A new study finds dysfunction can be highly contagious in the workplace, and leaders who behave badly can change the norms of what is expected and permissible and sometimes pollute the entire work ecosystem.

Nichelle Carpenter, an associate professor of human resource management in the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, said a review of 70 studies involving more than 7,000 workplace units and 391,000 employees found multiple factors can influence the behavior of entire teams and even departments in a company.

She said in many workplaces leaders are essentially the role models for what is considered appropriate behavior and if a leader is abusive, “over time it can become something that more and more workers are engaging in.”

The impact of a nasty boss

She said if a boss or supervisor is abusive, nasty or negative it can cause widespread dysfunctional interpersonal behaviors in employees.

“That could mean people engaging in bullying behaviors towards fellow teammates but it also results in dysfunctional behaviors towards the organization, so like theft, sabotage, increased absenteeism,” she said.

She noted it can also cause workplace aggression, verbal or physical, and in some instances employees misusing confidential information.

Getty Stock
Getty Stock

She said when people feel they are not treated fairly, “then it’s more likely workers are going to take out some of those frustrations on either each other or on the organization itself.”

Productivity drops

She said as these negative behaviors become more prevalent there is usually an accompanying decrease in productivity and a drop in customer satisfaction.

“Maybe people take longer to respond to customer questions or concerns, people might actually engage in some of these dysfunctional behaviors towards customers,” she said.

Carpenter pointed out in these kinds of situations there may also be a higher employee turnover rate because many people will not feel comfortable working in this type of toxic environment.

The study also found organizations that follow best practices for staffing, training and performance management are a lot less likely to have widespread dysfunction.

She said traditionally when these kinds of problems arise the focus has been on a single individual but the study suggests the entire context of a workplace situation needs to be looked at and considered.

The study was published in the Journal of Management.

Another Rutgers study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior examines how adopting a “bottom line” mentality can short-circuit work teams.

That study found when the leader of a team focuses too narrowly on a single goal such as opening new customer accounts, generating more marketing leads or increasing sales revenue, everything else goes out the window and productivity is stifled.

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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