Dark Side of Employee Engagement

Photo credit: iStockphoto/dinachi

Employees being “fully there” is a tremendous concern for today’s CHROs. 

With a workforce sitting at home and facing a multitude of distractions, it is hard to keep them focused. While some employees thrive in remote working environments, there are others who cannot distance themselves from family matters and personal innuendos. 

Finding the balance is a struggle, and the solution for many CHROs is to increase employee engagement. But too much of a good thing can be bad and employee engagement is no different. 

A recent study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), titled It's Mine! Psychological Ownership of One's Job Explains Positive and Negative Workplace Outcomes of Job Engagement, argues that sometimes, strong engagement can do more harm than good. 

The ill effects include employees becoming more territorial, sharing less information or behaving unethically.

The psychology of job ownership

The study, which Kenneth Law, Professor of Department of Management and Associate Dean (Research) at CUHK Business School conducted, examined the potential costs, rather than the benefits of strong employee engagement. 

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

The study theorized that when employees are highly engaged in their jobs, they treat it as part of their personal identity — what psychologists call the “extended self.”

On the positive side, this psychological ownership spurs on-the-job performance, proactive behavior, and to go above and beyond job requirements. CHROs understand this as organizational citizenship behavior.

However, the ownership can also drive resentment when employees feel their job "space" is being infringed. It leads to territorial behaviors and knowledge hiding which can be detrimental for both employees and the organization. A familiar example is a sales representative not sharing product and customer information, know-how, and skills to promote sales with colleagues.

The study notes that job ownership can also drive unfair practices, including discrediting others' performance and purposely excluding others in a work group. The latter is what psychologists call a pro-job unethical behavior.

Employees’ mindset and outlook matters in employee engagement. When aspirations and desirable outcomes drive employees — called approach motivation — they focus on benefits related to their job ownership. It improves job performance, makes them more proactive and increases their organizational citizenship behaviors.

However, employees who avoid distressing problems or undesirable outcomes — also called the avoidance motivation mindset — will fear losing their job ownership and react undesirably “to protect what they perceive to be part of their personal possessions.”

Manage engagement

Prof. Law believes this research has important and far-reaching implications for the modern workplace. He adds that while employee engagement will always have more advantages to an organization, you need to manage carefully. 

"Our findings are cautionary reminders that engaged employees may generate negative workplace behaviors," says Prof. Law, adding that managers should at least be aware of this possibility and address it. 

The study suggests one way is to foster a high-trust environment to promote the perception that employees respect each other's ownership of their respective jobs. Another 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 organizational objectives, rather than on the benefits they personally derive from their jobs," Prof. Law says.

Managers should also look out for employees with an avoidance mindset. To counter this, Prof. Law suggests that managers should add policies and procedures that discourage negative outcomes. Having training programs, supplemented by personal coaching, can also help.

"Our results will make it easier to predict which individuals are more likely to generate positive or negative work outcomes among employees with high job engagement and job based psychological ownership," Prof. Law says.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/dinachi