Rationalize or reconsider? How envy and emotional regulation strategies shape unethical contagion

Diverse emotions can influence the decision to act unethically in business, but David Welsh, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship, examined specifically how this can happen and ways to prevent it from occurring.

By Sally J. Clasen

It’s human nature to see others succeed and want the same accomplishments. In life and in relationships. The same is true for the workplace. The desire to get what your coworkers have — hitting sales quotas, getting promotions and bonuses, or some other perceived reward — is normal and often motivates others to step up their job performance for similar recognition.

Yet the path to career achievement isn’t always lined with good intentions. Sometimes employees imitate the bad behaviors of others who’ve gotten ahead via unethical measures to advance their job goals.

What triggers employees to mimic the actions of coworkers who’ve chosen less-than-desirable pursuits for career gain?

Diverse emotions can influence the decision to act unethically in business, but David Welsh , assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship, along with a team of researchers from other universities in the United States and Australia, examined specifically how this can happen, exploring envy as the root of what causes individuals to follow their coworkers’ dishonorable choices and ways to prevent it from occurring.

The analysis helped create an expanded model of unethical social influence based on social cognitive theory that sheds light on the psychological processes and boundary conditions of unethical behavior in organizations.

Results of the research, titled “Rationalize or Reappraise? How Envy and Cognitive Reappraisal Shape Unethical Contagion,” appeared in the February 2020 edition of Wiley’s Personnel Psychology.

A pandemic of unethical proportions

“Envy translates into moral disengagement,” says Welsh of one component of the research’s focus, comparing the experience to the pathology of COVID-19, a virus that spreads quickly and with dangerous abandon.

“Coworkers see bad things and people getting away with it — others taking advantage of a loophole and being rewarded, which creates a sense of envy.”

The benefits observed prompted a string of reactive emotions like hostility, inferiority, resentment, and a perception of subjective injustice — a domino effect of unprincipled behaviors that can lead to unethical activity, according to Welsh.

“Envy triggers individuals to want something others have. It’s inherently a comparison emotion that influences one’s behavior,” he explains.

“People wonder, ‘Why can’t I do the same thing?’ and rationalize and justify the behavior as not being that bad, a mentality that suggests since everyone is doing it and not being punished, it must be the norm in an organization.”

Not all fall prey to on-the-job envy that dissolves into unethical decision-making. Many individuals adhere to a moral compass despite the improper patterns of coworkers.

Reappraising bad behavior

For others, who witness coworkers getting something they want via unscrupulous means, the tendency to walk away is not such an easy task. Particularly when half of employees report observing unethical behaviors at work, which often go unpunished.

How can organizations and management prevent the fallout when employees follow the actions of others engaging in unethical behavior?

To help those who are at risk for being above the law and prone to moral disengagement, Welsh and his colleagues offer a solution to reduce unethical behavior before it spirals out of control in the work setting. “We asked the question, ‘Why is bad behavior happening and then what can we do about it,’ ” says Welsh.

The researchers conducted three trials as part of their study, exploring the role of cognitive reappraisal, an emotional regulation strategy, to mitigate the effects of job envy that can lead to unethical actions.

They surveyed employees in diverse organizations — first at a large manufacturing operation in India and then a midwestern university — using different methodologies to better understand the dynamics of bad behavior and the significance of cognitive reappraisal in reversing unethical conduct via envy.

Welsh and his research colleagues also examined the efficacy of cognitive reappraisal training in a final experimental trial, using an online computerized competition that offered bonus pay to participants who succeeded in controlled scenarios.

As part of the evaluation, the panelists viewed videos that encouraged them to control and recognize their emotions and redirect any potential negative feelings of envy using cognitive reappraisal techniques.

Curing the contagion

The team’s research supports the idea that when moral disengagement is high, employees are more likely to engage in unethical behavior. On the other hand, when cognitive reappraisal is high, the desire for employees to follow the unethical herd is diminished.

The researchers agree that cognitive reappraisal is an important management tool, perhaps one that individuals can learn to cultivate themselves or be taught in new employee training, to help gauge emotions like envy and avoid acting on the feeling when witnessing unethical events.

“Cognitive reappraisal is effective in helping reduce unethical patterns in organizations, which is widespread and costs businesses billions of dollars annually,” says Welsh of the practical business implications the research offers.

Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, and General Motors, to name a few, paid dearly for the price of envy in the workplace — in reputation and profitability.

“You can look at cognitive reappraisal through a COVID-19 virus lens. You have this bad thing — a contagion. What are the steps you take to stop it from expanding within an organization?” he says.

Green with Morality

For both managers and employees, cognitive reappraisal reinforces the premise that individuals can self-monitor social influences such as envy, and prevent their disreputable behavior, despite the advantages it might provide to others. Welsh advises:

If you see bad things occurring, rather than feeling envious, take a moment to stop and reframe what you’ve just witnessed and reflect on how it aligns with your standards.

“Envy is an instinctive reaction. Cognitive reappraisal helps you think through the scenario in more detail and regulate your emotions. It’s a matter of asking, ‘Is this who I am and how should I feel about it?’ It helps you to reinterpret your emotions positively.”

Cognitive self-talk might not get employees a yearly sales bonus or an office upgrade but it can keep them from ultimately being fired or demoted. Or worse, drawing unwanted legal attention to themselves or an organization, large or small, for choosing to rationalize and copy the amoral endeavors of their peers.

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