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 Anand van Zelderen is a PhD student working at the department of Work and Organisation Studies at the KU Leuven, Belgium. His research, which is funded by the prestigious Research Foundation Flanders, is focused on how talent management practices influence employee reactions, particularly those employees that are excluded from such exclusive programs. He is furthermore interested in organizational secrecy, the labelling of employees, and business ethics. For his studies he strives to use the most technologically advanced tools available, such as Virtual Reality, to overcome common limitations in organizational research. Anand holds an MSc in Social & Organizational Psychology (cum laude) at Leiden University, Netherlands.   

Anand van Zelderen is a PhD student working at the department of Work and Organisation Studies at the KU Leuven, Belgium. His research, which is funded by the prestigious Research Foundation Flanders, is focused on how talent management practices influence employee reactions, particularly those employees that are excluded from such exclusive programs. He is furthermore interested in organizational secrecy, the labelling of employees, and business ethics. For his studies he strives to use the most technologically advanced tools available, such as Virtual Reality, to overcome common limitations in organizational research. Anand holds an MSc in Social & Organizational Psychology (cum laude) at Leiden University, Netherlands.

 

Why your boss should not make you aware of your incompetence (Anand Van Zelderen)

Have you ever compared your work performance to a colleague’s? It’s a daily habit for most of us, and can often have a positive impact. It could be a source of motivation: “Did Tom just receive a promotion? Perhaps if I work a bit harder, I’ll be next!” It could also provide you with a sense of reassurance: “Most of my team members just received a ton of criticism, but my bosses had nothing negative to say about me. I must be doing really well!”

Comparing your performance to that of your colleagues, however, can become a detriment when your performance pales in comparison to that of your peers: “I have been working at this company far longer than Sara, but for some reason she received her second raise and I haven’t even had one.” Would it be better for your boss to tell you why Sara got another raise and you are still waiting for your first? Or would it be better for your supervisor to keep the situation a secret?

Talent management

We examined the impact of interpersonal comparisons within an organization that uses talent management. Talent management is a common practice within organizations. It involves the identification of key positions that contribute to the organization’s sustainable competitive advantage. The aim of talent management is to fill these key positions with the most high-performing and high-potential employees.

Considering the competitive climate of organizations, under which organizations frequently succumb and go bankrupt, it should not be surprising that roughly 65 per cent of companies worldwide have a talent management program in place. Typically, these programs include one to 10 per cent of the company’s employees, who receive extra training and responsibilities, thereby ensuring that the organization stays innovative, profitable, and in the end, survives.

Secrecy or transparency?

But this separation between “talent” and “non-talent” staff raises a lot of controversy. Managers are increasingly concerned about providing equal opportunities to all employees, and fear the negative reactions from those that may be left out of these “elitist” talent programs.

In our research, which includes conversations with talent managers, we have observed that to manage this conflict, supervisors either opt for larger talent pools or keep their talent management practices a secret. In line with the first approach, many talent managers increase the number of employees identified as “talent” to minimize potentially negative reactions from employees who are actually part of the “non-talent” group. Some talent managers take a different approach and opt to keep their talent practices a complete secret. Yet while secrecy would allow companies to make “unpopular” decisions and avoid potentially negative reactions from employees, transparency is always portrayed as the more desirable communication strategy.

After all, many researchers have found that a lack of transparency is associated with feelings of nepotism, unjustified business practices and a general lack of trust in management and the organization. Without engaging in a politico-ethical debate as to whether secrecy regarding talent management is justifiable or not, we asked the question: What is the actual impact of being aware or unaware of one’s own talent status?

Feelings of envy can slow us down

Our research revealed that employees are more likely to develop feelings like envy and reduced self-esteem when they were not selected to be part of the 30 per cent top performers in comparison to when they were excluded from the top one per cent top performers in their organization.

A likely explanation is that individuals subconsciously utilize various self-defence mechanisms when confronted with peers that outperform them. More specifically, for very exclusive talent management programs — those programs where the likelihood to be identified as talent is below the five per cent level —employees can more easily convince themselves that one must be an exceptional “genius” in order to be eligible for such a program. It should come as no surprise that nearly everyone can accept not being a “genius” as long as they believe that their performance is above average.

