Ideas for Leaders #553

When Non-Average Performers Are Targeted by Bullies

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Key Concept

As workplace incivility, aggression and harassment continues to worry business leaders and managers, new research explores some of the ways both high performers and poor performers may be inadvertently inspiring their victimization. 

Idea Summary

Employee victimization continues to be a problem in the workplace. New research reveals how through their job performance victims themselves may be unwittingly motivating their tormentors.

In any group, there will be different levels of performance: some employees will perform at a high level, some at a low level, and some at an average level. The research shows that both high performers and poor performers face some type of aggression, but not in the same way. Attacking high performers is risky: they are more visible because of their success, and managers don’t want a poor work environment to encourage their departure. Low performers are less visible — and may have less protection from their managers. As a result, high performers are attacked through more covert actions, such as withholding information or giving people the silent treatment; low performers are attacked through overt actions: threats, swearing, yelling, and so forth.

Although the manner of attack is different, the reason for the aggressive behaviour toward high and low performers is the same. In both cases, the victims violate the norms of tacitly agreed-upon acceptable performance levels, which is average. Poor performers are victimized because they are seen as jeopardizing the success of the group. High performers, on the other hand, are targeted because they are seen as making other members of the group look bad, which could lead to problems such as increased pressure from bosses or a lowering of their status.

Different situations, according to the research, can increase or decrease the importance of this performance-outside-the-norm factor. One of those situations is group performance polarization, which refers to a group in which there is one set of high performers, and one set of poor performers, and very few people in between. Group performance polarization sparks aggressive (covert) behaviours toward high performers and aggressive (overt) behaviours toward poor performers.

Another situation involves equity sensitivity. High equity sensitivity refers to the generosity and benevolence of employees. Thus, benevolent high performers might try to help out others who may be having problems; benevolent low performers recognize their shortcomings but try to help the group as best they can. Low equity sensitivity refers to employees who feel entitled — who act selfishly and manipulate others for their own gains. While the researchers had anticipated that benevolent employees would be less targeted than entitled employees, the study revealed a truth that was a bit more complicated. Overt aggression was only reduced against benevolent high performers. As for poor performers, whether they were benevolent or entitled made no difference: they were still harassed as before. And entitled high performers were victimized at a higher rate than entitled low performers.

Finally, the research focused on subsequent job performance. The results showed that covert aggression did not impact a victim’s subsequent performance; overt aggression, on the other hand, did have a negative impact.

The research consisted of questionnaires, surveys and tests sent over a three-month period to 576 employees — divided into 62 groups of employees, each led by one supervisor — in a financial services firm’s field office in a large U.S. city. 

Business Application

The research reveals, in general, that job performance beyond the curve — either higher than average or lower than average — is going to motivate average performers to retaliate against their peers. The effect is exacerbated in polarized groups and somewhat mitigated for benevolent high performers. This research offers some avenues of action to reduce workplace aggression.

Because direct comparison of performance levels among group members motivates some employees to victimize their low- or high-performing peers, managers should take steps to soften the differences among employee performance levels:

  • Use a variety of performance metrics — informal and formal feedback, group and individual evaluations, and 360-degree feedback — to mitigate performance differences, and show a variety of ways individuals contribute to the success of the group.
  • Separate high performers into different peer groups to avoid comparisons.
  • Nurture low performers to improve their contributions, and at the same time avoid retribution.
  • Reduce victimization by staffing teams with benevolent individuals.
  • Pay close attention to what is happening with entitled team members, who may be targets of attack.

Managers and supervisors have the responsibility to be proactive in assuring a positive safe working environment with positive interpersonal relationships. 

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