Research Brief: Is It Safe to be an Out-of-the-Ordinary Performer?

High and low achievers are victimized by the great middle, though the punishment differs widely

WHAT DID THE STUDY LOOK AT?

At work, there is an unspoken agreement that each employee will pull his or her weight on the team – without doing so well that the others look bad by comparison. Applying that logic to employee victimization, researchers looked at whether or not employees’ job performance is related to victimization and how coworkers act out against those who deviate from performance norms. The researchers also tested their idea that employees with higher “equity sensitivity” – those who are more benevolent, tending to give more than they receive – receive less aggression from coworkers.

HOW WAS THE STUDY DESIGNED?

Researchers collected data from 576 employees and their supervisors at three points in time, each a month apart. They asked supervisors to provide employees’ job performance at Time 1 and Time 3, allowing the researchers to map how each individual’s job performance fed into their victimization and how their performance was affected. Individuals’ equity sensitivity was measured at Time 1, which the researchers used to determine whether or not employees’ benevolent tendencies would reduce coworkers’ aggression towards them. Finally, at Time 2, employees reported how frequently they had been targets of victimization in the previous month, and these events were rated for covert and overt aggression.

WHAT DID THE STUDY FIND?

  • The greater the gap in performance between individuals and other employees, the higher the level of overt or covert victimization to which they were subjected.
  • High performers were more likely to experience covert “behind your back” victimization, in the form of withheld information or the silent treatment. Low performers, less popular or able to retaliate, were subjected to more instances of overt “in your face” victimization. They were on the receiving end of threats, profanity, and yelling.
  • High performers who were benevolent (high equity sensitivity) were less likely to experience victimization than those low in benevolence. Low performers, however, continued to be targets of overt victimization regardless of their levels of benevolence, possibly because aggressors perceived fewer risks of repercussion.
  • Overt victimization had an effect on subsequent job performance, with those on the receiving end of overt aggression showing lower job performance after being victimized.

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?

Both high and low performers can be targets of victimization in the workplace when their performance differences are noticed by the group. Aggression by coworkers’ not only drags down victimized employees but also group performance and the organization as a whole.

One saving grace for high performers is high equity sensitivity. Benevolent employees tend to be more sensitive to the differences in performance between them and their teammates; this can help them offset victimization by gaining support in other ways, such as helping others with their work. Poor performers, on the other hand, can end up caught in a downward spiral, in which poor job performance leads to overt victimization, which in turn brings their performance down further.

The researchers suggest that managers consider using performance metrics that mitigate direct comparison, such as formal and informal feedback, group and individual performance evaluations, and 360° feedback.

High performers can be given more challenging work assignments and developmental opportunities, the researchers suggest, and “separated into a different peer group to avoid direct performance comparisons with more poorly performing coworkers.” By contrast, low performers should be nurtured “not only to address poor levels of performance but also to decrease the separation between performers in the work group, thus reducing this polarizing effect.”

When there are both individual and group incentives at play, bolstering team dynamics is essential. By encouraging a shared purpose, establishing psychological safety, and minimizing unnecessary competition, team members develop a sense interdependence and are less likely to victimize outliers.

Title: Is it Better to Be Average? High and Low Performance as Predictors of Employee Victimization

Authors: Jaclyn M. Jensen (DePaul University), Jana L. Raver (Smith School of Business at Queen’s University), Pankaj C. Patel (Ball State University)

Published: Journal of Applied Psychology (vol. 99 no. 2, 2014) 

Kenza Moller

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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