Psychological Science at Work

The indispensable research blog on the science of the modern workplace, covering everything from leadership and management to the behavioral, social, and cognitive dynamics behind performance and achievement.

Workplace Diversity Initiatives May Mask Discrimination

Photo of three business people in a meetingDiversity management has become a billion dollar industry, with mission statements and training programs aiming to help organizations foster multi-ethnic harmony and equal opportunity for their employees.

But in many cases, diversity initiatives end up being nothing more than legal protections. Studies show they don’t objectively curb workplace bias and diversify the staff. But plaintiffs in employment discrimination lawsuits face more skepticism and criticism, and are less likely to win their cases, if the defendant company has a diversity program in place.

A new study investigated how diversity initiatives might affect the perception of fairness in the workplace and how such programs might unintentionally lead people to legitimize unfair treatment.

Psychological scientists Tessa Dover and Brenda Major of the University of California, Santa Barbara looked at how a group of 135 Latino and White college…


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Abusive Supervision – Who’s to Blame?

pointIt seems self-evident that abusive supervision encourages deviant behavior among subordinates. Boss yells at employee, and employee can’t shout back without the risk of getting fired or suspended. So employee vents anger and frustration on the organization — stealing company property or abusing an expense account.

But could it be that such deviant behaviors are what cause bosses to treat employees abusively, rather than the other way around? A newly published behavioral study suggests that possibility.

An international team of researchers theorized that abusive supervision will lead to organizational deviance, and vice versa. The team’s data came from 150 survey responses involving people from a variety of occupations and industries.

On two occasions, 20 months apart, the participants provided information on the type of treatment they received from their bosses and the frequency with which they deviated from organizational policies or norms.


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Mixed Motives May Mess Up Motivation

Many professionals are driven by a pure passion for their work, finding reward in simply doing a good job, delivering a great service, or producing a great product. For these people, their career is not just an occupation, but a calling.

Others are driven primarily by salary, acclaim, or the possibility of a promotion, with the work mainly serving as a means to an end.

This is a photo of people running up steps.So what about people who are motivated by both the internal or “intrinsic”— the personal fulfillment or interest in the work — and the “extrinsic” or instrumental, such as wealth, status, and power?

Logic would suggest that two motives are better than one — that both internal and instrumental aims can make you more tenacious, effective, and successful. But social science indicates the opposite; instrumental motives can actually undermine…


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You Look More Powerful When You Avoid Talking Details, Study Shows

This is a picture of a woman speaking.People may see you as powerful based not only on your job title or your income, but on the very words you use in conversation and speeches.

That’s the conclusion from a new study on how power is signaled in interpersonal communications. Building on studies showing that people in positions of power use more abstract language (such as interpretive or visionary descriptions) than those with less clout, a trio of psychological researchers explored how people who use abstract language are perceived by others.

Over seven experiments, Cheryl J. Wakslak and Albert Han of University of Southern California and Pamela K. Smith of University of California, San Diego, found that study participants perceived individuals as more powerful when they used abstract language as opposed to concrete (detailed or specific) words.

Across the experiments, the researchers presented…


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401(k) Contributors May Take Fewer Sick Days, Study Suggests

This is a photo of a woman sick in bed.Employees who frequently call in sick can disrupt work flow and hamper productivity. It’s not easy to determine whether new hires will end up being chronic absentees. But a new study reveals one possible harbinger — their lack of participation in the company retirement plan.

What’s the connection between absenteeism and retirement saving?

Researchers Timothy Gubler and Lamar Pierce of Washington University in St. Louis believe some of the same psychological factors that drive our health behaviors also influence our financial decision-making.

They hypothesized that people who are driven by immediate rather than future rewards may not only save less for retirement, but may also neglect their health. Along the way, they discovered a link between retirement savings and work absenteeism.

To demonstrate their theory, Gubler and Pierce analyzed data from an industrial…


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