We also found that feelings of envy were at their absolute lowest and feelings of self-esteem were at their highest when employees were aware of the existence of a talent management program as well as the percentage of employees included in such a program, but they didn’t know whether they were identified as being part of the talent pool themselves. In other words, ignorance seems to be bliss when it comes to knowing about one’s talent status. When we combined our findings about the benefits of not knowing whether employees are identified as talent with people’s strong desire for transparency, we reached a conundrum.

Complicating things even further, our research also indicated that nearly 80 per cent of employees had a very high desire to be considered a talent. This is despite the fact that talent management typically caters to the top 10 per cent, if not less. This provides us with another challenge: How can you openly communicate who is a talent without negatively affecting the “non-talents”?

Make everyone believe they are a talent

Even though it is considered somewhat controversial to do so, we recommend that organizations keep a lid on their talent management practices. Employees systematically overestimate their own competencies and performance. Making employees aware of their actual (low) performance can result in them retaliating, which will ultimately be harmful to both the company and the employee. Instead, we suggest organizations openly communicate about the existence of a talent management program. They can share the percentage of employees considered to be part of the talent pool, without specifying whether individual employees have acquired “talent status.”

Furthermore, previous studies have found that people who believe that they are identified as a talent perform more admirably at their work to prove they are worthy. We also know that a majority of employees misidentify themselves as a talent within organizations in which talent management practices are kept a secret. In essence this implies that a majority of the employees might increase their work efforts when their organization introduces a talent management program where the acquired status remains a secret.

Ethical considerations

By now some of you, if not all of you, may be thinking: “Isn’t it callous or even inhumane to leave people in the dark like this?” But what harm is truly done? If telling the truth hurts so much that it reduces people’s feelings of self-esteem, aren’t we then preserving their well-being and motivation to come to work by keeping some things a secret from them? And at the same time, organizations can still benefit from all the perks that talent management provides. Without effective talent management, companies hardly stand a fight chance against their competitors, leaving its employees without an income. That is not a more favourable situation either.

We ask you to consider the following: When you are confronted with a peer struggling in some activity, do you tell them they are simply not good enough, or do you tell them a “white lie” to make them feel better? We all know that confronting people with their (current) lack of competence may result in them losing hope and giving up. Yet with the help of a little encouragement, people will likely continue to invest energy in order to improve.

Through secrecy, the “non-talents” will have a higher level of motivation than they would if they were fully informed. This ignorance actually makes it more likely that they will become more competent over time, and eventually end up being identified as actual talents.

It’s a clear win-win situation.

 

 
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 Yannick Griep is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary, Canada and affiliated to Stockholm University, Sweden. He received his PhD from Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2016 and has held visiting positions at the University of Toronto (Department of Management) and Carnegie Mellon University (Heinz College). His primary research interests focus on psychological contract breaches and how such breaches influences employee responses, including counterproductive responses and incivility spirals. He is also interested in the temporal dynamics associated with psychological contract breaches and how these dynamics influence employees’ propensity to engage in dysfunctional behaviour.   Yannick has published his work in leading journals such as the  Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Journal of Vocational Behavior, European Journal of Personality,  and  Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.  He is an editor for the  Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, and PlosOne. 

Yannick Griep is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary, Canada and affiliated to Stockholm University, Sweden. He received his PhD from Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2016 and has held visiting positions at the University of Toronto (Department of Management) and Carnegie Mellon University (Heinz College). His primary research interests focus on psychological contract breaches and how such breaches influences employee responses, including counterproductive responses and incivility spirals. He is also interested in the temporal dynamics associated with psychological contract breaches and how these dynamics influence employees’ propensity to engage in dysfunctional behaviour. 

Yannick has published his work in leading journals such as the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Journal of Vocational Behavior, European Journal of Personality, and Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. He is an editor for the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, and PlosOne. 

