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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, August 1, 2011

Harming High Performers: a Social Comparison Perspective on Interpersonal Harming in Work Teams

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

Interpersonal harming within the work environment is behavior that contradicts the interests of another person within the organization. These type of behaviors can include disturbing others while they are working, starting arguments, and gossiping about coworkers. Social comparisons (comparing one's performance to another individuals as either better or worse) may be cause of interpersonal harming. A upward comparison is when an individual views him/herself as better than others and is self-affirming. A downward comparison (viewing oneself as inferior to another) may be perceived as threatening and therefore the individual may compensate by doing emotional harm to others. When a downward comparison is negative, conducting interpersonal harm may negatively affect the target's job performance and therefore reduce any threats perceived by the harmer.

Two independent studies were conducted, one with student teams from a university and another with work teams within a corporation. Study 1 collected data from students at a university in Macau, China with a final data set of 141 students and 30 teams. Students were working in teams of three to seven to complete a group project. Data was collected at two different time periods. Time 1 occured 1.5 month after the team has been working together and Time 2 was conducted one month later.Study 2 collected data from sales associates in a state-owned telecommunications company in China. Teams consisted of four to five members. All members in the team were of the similar seniority. The final data set included 128 individuals from 31 teams.

Two items from Lockwood et. al. (2002) were used to measure  interpersonal social comparisons. Respondents were also asked to compare their performance to their team members on a 9 point scale. Respondents were then asked "how likely is it that you will perform like this member?" This question was also measured on a 9 point scale.  Three items from Tjosvold et. al. (2004) were used to assessed cooperative goals within the team based on a 5 point scale. Interpersonal harming  was measured using peer ratings developed by Cohen-Charash & Muelle (2007), which distinguishes between six types of harmful behaviors. In study 2, supervisors were asked to evaluate each team's performance.

Researchers found a three-way interaction between social comparison, anticipated future performance, an cooperative team goals with statistical significance in Study 1 (B = .07, p<.01) and Study 2 (B = .06, p<.001). This suggests that teams with less cooperative goals and an individual exhibiting a upward comparison was positively related to the possibility harming a target when the expected future performance was considered low to the target.  However, when expected future performance was high, there was no relationship to social comparison. Furthermore, when highly cooperative team goals were established,  then there was no relationship with interpersonal harming and/or social comparison.

Results revealed that harmful behavior was positively correlated with upward comparison and negatively related to expected future performance. However, these results were only applicable to Study 1 and not Study 2. In both studies, it was found that interpersonal harming and cooperative team goals were negatively correlated. Results continued to show that team members were more likely to to harm others when there was an upward performance comparison accompanied with low expectations of future performance.

Results of this study suggest that establishing team goals is crucial to reduce the likelihood of toxic behaviors occurring. When goals are not established or agreed, individuals are more likely to compare themselves to others and possibly cause interpersonal harm. Therefore, to increase the chance of team success, teams should establish goals from the start and ensure that everyone agrees with them. This will reduce the possibility of team members comparing themselves to one another and instead create a sense of community, in which the perceived success of the individual depends on the success of the team.

The study has several apparent limitations. First, it was studied in China and therefore may not be applicable to all cultures. Future studies should examine multiple cultures to determine if it can be considered a variable. Second, the sample n Study 2 was only from one organization within a specific industry. This makes it difficult to generalize to the population. In future research, the researchers should be sure to include several companies of different industries to ensure it can be generalized to the public.

For organizations that require employees to work in teams (i.e. consulting, marketing, etc.), this study brings some valuable perspective. It suggests that by establishing cooperative team goals, it can create a positive dynamic between team members and encourage them to work as one.

Therefore,  there are several things that can be done to encourage success among teams. When teams are about to start projects, the project lead should hold a "kick off session". Within this session, the lead explains the project and what the work will entail. Then the team can work together to establish goals that can be applied to the project. Most often, the project lead will establish the goals without consulting with the the team members. In this case, team members feel as if they have no voice and are more likely to create a competitive environment. When goals are established and agreed by everyone on the team, it creates a sense of unity that can be reinforced throughout the project.

How can human resources professionals encourage this practice? Its rather simple. HR professionals can hold a one hour training session for project leads on how to establish team goals and how to facilitate the brainstorming process. Project leaders should be educated on the benefits of this practice and provided tools that can help them facilitate a goal-setting session with their team. If these individuals are not provided with training, there is a greater chance that they will create the goals independently or not even bother to establish goals.

Overall, success within teams thrives on establishing the message that the teams success means success for all team members. An individual can not be successful independently unless the team succeeds as well.

Work Cited
Lam, C.K., Van der Vegt, G.S., Walter, F., and Huang, X. (2010). Harming high performers: a social comparison perspective on interpersonal harming in work teams. Journal of applied psychology, 96 (3), 588-601.

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