Journal of Management, reveals why entire teams and departments – not just one or two problematic employees – may engage in behaviors such as bullying, stealing, loafing on the job, and chronically showing up late or missing work.

“It’s a spiraling effect,” said lead author Nichelle Carpenter, an Associate Professor of Human Resource Management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “When you change the norms for what is expected and permissible, certain behaviors can pollute the entire ecosystem at work.”

Analyzing more than 70 studies involving 7,110 workplace units and 391,000 employees, Carpenter and her colleagues identified key factors that contribute to the spread of dysfunction:

  • Leadership: Counterproductive behaviors are more common in teams with an abusive supervisor, and less common in teams with an ethical or charismatic supervisor.
  • HR: Organizations that follow best practices for staffing, training, and performance management are significantly less likely to have widespread dysfunction.
  • Attitudes: When unit employees are negative and they believe management is treating them unfairly, bad habits can spread like wildfire.

Dysfunction is bad for business. The study finds that units rife with counterproductive behaviors have lower profitability and productivity, higher turnover, and poor marks for customer satisfaction. The researchers suggest implementing strategic HR practices and using surveys to detect early warning signs of dissatisfaction among units.

The second study, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, examines how adopting a “bottom-line mentality” short-circuits work teams. This happens when the team focuses too narrowly on a single goal such as opening new customer accounts, increasing sales revenue, or generating more marketing leads.

“The entire team gets locked into the same mindset and it starts at the top with the manager,” said lead author Rebecca Greenbaum, a Professor of Human Resource Management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “They are so focused on the bottom line that everything else goes out the window.

Surveying 438 employees in 121 teams across a variety of industries, researchers learned that performance suffers when team members are terrified of missing their targets. This loss of “psychological safety” makes employees less creative, less likely to speak up and think outside the box, and more withdrawn from their colleagues.

The bottom-line mentality can even drive unethical conduct. In one prominent example, thousands of Wells Fargo employees opened customer accounts without permission after the CEO dangled lucrative bonuses.

The researchers believe employers should tweak their performance management to measure soft metrics, such as upholding ethics, in addition to measuring hard metrics like revenue.

About the Research

Unit-Level Counterproductive Work Behavior (CWB): A Conceptual Review and Quantitative Summary by Nichelle Carpenter (Rutgers University), Daniel Whitman (Louisiana State University), and Rachel Amrhein (Washington University in St. Louis) appears in the Journal of Management.

It is All about the Bottom Line: Group Bottom-Line Mentality, Psychological Safety, and Group Creativity by Rebecca Greenbaum (Rutgers University), Julena Bonner (Utah State University), Mary Mawritz (Drexel University), Marcus Butts (Southern Methodist University), and Mickey Smith (University of South Alabama) appears in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

About the School

The Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) is the world’s leading source of expertise on managing and representing workers, designing effective organizations, and building strong employment relationships.

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