The high cost of angry employees

A new study suggests that angry employees end up costing businesses billions of dollars a year because of unethical behavior. Here’s what you can do to limit the damage

The high cost of angry employees

Negative emotions in the workplace can cause staff morale to plummet but researchers at the University of Arizona (UA) sought to find out how anger and guilt particularly led to unethical behaviour.

According to the researchers, unethical behaviour can cause businesses billions of dollars a year and angry employees are the most common culprits.

“Unethical workplace behaviour, ranging from tardiness to theft, costs businesses billions of dollars a year, so it’s important for managers to recognize how emotions may drive on-the-job behaviour, explained Daphna Motro, lead study author and doctoral student in management and organizations at UA’s Eller College of Management.

In her research, Motro contended that not all negative emotions work the same way. She said that anger and guilt are both negative emotions but have different effects on behaviour because the two emotions impact information processing differently.

"We found that anger was associated with more impulsive processing, which led to deviant behaviour, since deviant behaviour is often impulsive and not very carefully planned out," she told Science Daily

"Guilt, on the other hand, is associated with more careful, deliberate processing – trying to think about what you've done wrong, how to fix it – and so it leads to less deviance."

Motro and her fellow researchers used writing prompts to induce the desired emotions in the participants. They asked one group to write about a time they felt angry at work, another group to write about a time when they were most guilty, while a third group (the control) was simply asked to describe a classroom.

"Research has shown that writing about that time, remembering that time, actually brings those feelings back up to the present," she explained.

They then asked participants to do simple math problems and to reward themselves with a quarter for every correct answer they make. Angry participants awarded themselves significantly more undeserved quarters than the control group while the guilty ones awarded themselves fewer than both.

In the second study, participants were asked to play a computerised card game where they started off with US$100. They were asked to report every joker card they see but were told that each card would mean losing US$4.

They were then told that two random participants can take home whatever money is left from the pot.

“Angry participants cheated more by not reporting jokers, and thereby claimed significantly more undeserved money, while guilty individuals claimed less undeserved money than the neutral group,” they said. 

Motro said that the consequences of unethical behaviour caused by anger are more than just financial; it also leads to “less work engagement, less job satisfaction, and more turnover”.

But managers should not go the guilt-trip route, either, she warned.

"Too much guilt can be associated with shame, which is not a pleasant or positive emotional state," she said.

Instead, she said bosses should be more intuitive about their employees’ negative emotions.

“An employee might be angry, and they might not be angry at you or anything that you've done specifically, but just pay careful attention," she said. 

"Maybe tell them to take a short break and wait for them to cool down."


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