New study reveals why workplaces become toxic

People who've been undermined at work are more likely to undermine—causing a vicious cycle, a paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology found.

New study reveals why workplaces become toxic

Workplace relationships aren’t always roses and unicorns—sometimes it might feel like a co-worker is just plain out to get you. Maybe you’ve got an uncollegial colleague who has talked badly about you behind your back, left you out of big decisions or even tossed you under the bus to save himself or herself.

If you know someone like this, watch out: You might become someone like this. That’s the finding of a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The paper, entitled Why Victims of Undermining at Work Become Perpetrators of Undermining, takes a closer look at the domino effect of socially undermining behavior—that is, behavior intended to hinder employees from achieving work success, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, and building good reputations. Such cruelty is common in competitive workplace settings, “where anyone can be seen as a potential opponent,” the authors write. And this brand kind of interpersonal aggression costs employers about $6 billion a year in health problems, employee turnover and productivity loss, the study continues—so explaining its causes and seeking prevention methods is crucial.

We spoke to the lead author of the study, Ki Young Lee, an assistant professor of organization and human resources at the University of Buffalo School of Management, to gain more insight into this all-too-familiar problem.


Q. There are many types of victimization in the world. Why did you choose to conduct this study on underminers at work?


A. Social undermining behaviors such as gossiping, withholding information, and giving someone "the silent treatment," can be easily justified because the harm is often subtle and not immediately obvious. So, social undermining may be more likely to be repeated and reenacted among co-workers. We think undermining is an important topic to study if we want to prevent the workplace from becoming toxic.


Q. Why do you think that those who have been undermined are more likely to undermine?


A. It seems that we become selfish through the victimization experience.  We not only want to maintain fairness in one-to-one relationships but also in terms of our overall relationship with others. So as victims feel they’ve been disrespectfully and unfairly treated and they feel they are entitled to be selfish toward co-workers.

Victims also ruminate about the unpleasant experience and feel exhausted. When we are exhausted, we tend to be less concerned about others.

The fact that victims become selfish is troublesome because it makes it easier to rationalize doing harm to others. We use this to justify our actions, for instance, by calling undermining "part of the game."


Q. Is a toxic workplace self-perpetuating?


A. It is very likely self-perpetuating unless some actions are taken. Victims experience stress, health problems and performance impairment, and they also become perpetrators contributing to the workplace toxicity.


Q. Who are the people more likely to turn around and become underminers?


A. We found those who do not value morality (being caring, friendly, compassionate) as an important part of the self are more susceptible. In contrast, those who value morality tend to be less selfish when they think the victimization was unfair. These victim employees did not engage in actual undermining.


Q. What’s the most important takeaway of the study for employers?


Recruiting and hiring employees who value morality would be particularly beneficial to an organization. It is known that these employees engage in behaviors that benefit others, promote organizations and are less likely to make unethical decisions. Our study shows that they may also contribute to curtailing workplace aggression by not translating themselves from victims to perpetrators.

Managers can also consider emphasizing moral values at work. For instance, displaying posters or slogans with moral values will make moral cues salient at work.


Q. Do you have any other insights about this phenomenon to share?


A. It is important to consider the limitation of our morality. Everyone is susceptible to being an underminer because it is easy to justify undermining.



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