What Is Counterproductive Work Behavior?

what is counterproductive work behavior

Bob is a disgruntled employee. He doesn’t like his job or how he is treated at work. Last week his boss gave him extra work to do and then insulted him at lunch. In response the next day Bob purposely mixed up two orders and left work an hour early. Bob engaged in counterproductive work behavior, a common occurrence in many workplaces. But what is counterproductive work behavior and why did Bob act the way he did?

What Is Counterproductive Work Behavior?

Counterproductive work behavior or CWB is destructive behavior at work that harms organizations or people in the workplace. There are many CWBs that employees engage in, some directed at the employer and some at specific individuals. This can include organizational insiders (e.g., coworkers or subordinates) or outsides (customers, patients, or members of the public). CWB consists of five major forms including:

  • Abuse is mistreating others at work, either physically or verbally. The most common abusive behaviors are comments that are demeaning, insulting, or overly critical. Telling someone that they are stupid would be an example. Racial or sexual harassment would also be forms of abuse. These various types of abusive behaviors can be part of a pattern of workplace bullying that might target one or more employees.
  • Production Deviance is purposely performing the job incorrectly. This is what Bob did when he mixed up two orders to spite his boss. Production deviance is different from honest mistakes or poor performance because it is intentional. Refusal to follow safety rules (wearing safety gear) to prevent accidents or customer service policies (returning customer phone calls) to maintain good customer relationships would be examples.
  • Sabotage is purposely damaging or defacing company property or reputation. Cases of physical sabotage I have come across are driving a vehicle with no motor oil until the engine was damaged and dropping tools into machinery to cause damage. Reputational damage can occur by bad mouthing the company to others through word of mouth or on social media.
  • Theft is taking the employer’s property without permission. Retail companies can lose more products to employee theft than customer shoplifting. A customer might pilfer an item or two by putting them in a pocket or under a jacket. An employee who has access might steal a carload of products at night when the store is closed.
  • Withdrawal means not working the hours an employee should be working. Coming to work late, leaving early (as Bob did) or calling in sick when not ill are all examples.

What Drives CWB?

CWB arises from a combination of factors. First, some people are more likely to engage in such acts than others. It might be because they are quick to anger or because they do not generally feel guilt about doing things that are wrong. Others might be impulsive and have a difficult time controlling themselves. Second, CWB generally occurs in response to events at work. They are most likely to be responses to three conditions.

  • Stressful Event. CWB is tied to stress at work. There are many conditions at work that can be stressful from excessive workloads to being mistreated by the boss (Bob experienced both). A workplace that is overly stressful risks high levels of CWBs from employees, although stress alone is not enough.
  • Negative Emotion. Stress at work can lead to negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, or sadness. When stressful events lead to negative feelings, controlling CWB impulses can become difficult. Sometimes the employee might response to the source of the stress directly. Bob might have talked back to the supervisor when he felt insulted. Often doing so can be risky for the person, as Bob’s boss might have fired him for insubordination. So people will typically displace their anger as Bob did, and find a safe target where their CWB either won’t be seen, or cannot be traced back to them. But merely experiencing negative emotions at work does not always lead to CWB. There is one more important element.
  • Control at Work. CWB is most likely when people feel they have no control over their work. When stressful things occur over which people have control, their likely response is to either ignore the event, or take constructive steps to overcome the stressor. For example, when Bob’s boss gave him an extra assignment, if Bob had control he could have either declined the assignment (“no thank you”) or devised a plan to complete it. That plan might have included asking the boss to assign an assistant or shifting another assignment of less importance to someone else. If Bob had no choice but to accept the assignment and had little latitude to make adjustments to how and when it would get done, all the ingredients would be in place for Bob to strike out with CWB.

What Can Be Done to Combat CWB?

CWB is a common occurrence in the workplace that can be hidden from the view of management. Sometimes bad things just seem to happen and are attributed to bad luck–that piece of equipment must have been defective. In other workplaces there can be a lot of conflict among employees that are attributed to personality clashes. Sometimes though, these events might be CWB.

There are several steps that can be taken to reduce the occurrence of CWB. They all involve the careful management of human resources.

  • Reduce Unnecessary Stress. Stress is part of working life and cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed. It is important for managers to avoid creating undue stress on their employees. This means making expectations clear, being fair in actions that affect employees, making sure that employees have the resources needed to perform the job, and being flexible so that employees can juggle competing demands.
  • Empower Employees. Part of being flexible is allowing employees a reasonable amount of control over work. Arbitrary and rigid procedures and rules can lead to production deviance as employees rebel over what they see as unfair and unnecessary. This does not mean that organizations should avoid structure. Rather it means that rules should be reasonable, and the rationale explained. Employees should also be allowed to make input that might improve policies and procedures that might have unintended negative effects on employee stress.
  • Support Employees. Employees who are under stress need the support of their supervisors in order to cope productively. It is important to provide support in dealing with the emotional toll of stress and it is important to provide assistance in dealing with the demands of the job. To be most effective, however, support needs to be the right kind for the situation, and it must be wanted. The best approach to support is to show concern and offer it, rather than to make assumptions and impose it on people.
  • Build a Psychologically Safe Climate. An organizational climate consists of policies and practices that encourage desired and discourage undesired behaviors. To reduce CWB building a psychological safety climate is important. This type of climate reflects a workplace where people feel safe from being mistreated or ridiculed for being who they are and sharing their points of view. It begins with managers who model psychological safety behavior by being inclusive and showing concern and respect for everyone.

Avoiding CWB is really about good leadership in dealing with employees. Leaders who minimize stress, build good climates, and put employee well-being front and center won’t have to ask what is counterproductive work behavior.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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