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.

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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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