This is why everyone steals office supplies from work (Yannick Griep)

Have you ever taken office supplies home? Stole some pens and paper from your employer for your kids’ arts and crafts class? Used the office printer to print personal concert tickets? In a recent anonymous survey by Papermate as part of the launch of a new pen, 100 per cent of office workers admitted to have stolen a pen at work. Other academic researchers have reported that up to 75 per cent of employees admitted to stealing office supplies in the past year. The damage in economic terms caused by these “petty theft” behaviours have been valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually, may be responsible for roughly 35 per cent of an organization’s inventory shrinkage annually, and an average of 1.4 per cent of its total revenues. So if these behaviours are so harmful to our economy, why do we engage in them?

When you start a new job, your employer tends to make a series of promises to you with regards to your employment that are not necessarily part of your written contract. Imagine that your employer promised you “flexible working hours” and a “collegial work environment.” By making these promises, your employer has created a set of expectations. These expectations form the basis of what we call a psychological contract. As long as your employer keeps up his/her part of the deal, you will be a happy, committed and loyal employee. The only imperfection to this situation is that it rarely exists. We know that over time, employers and employees’ perceptions of what was promised may start to drift apart.

Broken promises

In reality a lot of people will perceive that their employer is deviating from his/her original promises. Indeed, about 55 per cent of employees report that their employer broke promises within the first two years of employment, and 65 per cent of employees have experienced a broken promise within the last year. More recently, researchers have found that employees experience broken promises at a weekly and even daily rate. At this point you are probably thinking: “So if they break their promises so often, they must at least apologize for them, right?” Sadly enough, a series of recent findings has indicated that employers hardly ever seem to notice that they did something wrong. As a consequence, they only try to justify or rectify their actions about six per cent to 37 per cent of the times. It therefore seems that employers break promises rather frequently, but they do not seem to acknowledge their wrongdoing or intervene to offer a solution.

If you wrong us, shall we not be vengeful?

Because these promises are such a central part of your employment agreement, you feel that when your employer breaks them, you can take what is “rightfully” yours. Employees who experience broken promises tend to experience a series of very intense negative emotions such as anger, frustration and outrage, which in turn will lead to a higher desire to dominate, retaliate and get even with the employer. Researchers found that this effect was most profound among those who were excellent at their jobs and expected to be treated fairly, meaning that an organization’s best employees are most likely to be “vengeful” in the face of broken promises. 

Some studies have also demonstrated that some people seem to enjoy behaving vengefully, especially when they are in a higher status role and when they feel more dominant. So when we add one and one together, we notice that the combination of “a desire to retaliate” and “enjoying enacting vengeful” leads to a positive reinforcement of this behaviour. As a consequence, employees are far more likely to be vengeful in the future when they are confronted with a broken promise because they mainly experienced positive consequences of their negative behaviour.

Getting even is short-lived

Does this mean that I am advocating for you to behave vengefully when your employer broke one or more promises to you? Of course not. Allow me to explain using the acronym BRAIN: Benefits, Risks, Alternatives, Information and Nothing.

First of all, when you experience a broken promise, take a step back and think about the potential benefits of being vengeful in light of the risks associated with stealing from your employer. While it might feel sweet to get even with your employer who broke his/her promise to you, we know that the hedonic high of “getting even” is short- lived. In fact, it’s highly likely that you will soon feel guilty about your bad behaviour. You also run the risk of getting caught and potentially losing your job. So ask yourself the question: “Is it truly worth it?” Instead think about the alternatives! As I already mentioned, your employer is often unaware of the fact that he/she broke a promise to you. However, studies also found that you can change the dynamic if you speak up in a respectful manner. Tell your employer which promise he or she broke and how it affects your functioning and ultimately the organization’s performance. Employers often respond well to this type of dialogue — at least in 52 per cent to 66 per cent of the cases — and will try to make things right by apologizing or offering a compensation.

However, before you do anything make sure you have all the information you need. Ask yourself questions such as:

  1. “Is this broken promise beyond my employer’s control?”
  2. “Did colleagues experience the same broken promise?”
  3. “Is this the first time that something like this happened to me?”

