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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Did You Hear? When Rumors Are Used As Revenge At Work

scandal-1113908-mAccording to a 2008 study done by the publishers of the Myers-Briggs Assessment and the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, 85% of employees at all levels are involved in workplace conflict to some degree. In the United States alone, time spent dealing with this conflict equates to an average of 2.8 hours weekly, or approximately $359 billion in paid hours. This conflict can take many forms, including that of workplace bullying and revenge. A recent study published in Group and Organization Management entitled “Rumor as Revenge in the Workplace” looks at rumors as retaliatory tool in an organizational setting.

The abstract:

Two studies that examined the role of revenge in rumor transmission and involved working adults as participants are reported. Study 1 used hypothetical 06GOM10_Covers.inddscenarios to manipulate organizational treatment of an employee and the believability of a rumor. Participants had higher intention to transmit a harmful rumor when the organization broke job-related promises (i.e., breached the psychological contract) and revenge motivation mediated this relationship. Believability of the rumor had no effect. Study 2 used a field survey methodology and, controlling for social desirability, replicated the results for self- and peer-reported rumor transmission behavior. Study 2 also showed that participants’ belief in negative reciprocity norm strengthened the relationship between breach and revenge motivation.

Click here to read “Rumor as Revenge in the Workplace” for free from Group and Organization Management. Want to be notified about research like this from Group and Organization Management? Click here to sign up for e-alerts!

Job Stress and Incivility

Sara J. Roberts, Lisa L. Scherer and Casey J. Bowyer, all of University of Nebraska, published “Job Stress and Incivility: What Role Does Psychological Capital Play?” in the May 2011 issue of the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. Sara Roberts provided some background on the recent article, with additional thoughts from Lisa Scherer and Casey Bowyer.

Who is the target audience for this article?

The target audience consists of: 1) researchers interested in learning more about the constructs of stress, Psychological Capital, and incivility, 2) employees who have been the perpetrator or victim of workplace incivility, and 3) organizational decision makers, from HR Vice Presidents to CEOs, who have the power to design selection and training programs based on positive qualities such as Psychological Capital.

What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

We have long been interested in how to enhance the positive aspects of organizational cultures in order to maximize people’s productivity, health and well-being. Incivility, although inherently mild, has been shown to have an extremely negative impact on an organization’s culture. Our goal is to identify the antecedents of incivility in order to provide practitioners with evidence-based solutions to the problem. The construct of Psychological Capital is an intriguing overarching construct comprised of many positive psychology traits and states that can be used in selection decisions and training interventions to reduce the occurrence of incivility in the workplace.

Were there findings that were surprising to you?

Our hypotheses were based on theoretical and empirical evidence. Therefore, it is not surprising that they were supported.

How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

We can only hope that researchers will continue to identify and cultivate strengths and virtues in people at work as we move forward in addressing problems caused by deviant or counterproductive behavior. The industrial-organizational psychology and management literature is doing a great job identifying problems, but we have not been as prolific in publishing research on solutions to those problems. We also hope that practitioners will begin to implement changes in their selection processes and training programs in order to increase employee strengths and virtues within their company.

How does this study fit into your body of work/line of research?

We have noticed that many people are unhappy at work not because of a lack of fit between their skill sets and job requirements, but because of how negative or toxic their work culture was. Employees complain about the daily stress they feel from misbehavior and poor manners of supervisors, colleagues, subordinates and customers. This led us into the area of deviant workplace behavior focusing specifically on the antecedents of these behaviors as well as exploring variables that hinder or reduce the occurrence of dark side behaviors at work.

How did your paper change during the review process?

The reviewers helped us polish the manuscript; however, the content of our study remained the same during the review process.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you could go back and do this study again?

We believe that this study served its purpose as an initial foray into the area. In the future, we would like to assess the specific organizational stressors that lead to incivility (e.g. organizational change, work overload) as well as pursue how best to train employees to enhance their Psychological Capital.

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