Can 'overly engaged' employees be bad for business?

While crucial for job performance, one study suggests that unmanaged, it can lead to unethical behaviour

Can 'overly engaged' employees be bad for business?

Unmanaged employee engagement can lead to negative workplace behaviours, finds study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

While high employee engagement does lead to increased job performance, findings revealed that it could also lead to workers being more territorial in their jobs, less information sharing at work, or downright unethical behaviour.

Researchers noticed that while previous studies have been devoted to the positive outcomes of job engagement, little attention has been paid to its potential costs.

Kenneth Law, Professor of Department of Management and Associate Dean (Research) at CUHK Business School, who conducted the study with his students and academics from three other universities shared his insights.

“To the best of our knowledge, no study on the possible negative outcomes of job engagement in work related domains has been studied,” said Law, adding that the few studies which have examined negative outcomes have focused on non-work settings, such as whether it can lead to more family disputes.

READ MORE: How to prevent unethical behaviour

The researchers theorised that when employees are highly engaged in their jobs, they identify with their jobs and treat it as part of their personal identity – becoming what is known in psychology as the “extended self”. As a result, they feel they ‘own’ the job.

On the one hand, this sense of ownership promotes on-the-job performance, proactive behaviour, and incites a willingness for employees to go above and beyond their formal job requirements – a concept known in academia as organisational citizenship behaviour.

The flip side is that this ownership can also translate to resentment when employees feel their job space is being infringed, leading to territorial behaviour and knowledge hiding. For example, a sales representative may decide against sharing product and customer information, know-how, and skills to promote sales with colleagues.

Job ownership could also generate actions that benefit the organisation but which falls short of being fair play. This may include discrediting others’ performance and purposely excluding others in a work group – a condition known in academic circles as pro-job unethical behaviour.

In addition, researchers speculated that how job ownership manifests itself depends on an employees’ overall outlook or mindset. They said that employees who are driven by a desire to achieve their aspirations and desirable outcomes, known as an ‘approach motivation’, tend to focus on the gains related to their jobs. This translates into improved job performance, and a higher level of proactive work and organisational citizenship behaviours.

This contrasts with those of an ‘avoidance motivation mindset’, or people who focus on avoiding distressing problems and undesirable outcomes. This group is driven by concern over losing job ownership and are likely to engage in undesirable behaviours to protect what they perceive to be part of their personal possessions.

To test out this theory, the researchers sampled a large pharmaceutical company in southern China. They sent questionnaires to employees and their supervisors, who were asked questions to rate their job engagement, job ownership, performance, as well as their tendencies to engage in both good and bad workplace behaviour.

The results confirmed the researchers’ theory that job engagement can lead to both positive and negative workplace outcomes.

It found that engaged employees would perform positive workplace behaviours, regardless of their mindset, but employees with stronger avoidance motivation may engage in undesirable workplace activities that lead to negative workplace behaviours.

READ MORE: Six powerful steps to boost motivation

Workplace implications
Prof. Law said this research has important and far-reaching implications for the modern organisational workplace. This is especially so for industries dealing with creativity, innovation and intellectual property.

“At the end of the day, job engagement will always have more advantages for an organisation than disadvantages,” he said. “It's when high job engagement is not being managed properly that it could lead to issues.

“Our findings are cautionary reminders that engaged employees may generate negative workplace behaviours.”

He added that managers should at least be aware of the possibility and to actively manage to reduce employees. This could include the fostering of a high-trust environment to promote respect among workers.

Another solution is to mediate an employee’s ownership of their job.

“You can’t really take away psychological ownership, but you have to explain to employees that their focus is on the organisational objectives, rather than on the benefits they personally derive from their jobs,” Law said.

Managers should be extra mindful of employees with an avoidance mindset, who are more likely to exhibit damaging behaviours. To counter this, he said managers should consider implementing policies and procedures to discourage the negative outcomes.

Finally, companies should develop training programs to help employees manage their avoidance tendencies.

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