Part Two: Employee Misbehavior – Is it Better to Punish it or Let it Go?

In Part One we discussed Labeling, a technique that can improve workers’ morale and performance by giving employees a good name to live up to.  That can certainly put workers on a good course.  Biotechnology executives want employees to comply with company standards and to maintain high workplace morale. That’s not always easy to do because at times workers will act inappropriately.  Many employee violations are minor.  But some transgressions are serious enough to require some sort of correction.  Clearly, behavior that violates the law or endangers others must be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.  Other misbehaviors are not nearly so serious.  Since the violations are relatively small, for the sake of morale would it be better just to ignore them?  After all, none of us are perfect.  Executives aren’t drill sergeants, holding their employees to unrealistic standards of flawlessness.  Can we just use things like labeling and keep things positive?

 Of course, company officials will have to decide what’s best depending on their own individual situation.  Certainly demanding faultless compliance with every company rule can turn a workplace into a joyless police state.  But, on the other end of the spectrum, allowing too many violations can compromise quality, efficiency and the general atmosphere of the workplace.

It is important to handle small problems properly, because seriously bad behavior, the kind that threatens consumer safety, relations with customers and the peace of the company doesn’t usually come out of the blue.  Often there are smaller violations along the way.   It’s often wise not to let things go, thinking that things will improve on their own.  Employees who violate company or societal standards often don’t think they’ve really done anything wrong

 This is because of a human need social psychologists recognized after many controlled studies:  the need to justify our own behavior.  We’ve all seen people – from our children to workers attempt to justify wrong actions.  There’s a good reason why it happens, according to eminent psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson and his coauthors:  “We humans strive to maintain a relatively favorable view of ourselves, particularly when we encounter evidence that contradicts our typical rosy self-image.  Most of us want to believe that we are reasonable, decent folks who make wise decisions, do not behave immorally, and have integrity.”  When we do things that clearly violate what we believe to be right or smart, it can really bother us.  This feeling of discomfort is what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

 According to Dr. Aronson and fellow psychologist, Carol Tavris, PhD in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), cognitive dissonance is “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.”  Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.”  When we experience the pain of cognitive dissonance, we don’t usually consciously think through ways to reduce it.  Dissonance reduction is usually the result of the kind of automatic thinking that author Malcolm Gladwell discussed in Blink.

So, when we do something we feel is dumb or wrong, we become uncomfortable with ourselves. To relieve that discomfort, we could change our behavior.  That would be the best possible outcome.  Or our minds may automatically arrive at a different solution.  If violating our standards of conduct causes cognitive dissonance, why not relieve that discomfort by changing our standards?  For instance, science has clearly established that smoking can kill you.  But surveys have found that one group of people almost completely downplay the risks of smoking.  Who is it?  Smokers who have tried and failed to quit.  The thought that scientific evidence proves that they are killing themselves by smoking produces dissonance.  Since they believe they can’t reduce those negative feelings by changing their habit, they have come to feel better by discounting the evidence.  It’s as though part of their brain is telling them, “If an intelligent person like me is still smoking, it can’t be that dangerous!”

 Employees might take shortcuts with quality procedures. Some may make offensive comments to coworkers, supervisors or even customers.  In short, they violate company or ethical standards in some way.  If they’ve been properly trained, these misbehaviors will cause dissonance. 

We would hope that they would respond to that dissonance by cleaning up their act.  But, like smokers who tried and failed to quit, they will often make themselves feel better by telling themselves their actions were somehow OK.  The customer, supervisor or coworker to whom they spoke abusively deserved it.  The quality rule they violated is unnecessary and overly strict.

If left on our own, we humans can justify ourselves right over the edge of a cliff.  If our employees have begun to do that, someone needs to wake them up.  And if we’ve become comfortable with misconduct in our workplace, someone needs to wake us up.  Of course, when it comes to misbehavior, the proverbial ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Some may feel that the best way to prevent workplace transgressions is the threat of severe punishment for all violations – large or small.  But does research show that this is the best way?  Stay tuned.

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3 Responses to “Part Two: Employee Misbehavior – Is it Better to Punish it or Let it Go?”

  1. ZAREMA Says:

    Thanks to the author for the article. The main thing is, do not forget about users, and continue in the same spirit.

  2. gualetar Says:

    The subject is fully clear but why does the text lack clarity? But in general your blog is great.

  3. ArtessNar Says:

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers
    Christian, iwspo.net

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