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Disengaged Workers More Inclined to Sabotage Others

Disengaged Workers More Inclined to Sabotage OthersU.S. and Canadian researchers have found that managers need to keep team members connected and engaged to mitigate workplace rivalry and sabotage.

Their study found that envious employees are more likely to undermine peers if they feel disconnected from others.

“We often hear that people who feel envious of their colleagues try to bring them down by spreading negative rumors, withholding useful information, or secretly sabotaging their work,” said Karl Aquino, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia. Aquino conducted the study with colleagues from the University of Minnesota, Clemson University in South Carolina and Georgia State University.

However, Aquino said envy is only the fuel for sabotage.

“The match is not struck unless employees experience what psychologists call ‘moral disengagement’ – a way of thinking that allows people to rationalize or justify harming others.”

The researchers explain that moral disengagement is most likely to occur when an envious co-worker feels disconnected from others in the workplace.

Their paper will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

Researchers conducted two field studies with the first study sampling 160 employees from a Midwest American hospital. In this group, researchers wanted to test whether a person’s lack of identification with colleagues increases their likelihood to act on envy.

The employees were asked to complete two separate surveys eight months apart. During the first survey, participants were asked to rate their reactions – positive or negative – to a series of statements regarding envy, affinity with colleagues and comfort with subversive acts.

After eight months, the respondents were surveyed again, this time about their actual undermining activities.

When the results of the surveys were compared, it showed people experiencing feelings of envy were significantly more likely to report committing sabotage when experiencing weak relationships with co-workers.

Conversely, envious participants reported low sabotage incident rates when they felt they were more strongly connected to their workmates.

“The working world typically necessitates that people develop strong connections with co-workers in order to thrive. To stray from this path ultimately puts success at risk, so most suffer from envy in silence,” said the study’s lead author, Michelle Duffy, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota.

“However, from our research it seems that when someone sees themselves as a lone wolf, they are less inhibited and more likely to lash out.”

In the second study, researchers evaluated how the working environment can influence employees to undermine one another.

In this experiment, investigators studied 247 business students enrolled in a class at an American university.

The students were randomly divided into numerous work groups and asked to complete a series of questionnaires throughout the semester. Students were asked to rate their level of envy, connections with their group members and incidences of sabotage committed by themselves and others.

The results show that students who reported feelings of envy and low levels of identification with their workg roups were significantly more likely to report committing acts of sabotage when they belonged to groups which reported high rates of sabotage as a whole.

The researchers point to this result as an indication that if a workplace seems to be permitting sabotage, those who are inclined toward subversive behavior will be more likely to follow through.

“Our study shows that envy on its own is not necessarily a negative thing in the workplace.

“However, managers would be well advised to consider team-building strategies to ensure all of their employees are engaged in the group dynamic,” said Duffy. “It is also important that those in charge don’t give incidents of co-worker undermining a free pass, because once it starts the tendency is for it to spread.”

Source: University of British Columbia

Disengaged Workers More Inclined to Sabotage Others

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Disengaged Workers More Inclined to Sabotage Others. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 7 Oct 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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