The more information you have, the better you can judge what to do in this case: Letting this one slide, speaking up, asking for a compensation, etc. Recent findings suggest that you are more likely to trigger a reaction, such as getting an apology or a remedy, when you can demonstrate to your employer that he/she purposefully broke his/her promise. Because by doing so, you can demonstrate that they have control over the situation and thus can correct their wrongful behaviour. Moreover, you are more likely to get an apology or a remedy if you can involve other people who experienced a similar broken promise; the power is in larger numbers. Finally, and before you do anything, ask yourself: “Is it truly worth it?” Maybe sometimes doing nothing is the best thing you can do in the face of a broken promise. I am not saying that you should not speak up when witnessing or experiencing injustices in the workplace, instead I am suggesting you pick your battles.

By deciding which aspects of your employment agreement are non-negotiable to you and which aspects are nice to have but not need to have, you can protect yourself from having to deal with every broken promise.

My advice is to use your BRAIN when being confronted with a broken promise in your workplace and know that you can speak up to get an apology or remedy instead of sticking your fingers in the supply closet.

 
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 Joanna Sosnowska is a PhD student at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Department of Work and Organizational Psychology. Her research focuses on dynamic approach to personality. In her work, she develops Personality Dynamics Model; a novel theoretical framework that captures individual differences in the temporal dynamics of behaviour, affect, and cognition. Following a first successful application of the dynamic approach to individual differences to experience sampling data on emotional arousal and work vigour, she continues using the model to predict various work-related outcomes, such as performance, emotional exhaustion, and work engagement. Joanna’s research has been published in  Personality and Individual Differences,  and in the  Handbook of Personality Dynamics and Processes.  Joanna holds an MSc in Occupational Psychology at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom.

Joanna Sosnowska is a PhD student at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Department of Work and Organizational Psychology. Her research focuses on dynamic approach to personality. In her work, she develops Personality Dynamics Model; a novel theoretical framework that captures individual differences in the temporal dynamics of behaviour, affect, and cognition. Following a first successful application of the dynamic approach to individual differences to experience sampling data on emotional arousal and work vigour, she continues using the model to predict various work-related outcomes, such as performance, emotional exhaustion, and work engagement. Joanna’s research has been published in Personality and Individual Differences, and in the Handbook of Personality Dynamics and Processes. Joanna holds an MSc in Occupational Psychology at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom.

Unboxing personality – dynamic approach to individual differences (Joanna Sosnowska)

People at work differ from each other in many different ways. Some are organized, some are not. Some are very social and outgoing, some are not. To make sense out of those differences, we label them as personality traits, which are often linked with work behaviours. For example, we expect organized people to perform well, or those who are very social to thrive in group projects. Yet, our behaviour changes, depending on the situation, context, people we are surrounded by, and looking at general tendencies, such as being organized or outgoing, is not sufficient to understand the complexity of work life. Even if someone is highly organized on average, it does not mean they are very organized all the time. You may also meet two people who, on average, are equally outgoing, yet, one of them finds social events tiring after a while and needs time to re-charge. Acknowledging those dynamic changes is essential to understand people at work and capture the complexity of our lives.

 

Therefore, in my work, I focus on the dynamics and changes in our behaviours. Instead of boxing people according to their personality traits (i.e., extroverts vs. introverts), I look into the patterns of their behaviours, which can tell us more than simply looking at their general tendencies. In my research, I use several ways to describe those dynamic patterns: I look at the extent of the changes in behaviours, seeing that there are people who tend to behave very consistently, but there are also people who display wide range of different behaviours. For example, someone who is moderately organized, yet consistent in their behaviour, might perform better than someone who is also moderately organized on average, but acts either very organized or very disorganized, depending on the situation. I also look at how fast the changes in behaviour occur – for example, if a person tends to act very emotionally stable, but due to external circumstances they snap at their colleague, how long will it take them to return to their typical, emotionally stable behaviour.

 

This is particularly important in work psychology, where we tend to focus on ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Yet, work life is more complex than that, and a more individualistic approach is essential to create working environment where employees can thrive and fulfill their potential. My research on dynamics of personality aims to shed a new perspective on personality at work and discover all the features that we have not looked at before.