In the sporting world, it’s not uncommon for bosses to deliberately insert a degree of insecurity into a player's world, as they believe that players perform better when they are fighting for their next contract.
A recent study from the University of Michigan suggests that this is not something we should be seeking to replicate in the workplace, however. The study found that when we feel insecure about our job, it translates understandably into lower productivity and engagement levels.
In extreme cases, this can even result in damaging behaviors such as theft, fraud, or simply anti-social behaviors against colleagues. Of course, it need not be this way.
“There are a number of things that happen at the top of an organization that cause job insecurity down the line and people, of course, get upset,” the authors say. “Sometimes, under the right conditions, this can lead to moral disengagement. This is a process of mental rationalization that makes it OK to do something we wouldn’t normally do. It’s re-framing an action in a way so that it no longer seems immoral.”
The Final Straw
Poor behavior was particularly likely if job uncertainty was paired with a bad relationship with one's boss and confidence in one's ability to secure attractive employment elsewhere.
When these are in place, it becomes much easier for us to justify immoral behavior to ourselves as it creates an impression that we’re not valued. Thus, the implicit contract we have with our organizations breaks down.
Of course, not all uncertain times result in poor behavior, and there are a number of things organizations can do. Firstly, managers can go out of their way to make employees feel valued. Listening to concerns and showing a general level of empathy can go a long way.
“When people feel they’re being mistreated, they can justify a lot of behaviors,” the authors say. “If you have a good relationship with your boss, even if you might be upset with the organization, it’s a lot harder to do that.”
Managers can also reduce the appeal of external opportunities by reinforcing the value an employee brings to the organization. If people are tempted by a fresh start, it’s a good time to double your efforts to prove that staying is worth their while.
“Good managers know who on their team has good job prospects and those are also usually the people the company really needs,” the authors conclude. “It’s incumbent on you to show them that the grass isn’t always greener.”