Times are getting tougher – and so is the news that managers increasingly are going to have to deliver. And when they have to axe employees, announce that raises have been cut or curtail bonuses, most management theories would advise that the best approach is to stick to a script and check your emotions at the door.
Traditionally, research has found that performers of unpleasant tasks disengage and distance themselves from their own emotions, and from the experience of the target.
However, a recent study in the Academy of Management Journal suggests this traditional view is largely in error.
Surveying 111 individuals whose jobs commonly require them to perform necessary evils, the study’s authors found that more often than not they became emotionally engaged in the task at hand and that in almost three cases out of four carried it out with sensitivity.
“The results reported here challenge conventional views of how individuals respond psychologically when causing harm to another human being,” write co-authors Joshua D. Margolis of Harvard Business School and Andrew Molinsky of Brandeis University.
“Rather than disengage from the experience of performing a task that imposes harm and entails great stress,” the authors observe, “many individuals in our study remain attuned to their emotions, to the experience of the target, and to their own humanity, even when causing harm to another human being. Furthermore, rather than simply following a mandated protocol or organizationally supplied script, we found that many performers produce customized acts of interpersonal sensitivity, independent of — and occasionally in direct conflict with — mandated organizational routines, norms, and protocols.”
In another surprise, Margolis and Molinsky found that the 53 women in their sample were only slightly more likely than the 58 men to become emotionally engaged, women doing so 57% of the time compared to 51% for men.
Surprisingly, too, the researchers found that veteran workers, with five or more years in their current job or a similar one, were more likely to be emotionally engaged than less experienced colleagues. As they put it, “The pattern that might be expected for level of experience — that over time, veterans become desensitized to doing necessary evils and thus are more likely to disengage — also did not emerge.”
The considerable amount of emotional engagement the authors uncover in their sample leads them to wonder about a common hazard of human-service work — burnout. Is it too much engagement that leads to burnout, as widely believed, or too little? “Although psychological engagement may contribute to burnout for some people,” they write, “our findings suggest that engagement and personalization — especially when combined in an integrated response style — may provide a means of sustaining and expressing all facets of the self, perhaps forestalling burnout.”
Margolis, J. D. & Molinsky, A. (2008). Navigating the Bind of Necessary Evils: Psychological Engagement and the Production of Interpersonally Sensitive Behavior. The Academy of Management Journal, 51, 847 – 872.