Why Does Paranoia Arise in the Workplace?

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Barbara C. Lopes of the Universidade de Coimbra, Caroline Kamau of Birkbeck College, and Rusi Jaspal of De Montfort University. They recently published an article in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies entitled “Coping With Perceived Abusive Supervision: The Role of Paranoia,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they recount the motivations and innovations of this research.


What motivated you to pursue this research?

Work is an important part of most people’s lives – after all, we spent most of our lives at work and what happens at work can affect us profoundly. We wanted to understand what causes negative cognitions (e.g., paranoia) and maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., workplace deviance) in the workplace. In his 2001 study, Kramer discussed the corporate ethos of neoliberal societies and its potential contribution to paranoia among workers – essentially in order for survival in a cut-throat workplace environment. Yet, there hadn’t been any empirical research that investigated why paranoia arises in the workplace. Our research aimed to fill this gap. Unfortunately, paranoia has been perceived as being a taboo in society for two major reasons: a) paranoia was then considered to be a sign of madness; b) an empirical focus on paranoia could call into question the corporate ethos of organizations – put simply, the increasingly cut-throat workplace environment faced by employees. We hypothesized that paranoia was provoked by the organizational culture itself. Our study shows that paranoid beliefs (i.e. ideas of a conspiracy, ideas of being controlled by external forces and unjustified doubts about the loyalty of others) are quite common and can be shaped by the environmental contexts. This research enables us to inform managers and practitioners about how to intervene effectively at work.

Were there any specific external eventspolitical, social, or economicthat influenced your decision to pursue this research?

The current climate of fear, distrust and insecurity in Western societies associated with the economic crisis has led to a political discourse of increasing control and use of security measures. This has also shaped the workplace environment. The corporate ethos in organizations can challenge workers’ wellbeing and the increasingly common practice of ‘micromanagement’ can lead to increased incidence of paranoia in workers. This can ultimately affect not only their work performance but also their wellbeing. In spite of the political discourse of the last decade positioning employment as the remedy for social, psychological and economic problems, our study set out to show that the workplace itself can induce problems if not managed effectively. Work that is considered to be low paid and insecure and workplace environments that present threats for workers (e.g., abuse and bullying from colleagues and managers) can contribute to the incidence of serious psychiatric problems.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Ours is the first mixed-methods research to show that an abusive workplace environment can provoke paranoid cognitions that then lead to poor wellbeing and workplace deviance in workers. Paranoia can have social underpinnings. Our research also shows that the perception of supervisory and organizational support in the workplace buffers the negative psychological effects of an abusive workplace environment. Our research provides insight into causation but also presents the tools for improving wellbeing in workers. Organizations can improve workers’ wellbeing and their organizational outcomes by improving the organizational culture and by providing tailored psychological support.


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Stand Up Against Workplace Abuse

The impacts of workplace abuse, harassment, and bullying are well documented (see our recent post on the topic for relevant research). In addition to those who are the direct target of abuse, however, there are those who witness such injustices in the workplace. A new article in Business & Society asks if and when employees will stand up for their fellow workers, and how their actions make a difference:

BAS_v50_72ppiRGB_150pixWThis article presents the work of Dr. Manuela Priesemuth. This dissertation examines what happens when employees witness supervisory abuse in the workplace. In particular, it explores whether—and when—employees will respond to witnessing supervisory abuse by engaging in prosocial actions aimed at benefitting the target of abuse. Below, the author discusses the notion of abusive supervision, theoretical perspectives of work on third- party observers, and the conditions under which the author believes third- party observers of abuse are more inclined to engage in positive behavior toward victims; that is, it is argued that specific individual characteristics (moral courage of the observer), relational characteristics (close ties between the observer and target), and organizational characteristics trigger prosocial reactions in observers. Finally, the reflection commentary provides insights about the research journey in which the author participated.

Click here to read “Stand Up and Speak Up: Employees’ Prosocial Reactions to Observed Abusive Supervision,” published by Manuela Priesemuth of Wilfrid Laurier University in Business & Society, and keep up with the latest research from the journal by clicking here.

Is Your Supervisor Abusive?

When bosses humiliate, yell at, or otherwise bully subordinates, the consequences are unavoidable: abusive supervision can cause serious problems that extend from the individual to the organization as a whole. But when employees perceive that they are being abused, is it always the case, or can other factors color their perception?

Mark Martinko of the University of Queensland recently joined Ken Thompson on the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies podcast to discuss his article, “The Relationships Between Attribution Styles, LMX, and Perceptions of Abusive Supervision,” co-authored by David Sikora of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Paul Harvey of the University of New Hampshire and published in the November 2012 issue of JLOS. Click here to play or download the podcast interview or subscribe on iTunes by following this link.

Dr. Mark Martinko
Florida State University

Mark J. Martinko (Ph.D.) recently joined the faculty of the University of Queensland. He is a Professor Emeritus at Florida State University where he was the Bank of America Professor of Management. He teaches in the areas of leadership, organizational behavior, philosophy of science, and attribution theory. His research focuses on attribution theory which he has applied to the areas of motivation, leadership, impression management, whistleblowing, emotions, organizational deviance, abusive supervision, and entitlement. He is a past president of the Southern Management Association and former Division Chair of the Managerial and Organizational Cognition Division of the Academy of Management. Currently he is the Dean of the Fellows of the Southern Management Association.

Dr. Ken Thompson
DePaul University

Ken Thompson, Ph.D., is professor and the former chair of management at DePaul University, where he has been on staff since 1986. He has co-authored four books, contributed to six others, and has been published in a number of journals including the Academy of Management Executive, Organizational Dynamics, Journal of Social Psychology, Human Relations, and the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, where he is senior editor. Ken is a member of the National Academy of Management. Most recently, he was chair of the Management Education and Development Division and served on the governance board of the Organizational Behavior Division. Ken has also been active in various local and regional positions, including president and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Midwest Academy of Management.