Economic downturn? Keep on collaborating

Published on the 11/01/2018 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

New research indicates that recessionary thinking has all the hallmarks of a self-fulfilling prophecy…

 Zero-sum thinking means we’re less inclined to help our workmates in times of economic downturn, says a new report published in the Academy of Management Journal.

The report, entitled Economic Downturns Undermine Workplace Helping by Promoting a Zero-Sum Construal of Success, took data from 60,000 respondents surveyed over 51 countries and across 17 years, then conducted two separate experiments to see if perceptions of poor economic prospects changed the way employees interacted with one another.

The researchers, associate professor of organisational behaviour and human resources Marko Pitesa and Nina Sirola of Singapore Management University, found that professionals who had just read an article describing a declining economy were less likely to offer advice to a colleague than peers who had read an optimistic news article – even when offering that advice would cost them nothing.

The researchers posed as the marketing department of a business school, recruiting over 100 freelance marketing and sales professionals to (ostensibly) evaluate the work of a hypothetical intern. Long story short, although not eligible for the same job as the intern, freelancers who felt negatively about the state of the economy where less likely to offer helpful advice as part of their evaluation than their more optimistic counterparts.

Essentially, the researchers found that cues indicating tough economic times changed the way employees interacted with their colleagues, and became less willing to collaborate and cooperate with their peers.

The researchers hypothesize that a poorly performing economy (or even just the perception of one) coupled with”zero-sum” thinking – the idea that the success of individuals exhausted a “limited pool of successful outcomes” – makes employees less inclined to help each other.

“This research uncovers a curious irrational psychological flaw that makes people respond to news of economic slowdowns in a way that aggravate the very economic problems that prompted the reaction,” said researcher Pitesa.

“My co-author and I believe that the findings have broad implications for managers, and are particularly relevant in the current dynamics and unpredictable global economic climate.”

“The threat of layoffs, for example, will naturally turn employees’ concerns towards their own job prospects,” said Sirola. “Our studies, however, modelled situations where participants could help others at no apparent cost to themselves. That they withheld help anyway indicates a phenomenon more closely resembling the illogic of panic selling or bank runs than rational self-interest.”

We already know that helping behaviour and business performance are positively correlated. So given that workplace cohesion seems to reach its lowest point right when companies need it most, just how can managers of preserve a collaborative and cooperative culture during tough time (or perception of such)?

“Managers should stress joint goals in order to refute the notion that success can be doled out only on an individual basis,” advised Sirola.

“Needless to say, it helps if you have a more collective-minded corporate culture from the start. That way, you can simply emphasise existing values, rather than having to establish new ones and make them credible.”

Read the full text of Economic Downturns Undermine Workplace Helping by Promoting a Zero-Sum Construal of Success.

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