Who conducted the study?
This study was conducted by KiYoung Lee of The University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, Eugene Kim of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Devasheesh P. Bhave of Singapore Management University and Michelle K. Duffy of The University of Minnesota.
What was the aim of the study?
Undermining, in the field of industrial and organizational psychology, is wherein a person exhibits behavior towards another person that is intended to stop them from achieving work success, establishing relationships, and building a good reputation over time. This social behavior results in decreased work productivity and unhealthy relationships between co-workers that can cost organizations upwards of $6 million dollars annually.
As such, understanding how one comes to exhibit undermining behaviors in the workplace is of great importance. This study focuses on how undermining victims become perpetrators of undermining through interpersonal injustice and resource depletion, allowing the to morally disengage and thus undermine fellow co-workers.
Previous research has solely focused on the effects of undermining behavior and how it is strengthened, but not on the process by which one comes to exhibit the behavior. As a result, the researchers hoped to create a working model of this process that can be utilized by future studies and businesses to decrease this negative behavior in the workplace and ultimately create safer, more inviting work environments.
The researchers proposed that 2 mechanisms allow victims to become perpetrators of these behaviors; 1) Interpersonal Injustice and 2) Resource Depletion. When a person feels as though they have been acted towards unjustly, for example, when they feel undermined by their coworkers, then they feel as though they have been victimized.
This victimization enables a person’s cognition to engage in harmful behaviors that cause them to morally disengage from their situation. This disengagement allows them to rationalize their actions towards their coworkers, resulting in them committing undermining behaviors themselves without reservations.
Likewise, when a person encounters stressful or negative situations, they expend energy in order to not lash out at those around them. After a while though, one has little to no effort left in regards to being able to deal with similar situations and thus have a lack of resources at their disposal that they can use to combat their negative feelings. As a result, one is not able to see the effects of their actions on those around them, and morally disengage and exhibit undermining behaviors to their coworkers.
These 2 mechanisms are what lead to a personal morally disengaging from a situation, allowing them to perform undermining behaviors. This process, from experiencing one or both of these two conditions and morally disengaging to undermining co workers, is what the researchers studied and hoped to learn more about through their experimentation.
In addition to the process mentioned above, a third variable of interest that they wanted to study was that of Moral Identity; Individual standards associated with the moral self. The researchers hypothesized that moral identity would play a role in whether or not people would take part in undermining behaviors and moral disengagement when in conjunction with interpersonal injustice and resource depletion.
What did they find?
The researchers found that employees who have experienced undermining do indeed become perpetrators of this behavior. Data showed that undermined employees that perceive injustice and have less resources available to them to cope with stressors in their work environment morally disengage, resulting in them undermining fellow employees.
In addition, high moral identity victims were less likely to react to perceptions of injustice by morally disengaging, thus not performing undermining behaviors. Although, contrary to belief, moral identity, in regards to resource depletion and moral disengagement, had no connection.
How did they find these results?
These results were found through implementing 2 separate surveys, each administered a month apart. Each survey tested for different variables with Test 1 measuring undermining, victimization, moral identity, interpersonal justice, and control variables and test 2 surveying moral disengagement, resource depletion, and engagement in social undermining.
A total of 208 bank employees of two Korean banks were surveyed, with a total of 182 participants completing both surveys and completing the experiment completely.
Undermining Victimization – A seven-item social undermining scale was used, in conjunction with a 5-point likert scale, to assess undermining victimization by fellow co-workers in the workplace
Moral Identity – A five-item internalization scale that presented the topics of interest in moral identity including caring, compassionate, generous, and kind.
Interpersonal Justice – Interpersonal Justice was assessed through the use of a four-item measure.
Resource Depletion – Resource Depletion was measured by a 10-item state self control scale.
Moral Disengagement – This was measured by utilizing an eight-item scale that assessed three broad moral disengagement mechanisms made up of 8 subdivisions.
Engaging in Social Undermining – Measured through the implementation of a seven – item scale, as well as a 5-point likert scale.
Control Variables – Age, gender, team size, and negative affectivity were controlled for in this experiment.
Why are these findings important?
The findings of this study are important in the filed of research as they contribute to the existing literature about social undermining. The integrative model developed by the researchers will provide future studies with a base grounded in research that they can then utilize to perform their own experiments with.
As has been mentioned previously, research has primarily focused on the factors that strengthen the link between victim and perpetrator with little being done on the process by which one goes from being a victim to a perpetrator. As such, these findings provide key insight into a relatively unexplored filed, allowing new conclusions to be formed, regarding the subject, that previously were not able to be made.
Finally, this research has opened up a plethora of ideas and routes that future studies can take when attempting to further understand this social behavior by laying the groundwork of ideas that can be easily built off of.
As the model explains the psychological process that a victim takes that leads to moral disengagement and later undermining, one can take it and apply it to their own research without fear of having misinterpreted the results.
This research is also one of the first to combine the ideas of moral disengagement and moral identity as having an effect on people’s likelihood to enact undermining behaviors when experienced together, furthering beliefs in regards to when people morally disengage and the mechanisms that can either increase or decrease the likelihood of the disengagement.
Where can these results be applied?
One of the major beneficiaries of these results are businesses and organizations that consistently have problems with undermining in their workplaces. As such, those organizations will be able to create training programs revolving around workplace ethics and cooperation among employees in an effort to restrict harmful undermining behaviors and halt the process from victim to perpetrator from ever begging, thus forming more productive and positive workplaces.
For example, undermining is extremely prevalent in competitive workplaces, especially those in which there is a hierarchy between the employees. One such place would be the retail environment that many people have or are working in. Much of the employees salary comes from commission and is assessed on how much they sale.
As such, these undermining behaviors, such as gossiping, stealing clients, and spreading rumors to get ahead are very present. By using the findings from this study, managers and human resources will be able to take applicable information form the results and create training programs to combat against this, creating a warmer and loss hostile environment to work in.
Furthermore, by applying the idea of moral identity to the workplace, supervisors will be able to identify which employees will be more likely to partake in undermining, and squash it before it has a chance to begin.
Also, contrary to prior belief, once a person realizes who has undermined them, the behavior does not stop there. Victims feel a need to “pay it forward” and undermine others. This creates a cycle wherein employees who view themselves as not successful attempt to take down coworkers that they have deemed as being better to them. This creates a stressful workplace where day-to-day functions become difficult to complete due to the tension in the workplace.
As such, in order to avoid this, workplaces must first be aware of this cycle of undermining, thus giving them the ability to counteract such behaviors with training focused on stopping or reducing these behaviors altogether.
Lee, K., Kim, E., Bhave, D. P., & Duffy, M. K. (2016). Why Victims of Undermining at Work Become Perpetrators of Undermining: An Integrative Model. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000092