After my recent article on toxic workplace, I got a ton of feedback from my inbox from individuals wanting to know if their personal behavior can be deemed as toxic. “I am not a morning person, one had mentioned, so I am not very chatty in the morning. So, I have noticed that when I am ready to talk to people in the afternoon, everyone avoids me.” “Am I toxic?” she proceeded to ask? The second message was from a CEO of a well renowned company. “I am an introvert – we all know introverts and their unique giftings, so I already knew where this one was going. He hardly takes time to talk to his staff, as he prefers his own company and keeps everyone at a safe distant. He prefers to communicate via email – it’s safe – and hardly answers calls. As a matter of fact, he hired a people specialist to handle his team and their needs and addresses his team during their quarterly meetings. Have I been setting the stage for a toxic environment without my knowledge? Came his next question. 

It has been amazing doing the toxic workplace series, and the feedback, comments and questions have been eye opening even for me. You can get the first article here, and the second article here. This week we are talking about counterproductive work behaviors (CWB) and how when they go unchecked they lead to a toxic workplace environment. I know by now, you maybe feeling overwhelmed, and wondering when it gets better, but to get to a solution, you need to identify all the red flags then deal with them decisively.

Counterproductive work behaviors  (CWB)  are behaviors that are intended to harm the organization and its stakeholders. The most common CWB typology distinguishes between CWB targeted at the organization and CWB targeted at the individuals. (Robinson and Bennett, 1995). Spector et al. (2006) proposed a more refined taxonomy consisting of five dimensions: abuse, production deviance, sabotage, theft, and withdrawal. Due to their nature (CWB are behaviors most likely performed without observers), CWB are primarily assessed using self-reports. Alternative sources for the assessment of CWB include coworker reports (Fox et al., 2007) or objective indicators retrieved from organizational records (e.g., Ilie et al., 2012). In short counterproductive behavior in the workplace can take many forms, from difficult personalities that damage team cohesion to employee theft that undermines your organizational financial well being.

Whereas you cannot eliminate counterproductive behavior entirely, you can try and minimize the adverse effects it has to the organization and to the individual alike. This can be done by monitoring workers and putting protocols in place that have consequences if not adhered to. It is also important that during this time you use positive reinforcement to encourage helpful behaviors such as high attendance and cooperation because in the end , even though we are dealing with CWB, we need to ensure we maintain a non toxic environment while doing it.

Another typology used to identify and classify CWB in the workplace is one by Robinson and Bennett (1995), and uses the following four categories

  1. Production deviance – e.g tardiness or goldbricking
  1. Property deviance – e.g theft or sabotage of equipment
  1. Political deviance – e.g gossiping or favoritism
  1. Personal aggression – e.g sexual harassment and workplace bullying. 

Please note that CWBs do not include unethical or illegal behaviors that contribute to an organisation’s goals, such as an investment banker using insider trading to increase the bank’s profit – this would form part of unethical pro-organisational behaviour,  CWB comes in various forms and can be intentional or unintentional. In some cases, activity that may seem counterproductive actually helps boost morale and achieve goals in a timely manner. Other times, behavior such as chatting with colleagues or tending to outside events reduces the productivity of an entire team and is not something to be endorsed by the company. To take measures that keep CWB from getting out of hand, it is important to understand what causes CWB and what can be done to keep it in check. CWB has been broken down into different dimensions of a multifaceted problem that hinders a company’s growth.

Consequences of CWB

Consequences have been observed at several levels. In a recent study conducted by Krings, F., & Bollmann, G. (2011). Managing counterproductive work behaviors. In G. Palazzo & M. Wentland (Eds.), Responsible Management Practices for the 21st Century (pp. 151-159). Paris: Pearson, consequences have been observed at several levels. For starters, like in an exam room, with a lot of tension, the room for error is very high, and so it is, with CWB, when they threaten the well being and its stakeholders.

Victims of workplace aggression, develop low job satisfaction, which eventually leads to a downward spiral of low work commitment, high turnover intentions, and high rates of absenteeism. They also experience a significant drop in health-related outcomes like emotional exhaustion, psychological distress, depressive symptoms, or low physical well-being. Interestingly, victims of CWB are also more likely to engage in CWB themselves. These reactions are generally stronger if the aggressive acts come from somebody within the organization (e.g., the supervisor or a co-worker) than from somebody outside of the organization (e.g., a client)

Secondly, CWB engender costs for organizations, both directly and indirectly. Indirect costs are caused through negative outcomes of CWB victims (for example, through high absence rates) or through reputation loss. Other costs are direct. For instance, in the US retail industry, employee theft makes up almost half of total thefts. Similarly, in the fast food industry, CWB have been shown to explain parts of restaurant operating profits and to lead to a significant decrease in customer satisfaction. Some research suggests that the (negative) impact of CWB rates on organizational performance is stronger than the (positive) impact of employee positive behavior rates.

Finally, CWB have a series of more subtle consequences. For example, managers seem to be strongly (negatively) influenced by CWB when judging their employees’ performance. Employee CWB even have a greater impact on the way managers evaluate employee performance than employee voluntary, prosocial

How to Reduce CWBs

If you are in a position of management, counterproductive workplace behaviors can become a hefty problem, as you may well know, possibly through experience or by hearing other stories. If you are in a position of influence the following guidelines can help you improve your organisation significantly.

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