David Wilkinson

Author and expert on Ambiguity and Emotional Resilience.

Counter-Productive Behaviours & Learned Helplessness: New Research

Injustice, learnt helplessness and counter-productive work behaviours during organisational change
This is an interesting study from the University of Stavanger which looks at the effect a sense of injustice specifically during organisation change and instances of learned helplessness has on the prevalence of counter-productive workplace behaviours. 

Counter-productive workplace behaviours

Counter-productive workplace behaviours Include things like:
  • Absenteeism
  • Bullying
  • Cyber-loafing
  • Incivility
  • Lateness
  • Production deviance
  • Resistance and resistance to change
  • Sabotage
  • Turnover, the intention to leave and incitement or inducement of others to leave
  • Withdrawal
  • Wilful procrastination
  • Decision deviance
  • Passive aggressive behaviours and other forms of overt and covert aggression.

A sense of injustice

Almost all previous research into counter productive workplace behaviours, has come to the conclusion that it is often a sense of injustice that drives such behaviours. 
The central question the researchers in this study were looking at was; Is this always true? Does a sense of injustice during change always lead to counter-productive workplace behaviours?
The perception of injustice in the workplace comes from both personal experiences of fairness and from the treatment we see others receiving. 
3 Types of Injustice
There are three types of organisational injustice:
  1. Distributive injustice - whether you get the rewards and recognition you believe you should for the work you do, your level of operating (expertise) and to some degree, your educational and intellectual background.
  2. Procedural injustice - This refers to how decisions are made. In particular whether
    1. They are consistent across all people,
    2. How free of bias they are,
    3. Whether the information used to arrive at a decision is accurate,
    4. Whether or not there is a working mechanism to correct an incorrect decision
    5. The decisions comply to ethical and moral standards
    6. That the outcomes or consequences of the decision have been acknowledged.
    7. and whether or not one has any input or control over decisions made. 
  3. Interactional or Interpersonal injustice - This breaks down to two elements:
    1. Whether people feel they have been treated with dignity and respect, and
    2. How honest and correct the information communicated is. 
Anyway what they found was that largely a sense of injustice does often lead to counter-productive workplace behaviours, however in situations where people have got into a place of learned helplessness this isn't always the case.
Learned helplessness
Learned helplessness is where people have:

A. Been in an undesirable environment for a prolonged period of time and 

B. they have given up hope that they can have any effect or influence on the situation and 

C. that they feel they cannot escape from it. 

In such cases people tend to develop passive coping and acquiescence strategies that minimise the their exposure to the effects of environment rather than engaging in counter-productive workplace behaviours or even trying to make things better. 
In effect what this means is that a sense of workplace decisional injustice will most likely result in counter-productive workplace behaviours unless people have moved into leaned helplessness as a reaction to the environment, management practices, decision making processes etc. Then injustice is unlikely to result in counter-productive workplace behaviours, it will most likely result in passive acquiescence. 
Kind of a lose/lose situation I suppose. 
Very few management and leadership development programmes look at the area of organisational justice / injustice, which I personally think is a shame as it drives so much behaviour within our organisations. Just think back to injustices you have had perpetrated on you in the past. They leave scars don't they?
Susan P.C. & Reidar J.M. (2015) Beyond Post-Downsizing Organisational Injustice and Counterproductive Work Behaviours: Antecedents and Consequences of Learnt Helplessness. International Journal of Business and Management; Vol. 10, No. 6; 2015
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