When workers feel helpless, they become paranoid and aggressive

BUFFALO, NY – When employees lack power at work, they can feel vulnerable and paranoid. In turn, this paranoia can lead people to lash out at colleagues or family members and even seek to undermine the success of their organization, according to new research from the University of the Buffalo School of Management.

The study, to appear in Organizational behavior and human decision-making process, is available online now.

“History is filled with examples of individuals with little power being subjugated and objectified, which leads many people to associate low power with vulnerability,” says Min-Hsuan Tu, PhD, assistant professor of organization and of human resources at the UB School of Management. “Here, we demonstrate that when employees think they lack power in their workplace, they can feel threatened and become paranoid.”

This feeling is common, Tu said. For example, consider a junior staff member who closely monitors their work, fearing that they will not be able to defend themselves if another employee takes credit for it. If you’ve ever insisted on why a coworker sent you a terse email or didn’t respond at all, “Doesn’t she like me?” “Is he trying to push me out of this project?” – you have also experienced it.

To test the phenomenon, Tu and his co-authors conducted five studies with more than 2,300 people. Some experiences asked participants to reflect on past work situations and then assess their sense of power, paranoia, and behavior. Another study, conducted over two weeks, looked at employees in a real organization and measured how their feelings of power each day affected their level of paranoia, their work and their home life.

Their results showed that paranoia increased as people felt less empowered at work.

Additionally, paranoid people were more likely to engage in mild forms of aggression, such as being rude or critical of a colleague, complaining about work duties, and deliberately wasting company resources. Some even took their aggression home, getting angry with a family member or spouse.

“Paranoia can cause people to interpret benign interactions – a coworker not saying hello in the hallway – as hostile or offensive,” Tu says. “Even without any interaction, some people may worry that others are talking behind their backs or conspiring against them.”

Researchers, however, found two factors that counteracted feelings of low power: socioeconomic status and workplace culture. People with higher socioeconomic status and those who felt supported by their company and manager were less likely to experience paranoia than others with similar levels of power.

“Feeling helpless and vulnerable is common and often motivated by subtle experiences,” Tu says. “This is why it is especially important for leaders to create a supportive work environment, allocating resources and offering promotions fairly, strengthening supervisor-subordinate relationships, discouraging self-interested behaviors and removing factors of stress at work. ”

Michael Schaerer, assistant professor at Singapore Management University (SMU), led the study, with Trevor Foulk, assistant professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland; Christilene du Plessis, assistant professor, SMU; Tu from the UB School of Management; and Satish Krishnan, Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Kozhikode Management.

The UB School of Management is recognized for its focus on real-world learning, community and economic impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school has also been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes, and US News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides to its graduates. For more information on the UB School of Management, visit mgt.buffalo.edu.


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