The dark side of job engagement

Source: HBR

Source: HBR

For many years it was believed that completely immersing yourself into a job would inevitably lead to professional success. Not so much. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, being too invested in your job can actually hinder one’s success by negatively affecting the way a person behaves in a work environment

Individuals who are overly engaged in their job can often exhibit territorial patterns, knowledge hiding and unethical behavior. In the short term, these traits may help you outcompete your coworkers, but in the long run it may do irreversible damage to your personal brand and career success.

The dark side of job engagement

Those high in job engagement tend to be physically, cognitively, and emotionally consumed by their job. As such, they view their job as an extension of themselves. This is exhibited through job-based psychological ownership - the intense feeling an individual has when they view their job as a personal possession. 

In the past, researchers have focused solely on the positive outcomes of job engagement, such as task performance, proactive work behavior and organizational citizenship behavior. The current study aimed to shine a light on the dark side of being overly engaged in one’s job. The researchers did so by looking specifically at work motivation.

source: information-age

source: information-age

Consider the following. Let’s say you’re handed a difficult project by a senior manager in you company. You can react in one of two ways. You can be approach-oriented and frame the task as an opportunity for challenge and growth. Or you can be avoidance-oriented and frame the task as a potential for abject failure.

If you view this task as a chance to make headway in your career, you are likely approach motivated. Those geared towards approach motivation tend to strive for success and view situations in terms of challenges. Conversely, avoidance motivated individuals are more concerned with preventing failure and avoiding personal threats. 

Going back to the current study, the researchers predicted that job engagement would lead to negative outcomes (e.g. unethical behavior), particularly for those high in avoidance motivation. Conversely, those high in approach motivation would be more likely to experience the positive outcomes (e.g. task performance) of job engagement. 

The study & findings 

The researchers had the following hypotheses:    

  • Hypothesis 1: Job based ownership → Job engagement

  • Hypothesis 2: Job-based ownership → positive outcomes of job engagement IF high in approach motivation

  • Hypothesis 3: Job-based ownership → negative outcomes of job engagement IF high in avoidance motivation

In order to test these hypotheses, sale’s representatives in a large pharmaceutical company were recruited to participate in two studies. For measuring the outcome variables, the participants filled out a survey, with response options ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).

  • To begin the first study, the physical, cognitive and emotional dimensions of job engagement were measured with items like “I devote a lot of my energy to my job”.

  • Job-based PO was measured with items like “I feel a very high degree of personal ownership for my job”.

  • In-role performance was measured with items like “this employee asks good questions and listens to find out what a customer wants”. This survey was filled out by the participants supervisor.

  • Proactive work behavior was measured with items like “this employee anticipates issues or needs a customer might have and proactively develops solutions”. This survey was also filled out by the participants supervisor.

  • Territorial behavior was measured with items like “let’s others know that the ‘customer information and relationships’ have been claimed”.

  • Lastly, knowledge hiding was measured with items like “when your coworkers request knowledge of customer information and relationships from you, you pretend that you don’t know what s/he is talking about”.

 For the second study, the researchers recruited employees who worked at an electronics company. Each set of constructs were assessed once again, using the same scales, in addition to in-role performance, proactive work behavior, and organizational citizenship behavior.

 The results of these two studies provided support for the hypotheses. The relationship between job engagement and the various positive and negative outcomes was explained by changes in job-based psychological ownership. In particular, highly engaged employees with avoidance motivation styles are more likely to display negative workplace behavior such as territorial behavior, knowledge hiding and unethical behavior. 

 Those who are avoidance motivated tend to be focused on what they can lose, rather than gain. This fear of loss can drive individuals to perform unethical behavior in order to maintain ownership over their job. Oppositely, those who are approach motivated are focused on what can be gained, and therefore they don’t exhibit the same degree of territorial behavior.

In sum, being approach motivated allows you to experience the positive outcomes of job engagement and job-based ownership. In contrast, being avoidance motivated means you’ll likely experience the positive and negative outcomes.

The results applied

Be approach motivated and promotion focused

As previously mentioned, being approach motivated can allow you to invest into your job without the negative side effects of engagement. Being approach motivated has also been shown to enhance creativity and elicit positive emotions. Try the following tips to be more approach motivated: 

  • Write down what motivates you: 

    • Start by creating a T chart 

    • On the left side, list all potential job-related losses (e.g. missing out on a promotion)

    • It’s helpful to be aware of these potential losses but it’s important that you remind yourself that this isn’t where your attention should be directed. 

    • On the right side, list all potential job-related gains (e.g. social prestige, a raise)

    • The key is to focus on what’s written here. Devoting your energy to potential gains will put you on the track to becoming a more approach motivated person. 

  • Be promotion focused: Individuals who are promotion focused like to dream big. They aren’t afraid to take risks, and much like those who are approach motivated, they are driven by the thought of success. Here are a few strategies to be more promotion focused:

    • Find a role model: Admiring an inspiring person who has achieved a goal that you are striving for can be an effective source of personal motivation. 

    • Frame your goals: The language that you use to describe your goals can affect how well you achieve them. For example, if you are tasked with answering five questions on an assignment, telling yourself “I must get at least three rigtht” is more effective than telling yourself “I can’t get more than two wrong”.

source: videoblocks

source: videoblocks

Monitor your behavior

Knowing what kind of negative outcomes can occur from job engagement may allow you to effectively combat them. Here are a few ways to monitor your behavior:

  • Confide in a trustworthy co-worker: Inform them about your concerns. Let them know that you’d appreciate if they would come speak to you if they noticed any unethical behavior on your part. 

  • Hold monthly updates: No one knows you better than you do, so once a month take a moment to evaluate your own behavior. The goal here is to be honest with yourself and work towards improvement. 

  • Within the last month, write down any time you engaged in deviant behavior (e.g. sabotaged a co-worker, refused to share essential knowledge)

Adopt a growth mindset

Those who have a growth mindset don’t solely rely on natural talent. Rather, they believe that their traits and abilities can be developed through hard work. Developing a growth mindset can allow you to actively work against the negative outcomes of job engagement. Try the following tips to develop a growth mindset:

  • Praise the process: A study showed that focusing on the process of learning, rather than the final outcome of a task, led to more persistence, more enjoyment and enhanced performance on future tasks. 

  • Be future-oriented: Those who are future oriented tend to be more resilient in the face of adversity, allowing them to persist and hone their skills. 

    • On a piece of paper, write down where you see yourself in five years. Allow this to be a long-term goal that drives you every day. 

    • Another tip for being future-oriented: In times when you feel discouraged, tell yourself “not yet.”