Managers must make guilt work for them with unruly staff

Research has found that when employees are made aware of their negative behaviour in the office, they feel guilty, leading to positive attitude towards work and colleagues

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 4:29pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 10:30pm

Have you had a subordinate or peer who’s always late for work, misses meetings or does not carry his share of the work? Despite your reminders, cajoling or even angry demands, things barely improve. The solution – put him on a guilt trip.

Guilt, as it turns out, is a powerful motivator to steer change towards positive behaviour.

When an employee behaves undesirably, tell him exactly what he has done wrong and how it has impacted other co-workers or the company. This produces feelings of guilt, which in turn, elicits behaviour to repair the harm caused. Better future behaviour is then engendered.

To assess the veracity of this, my research colleagues and I conducted a three-phase study. In Phase 1, employees were asked how often they engage in negative behaviours, or what is called counterproductive work behaviour, such as playing a mean prank on someone at work or taking an additional or longer break than is acceptable at the workplace. The extent to which they felt guilty for such behaviour was also measured.

In Phase 2, half of them were given feedback on their behaviour, and the other half were not. For those who engaged in relatively high levels of counterproductive work behaviour and were given feedback, the feedback made it clear that such behaviours were harmful for other employees and for the organisation.

Feelings of guilt as well as intention to engage in positive organisational citizenship behaviours such as assisting others with their duties and offering ideas to improve the functioning of the organisation were recorded for all.

In Phase 3, actual organisational citizenship behaviours of all employees were measured. We found that when people were made aware of their high level of negative behaviour at work and were informed about it, that knowledge of them having violated social norms induced guilt. This guilt, in turn, resulted in positive behaviour to compensate for the counterproductive behaviour.

In other words, they began to display more positive organisational citizenship behaviours.

However, before the guilt can be incited to do its work, the manager must do his part. He must articulate very clearly to the employee not only what has gone wrong but also its impact. If the counterproductive work behaviour were not made known, then the employee would not make the necessary reparation.

It could be perhaps that the employee does not realise that he has committed a counterproductive work behaviour . Or he does not realise that his behaviour or non-performance is causing distress or has such a negative impact on the department.

Take for instance an employee who regularly comes in late for a weekly meeting. The team waits for him as his inputs into the meeting are considered vital. As weeks pass, the rest of the team begins to realise that given his tardiness, the real meeting will not begin till 15 minutes later; they too will start to saunter in late.

Or an employee who does not realise that his usually cryptic emails with no ill intent do not go down well with a colleague, resulting in unnecessary delay in obtaining needed interdepartmental information or support.

The manager will need to sit with the employee and very clearly articulate the behaviour that is not acceptable. This cannot be woolly feedback like, “You’re always late for meetings.”

For the employee to recognise and accept that his behaviour is counterproductive, he needs to hear specific feedback like, “Your coming in late means the other six of us have to wait 15 minutes each

Feelings of guilt as well as intention to engage in positive organisational citizenship behaviours such as assisting others with their duties and offering ideas to improve the functioning of the organisation were recorded for all

Monday morning for you; that works out to a total of one and a half hours in total real time that we could otherwise spend doing work at our desks.” Or, “Your cryptic emails have the effect of shooting commands at her, and do not make her feel her work is appreciated.”

Only if the counterproductive work behaviour and its impact is articulated, can the employee start the process of internalising the guilt, and initiating the reparatory actions.

Our research shows that during this process, two things usually happen. One, he will lessen the undesirable behaviour. For example, he will start to arrive on time for meetings, or he will write less cryptic emails.

Two, he will increase his number of positive behaviours. For example, he may include in his email an empathetic “Noticed you were on sick leave last week, hope you are feeling better today” in the preamble the next time he asks another staff for help.

So here’s a tip if your employee’s behaviour is affecting morale or the performance of the department – do not just sit back and hope he will change, or just take snide barbs at him. You have to tell him exactly what has gone wrong. Then, guilt will do the rest.

Remus Ilies is professor and provost’s chair in the department of management and organisation at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School