nuggets from the Society’s new Occupational Digest

Arrogant employees are judged poorer at their jobs, even by themselves
In the November/December 2010 issue of Human Performance

Most of us can recount work experiences involving people we would call arrogant. However, there’s been little research pinning arrogance down, measuring it, or discovering its consequences for the workplace. A recent paper introduces a way to measure it and investigates what sets the arrogant individual apart.

Russell Johnson and colleagues first set out their definition: arrogance consists of those behaviours that exaggerate your importance and disparage others. This distinguishes it from narcissism which, although related, includes thoughts and attitudes that don’t affect others, such as the physical self-admiration of Narcissus himself.

The authors gathered experiences of arrogant behaviour from employee focus groups to create the Workplace Arrogance Scale (WARS) which they validated through a series of studies. An example item is ‘Shoots down other people’s ideas in public’. They were then able to turn to the consequences of arrogance, firstly showing that arrogant individuals report fewer organisational citizenship behaviours – acting beyond your job to help others or the wider organisation. They then turned to the biggie: how good are arrogant individuals at their jobs?

To answer this, the researchers recruited 82 participants from a number of companies. They provided a range of measures including the WARS, overall task performance and specific performance areas – customers, relationships and development – on which each participant was rated by themselves and by nominated individuals in their organisation. (Getting these other-perspectives was possible as the WARS looks at behaviours rather than hidden thoughts.)

Far from being the most able, arrogant workers were judged weaker in almost every way by one rating group or other. Some of the findings are less surprising: people who think their managers are arrogant grade them as poorer across the board, which may be influenced by a reverse halo effect (overgeneralising a negative feature) or using the rating process to punish those they resent. Some are more compelling: individuals who rate themselves more arrogant rate themselves weaker at relationships and overall performance, with their supervisors and direct reports agreeing.

Another study looked at cognitive ability within another 172 working individuals who completed the Wesman Classification Test, a well-established measure of verbal and numerical reasoning. Weaker performance in either area was associated with higher ratings of arrogance.

The studies also gathered ratings of more internal features, finding that arrogant individuals report lower self-esteem and greater work-related strain, and are more likely to fixate on minimising mistakes rather than focusing on success.

However, as all studies (bar the cognitive ability scores) used subjective ratings, we can’t discount the possibility that it is perceived performance that is weaker for the arrogant; perhaps they alienate others and, ostracised, join their critics in discounting themselves. Further research using objective measures (e.g. sales data) could address this. For now we should pay more attention to arrogance in the workplace: it appears the bigheads don’t have the capabilities to match.

Does it pay to weigh?
In the January issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology

Weight matters to boxers, jockeys and gymnasts, but for the rest of us it’s not high on our radar during work hours. However, increasing evidence suggests that consideration of body size affects how employees are evaluated in the workplace, and even their pay.

While much previous research on the ‘wage penalty’ of obesity has been in the economics literature, Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable take a psychological approach. They acknowledge that the stereotyping literature provides some plausible psychological mechanisms: for instance, people who are obese are judged as less agreeable, less emotionally stable, less extraverted, and less conscientious than their lighter peers, despite this being untrue.

However, they point out that how these stereotypes come in to play may be different for men and women. Cultivation theory – the idea that what we see as desirable is shaped by media images – suggests that we may be relaxed about larger men, because being robust and solid is an image depicted more attractively than that of being thin. In contrast, ‘average media woman’ weighs much less than average real woman. Therefore, what we deem as overweight may be wildly different across the sexes.

Judge and Cable took these insights to two data sets taken from census studies: a German one of around 11,000 people, and 8000 in a US sample involving data from 15 reporting occasions, taken every second year. In both cases, participants were from a variety of jobs, and a ream of control variables were accounted for – from height to having kids to self-esteem.  The US data had the additional advantage of allowing within-individual analysis: by looking at how losses and gains of weight affect a person’s pay, we avoid the issues of whether both weight and financial destiny were determined by a birth variable that wasn’t accounted for.

In line with hypotheses, the study found that for women the penalty of being heavier was twice as great when moving from very thin to average weight, compared to a move from average to heavy. The researchers see this as cultivation theory in action: women are punished if they deviate from the media ideal of skinniness, and even average weight represents betrayal. Any further deviations are almost academic. Meanwhile for men, the opposite was found: more weight actually means more pay, until a certain point where the weight finally begins to exact a cost, but one much smaller than that of being underweight.

The findings generalised across both sample groups: the relationship does not appear to be specific to a single national culture. The authors conclude by acknowledging the troubling nature of their finding, but suggest that ‘it may be possible and competitively advantageous for employers to try and recognize – and then reduce – the role that weight plays in their employment decisions’.

Are your work colleagues impulsive?
In the March issue of the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology

How would you feel about having someone impulsive join your team? It's possible you'd be concerned: all reckless decisions and blurting out sensitive information, they'll hardly help. How about someone high in emotional intelligence (EI)? A better prospect, surely: mindful of others and pretty decent all round.

In a recent study, Doan Winkel of Illinois State University and his collaborators found a different picture. Impulsivity, the degree to which we act spontaneously, was found to lead to more organisational citizenship behaviours (OCBs), discretionary behaviours that promote the organisation. Meanwhile emotional intelligence, as measured using an ability–based assessment, was associated with deviant behaviours that harm the organisation. These findings are based on 234 participants who rated themselves on a series of questionnaire instruments; the participants came from a range of industries, suggesting the effect may be fairly generalisable.

The findings actually aren't so surprising. EI is a useful resource that helps develop networks, figure out hierarchy, and influence others. But the capacity for action that this provides can be put to many uses. The emotionally intelligent may figure out that they can get away with self-interested behaviours, such as falsifying receipts or calculating when a well-timed put-down will serve their interests. By rating items on these and other deviant behaviours, participants with higher EI reported more of these activities.

How can we make sense of the impulsivity finding? Well, OCBs are discretionary and can take time away from assigned responsibilities. ‘In an ideal world, sure I'd keep on top of organisational developments and help out my struggling colleagues, but now, with this deadline?’ reasons the cautious employee. Meanwhile, the rating data suggests that their impulsive colleagues jump in to help more often, less mindful of downsides to doing the right thing. In a sense, impulsivity reflects a 'can-do' spirit, full of motivational energy to act.

The researchers expected to also find more intuitive effects of impulsivity being associated with deviant behaviours and EI relating to organisational citizenship. Surprisingly, these previously reported effects weren't found here, leading the authors to call for a greater understanding of what is needed for them to arise.

This study is not the first to find these kinds of incongruous effects. There's evidence that optimism and cognitive ability, both sought by employers everywhere, also predict deviant behaviour. These counterintuitive findings are useful; they caution us against viewing individual qualities as forever good or bad, turning organisational people strategy into a game of Top Trumps where we try to collect the 'best'. It's clear instead that a characteristic represents both benefit and risk, is a potential rather than given, and that potential depends on many factors, including the workplace situation itself. 

The material in this section is (for this month) taken from the Society’s new Occupational Digest blog atwww.occdigest.org.uk, and is written by its editor Dr Alex Fradera. Visit the blog for more reports and links, comment and more.

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If the Research Digest in general is passing you by, do take a look at www.researchdigest.org.uk/blog, to see why it was voted ‘best psychology blog’ in the Research Blogging Awards

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