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Workplace studies

graphic
iconToward a happier workforce: A checklist from Ohio State's Fisher College of Business on addressing cynicism in your shop.
  VOTING YOUR PAYCHECK
Careerists' choice: Do you think a Gore administration or a Bush administration is going to be better for you and others in your line of work? We'd like to know your opinion and share it with our readers.
 

Mirror on management

October 31, 2000
Web posted at: 5:41 p.m. EST (2241 GMT)


In this story:

On the floor

Spillover effect

Profitable pats on the back


RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow


(CNN) -- "Management's theory is that employee cynicism is nothing but a bunch of rotten apples."

But John P. Wanous -- professor of management and human resources at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University -- says his new research data indicates that "It's management that spoiled the fruit."

Wanous is a co-author of the study, which has been published in the Sage Publications journal Group & Organization Management. Wanous worked with two colleagues. One is his wife, Arnon Reichers, an associate professor of management and human resources. The other is James Austin, a research specialist at Ohio State.

graphic
John Wanous, Ph.D.  

Their conclusion, based on their study, is that highly cynical workers are no more likely to start with negative attitudes than colleagues who display more upbeat demeanors.

Employees only become cynical, Wanous says, when company management repeatedly bumbles and stumbles.

"Our results are so consistent with all the 'Dilbert' stuff," he says. "It's clueless bosses and pissed-off employees, and the bosses just don't get it."

That might be a little harsh, says Jed Friend, a Tampa, Florida-based industrial psychologist. Friend, while not responding specifically to the Ohio State study, says "I think management can contribute to cynicism, but for them to, on a wholesale basis, be entirely responsible for an attitude is incredibly short-sighted. I would argue that management could be no more than 50-percent wrong."

graphic

On the floor

Wanous and his cohorts spent three years studying more than 1,000 workers at a Midwestern auto-parts manufacturer, not named in the study. Early on in the project, the researchers distributed questionnaires to 1,405 employees to gauge their general outlook on life, Wanous says. This was a means of measuring how much negativity the respondents might display, regardless of their work environment.

  QUICK VOTE
Untitled
graphic "Quick Vote" -- as in while your bosses or subordinates aren't looking: Is workplace cynicism usually the fault of management or employees?

Management. When the profit motive takes over, employee concerns are trampled.
The blame goes both ways. Workers are too negative and managers are too callous.
Employees. Management can never make them happy, they're insatiable.
View Results

  ADDRESSING CYNICISM
If the mood is mean, there are ways to go at it. Here are some reflections from the Ohio State research on getting the 'tude up where you work.
 

This first questionnaire asked workers questions about situations at work that could affect cynicism levels -- how much change had occurred at the plant, how well a supervisor did at keeping people informed.

In a second survey 21 months later, 1,032 employees were asked if they agreed with statements including "Plans for future improvement will not amount to much" and "The people responsible for making improvements don't know enough about what they are doing."

Wanous says, "We found that personality traits did little in explaining which employees were highly cynical and which employees were not."

Not surprisingly, the most cynical workers were less apt to be committed to the company and more likely to file a labor grievance, Wanous says.

"After all, that's just one way of sort of acting out, getting back at management," he says.

The study data showed that about 38 percent of the workers who scored high on cynicism had filed a grievance against the company in the previous two years, compared to 21 percent of those low in cynicism.

graphic

Spillover effect

Hourly employees who were union members at the plant did not equate doing a good job with being paid more.

"That's logical because there is no connection," Wanous says. "They're paid by the hour, not by performance. It's a (union-) negotiated wage."

graphic
Jed Friend, Ph.D., industrial psychologist  

Friend, the industrial psychologist, says unionized employees could skew a survey of cynicism upward. "Who knows, reading between the lines, what the union is attempting to do? Union stewards' attitudes are 'I'm entitled to everything I can claw or get out of management.' It's very rare that you see a union that's cooperative with management. That doesn't mean management isn't guilty. But I'd certainly want to see that research in depth."

What most surprised the Ohio State researchers was the attitude of some employees in the salaried group -- workers who might qualify for merit pay, bonuses and promotions.

"The most cynical people in the salaried group were also unmotivated because they saw less of a connection between doing a good job and getting more money," Wanous says. "The cynicism that we studied, which was all about organizational change and inertia vs. progress, spilled over into their beliefs in doing a good job and being rewarded for it. They're cynical in one area, and it poisoned their perceptions in another area."

graphic

Profitable pats on the back

Companies can combat employee cynicism to some extent by doing a better job of touting worker achievements, no matter how modest, Wanous says.

"I think people are hesitant to do that," he says. "It's like a golfer bragging about a 4-inch putt. But if they say nothing, people will assume nothing is happening."

"Repeat to the employees over and over again the old Chinese saying about the journey of 1,000 miles beginning with a step, one step at a time."
— John Wanous, Ph.D., Ohio State University

Using another sports analogy, Wanous adds, "I think managers tend to say, 'I bunted and got onto first base. That's not something to cheer about.' Everyone wants to hit doubles and home runs."

Managers tread a fine line, Wanous concedes, by talking up small accomplishments. That too can cause employees to become cynical if they think it's self-serving corporate propaganda.

  CHANGING WAYS
Changes have to be made from time to time in any organization. But change can contribute to negativism in a staff. Can you name three questions to ask about changing conditions that might lead to worker cynicism? Ohio State's John Wanous can.
 

"Repeat to the employees over and over again the old Chinese saying about the journey of 1,000 miles beginning with a step, one step at a time," he says. By doing so, employees' expectations aren't for a "home run" and they may become less cynical, he says.

Wanous says he doesn't expect his findings to be a hit with managers. "I'd be the kind of person walking in and sitting around with a bunch of executives and handing each one a mirror and saying, 'All right, look in the mirror -- that's the problem.'"

graphic

 

RELATED STORIES:
Ph.D. at the counter
October 25, 2000
'Job satisfaction': Oxymoron?
October 24, 2000
Whistle while you work
September 21, 2000
Know your salary worth
June 9, 2000
Job hopping for fun, profit
February 10, 2000
When it's time to quit
January 28,2000

RELATED SITES:
Jed Friend Ph.D. Inc.
Ohio State University, Fisher College of Business, John P. Wanous
Sage Publications (Group & Organization Management)

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