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I am a M.A. in industrial/organizational psychology. Most of my experience has been in human resources and change management. My passion lies in employee assessment, organizational development and employee opinions. Website: www.IanMondrow.com LinkedIn Profile: http://linkd.in/drBYoC

Monday, March 14, 2011

Can Counterproductive Work Behaviors Be Productive?

Summary and Commentary by: Ian B. Mondrow , M.A.

Counterproductive work behaviors (CWB) are acts consciously conducted by employees that have the ability to negatively impact an organization and/or its members. Spector et al. (2006) has suggested that there are five categories of CWBs including: abuse towards others, sabotage, theft, production deviance (i.e. working slowly), and withdrawal (i.e. taking longer breaks). CWBs may be a result of emotional exhaustion, or the feeling of being worn down as a result; often the result of burnout.  Emotional exhaustion has been found to be  related with turnover, cardiovascular and sleep problems, decreased motivation, decreased task performance, and citizenship behaviors.

It has been suggested that CWBs  are a coping mechanism to reduce stress from a negative situation. Coping is a cognitive or behavior action that one takes in response to stress. CWBs provide individuals with a sense of control over stressful situations. This article focuses on withdrawal and production deviance. Withdrawal and production deviance reduce employee exhaustion by giving individuals the opportunity to return to their normal emotional state. Withdrawal behaviors include actions such as taking longer breaks or leaving early for the day. While outside of the work environment, an employee's frustration decreases and allows an him/her to return to a calm state of mind. Production deviance is when an individual intentionally works slowly, does work incorrectly [intentionally],  or ignores procedures. These actions allow the individuals to "even the score" when confronted with injustice and may reduce emotional exhaustion.

Organizational justice is the how an individual perceives the fairness between individuals and the organization. It is composed of distributive justice and procedural justice.  Distributive justice is the perceived fairness of reward and recognition, while procedural justice refers to the fairness of the process by which decisions are made. Organizational justice may have the ability to influence the occurrence of CWBs within an organization.

Krischer, Penney and Hunter (2010) utilized StudyResponse Project to recruit 522 participants; of which, 295 were examined. Although it was requested that participants be employed full-time, 20.8% of the respondents were employed part-time. After careful analysis, it was determined the two groups were not significantly different. Participants completed a self-evaluation of the following:
  1. Price & Mueller's (1986) six-item scale to measure distributive justice (1 = very unfairly; 5 = very fairly)
  2. Moorman's 12-item scale to measure procedural justice (1 = strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree)
  3. 3 items from the Counterproductive Work Behavior Checklist (Spector et. al, 2006) to measure production deviance (1 = never; 5 = everyday)
  4. 4 items from the Counterproductive Work Behavior Checklist to measure withdrawal  (1 = never; 5 = everyday)
  5. 6 items from the Job-Related Affective Well-Being (JAWS) Scale to measure emotional exhaustion (1 = never; 5 = always)
JAWS is not typically used to measure emotional exhaustion but 2 subject-matter experts identified items that closely relate to the definition of emotional exhaustion.

Results were collected by conducting intercorrelations and descriptive statistics. It was found that both distributive justice (rs = -.38, p < .01) and procedural justice (rs = -.41, p < .01) had a moderately negative correlation with emotional exhaustion. This suggests that if an individual perceives an organization to have low distributive justice or low procedural justice, he/she is more likely to be emotionally exhausted.

A hierarchical linear regression was also utilized to analyze the two types of justice, withdrawal, and production deviance. A strong interaction was found between distributive justice and withdrawal behaviors, R2 = .60, p < .01. It may be assumed that if an individual feels rewards are not fairly distributed, then he/she is more likely to withdraw. Distributive justice and production deviance also produced moderately significant results,R2 = .50, p<.05, suggesting that if distributive justice is perceived as high, one is less likely to conduct production deviance acts. Finally, procedural justice also had a moderate relationship with withdrawal, R2 = .42, p < .05, suggesting that withdrawal is less likely to occur when an individual feel procedural justice is served. No interaction was present between procedural justice and production deviance.

No significant findings were present when an individual admitted to high levels of production deviance. However, those who had low levels of production deviance had a negative relationship with between distributive justice and emotional exhaustion, r = -1.17, p < .01. Results continued to show that Individuals with low levels of withdrawal were more likely to be emotionally exhausted when they perceived procedural justice as low, r = -1.37 & -1.06, p <.01).

Results show that if employee perceive their workplace to have higher levels of  justice, it will increase their well-being and reduce the need for coping behaviors. However, when justice is seen as low,  employees are more likely to exhibit CWBs as a coping mechanism . The researchers suggest that CWBs may be used to shape an employees emotional experiences at work, rather than a reaction to experiences.

Contrary to the researchers' hypothesis, the results showed that production deviance is not a coping mechanism for perceived procedural justice. Instead, it may be suggested that production deviance requires active engagement and therefore requires low levels of withdrawal to uphold, whereas withdrawal behaviors are far more passive.

The following study demonstrates the importance of organizational justice. Employees that perceive unfair organizational justice are more likely to withdrawal and be less interested or committed to their work. HR professionals can use their symptoms to their advantage. If employees  are observed exhibiting withdrawal behaviors (i.e. leaving early regularly, taking longer breaks, taking extra breaks, etc.), HR can begin to question both procedural and distributive justice within the organization. If this is an area of concern, surveys can be used to effectively measure personnel's perception of organizational justice. It is suggested to utilize a consultant with a background in industrial/organizational psychology or psychometrics to ensure that the survey is accurately measuring perceptions. 

HR can also use these findings to their advantage. CWBs can be prevented by ensuring employees are empowered. This can be succeeded through a fair grievance system or implementing a skip-level reporting system. Furthermore, emotional exhaustion can be prevented by providing employees with outlets for their stressors such as exercise programs or facilities. Organizations should also encourage employees to take break to ensure they can take time to restore their energy. 

The study also reveals scary findings. Employees that are likely to conduct production deviance are less likely to appear emotionally exhausted or withdrawn. This makes it far more difficult to identify employees that may be conducting counterproductive behaviors. In reality, it means that an engaged and supportive group of employees could contain an individual that exhibits negative behaviors. It is up to management to properly observe their employees and to measure performance on a regular basis. It is best to be proactive than reactive. Therefore, encourage employees to speak up when they observe deviant behaviors. 

Source: Krischer, M.M., Penney, L.M., & Hunt, E.M. (2010). Can counterproductive workbehaviors be productive? CWB as emotion-focused coping. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 15(2), 154-166.

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