Managers advised to consider teambuilding strategies to prevent subversive behavior

To avoid workplace sabotage managers need to keep team members connected and engaged, according to new research from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. In "A Social Context Model of Envy and Social Undermining," which will appear in the Academy of Management Journal, Professors Michelle K. Duffy and Jason D. Shaw of the school's Department of Work and Organizations found envious employees are more likely to undermine peers if they feel disconnected from others.

"The working world typically necessitates that people develop strong connections with co-workers in order to thrive. To stray from this path ultimately puts success at risk, so most suffer from envy in silence," says Duffy, who conducted the study with colleagues from the University of British Columbia, Clemson University, and Georgia State University.

"However, from our research it seems that when someone sees themselves as a lone wolf, they are less inhibited and more likely to lash out."

According to Professor Karl Aquino, a co-author from the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, envy is the fuel and sabotage is most likely to occur when an envious co-worker feels disconnected from others in the workplace.

"The match is not struck unless employees experience what psychologists call 'moral disengagement' - a way of thinking that allows people to rationalize or justify harming others," he adds.

To obtain data, the research team conducted two field studies. They first used a sample of 160 employees from a hospital to test whether a person's lack of identification with colleagues increases their likelihood to act on envy. The employees were asked to complete two separate surveys eight months apart. During the first survey, participants were asked to rate their reactions - positive or negative - to a series of statements regarding envy, affinity with colleagues, and comfort with subversive acts. After eight months, the respondents were surveyed again, this time about their actual undermining activities.

When the results of the surveys were compared, it showed people experiencing feelings of envy were significantly more likely to report committing sabotage when experiencing weak relationships with co-workers. Conversely, envious participants reported low sabotage incident rates when they felt they were more strongly connected to their coworkers.

Incidents of workplace sabotage spread if not addressed by managers

In a second study, the researchers explored how the working environment can influence employees to undermine one another. Taking part in this experiment were 247 business students. Randomly divided into numerous workgroups, the students completed a series of questionnaires throughout the semester. The students were asked to rate their level of envy, connections with their group members, and incidences of sabotage committed by themselves and others.

The findings show that students who reported feelings of envy and low levels of identification with their workgroups were significantly more likely to report committing acts of sabotage when they belonged to groups which reported high rates of sabotage as a whole. The researchers point to this result as an indication that if a workplace seems to be permitting sabotage, those who are inclined toward subversive behavior will be more likely to follow through.

"Our study shows that envy on its own is not necessarily a negative thing in the workplace. However, managers would be well-advised to consider teambuilding strategies to ensure all of their employees are engaged in the group dynamic," adds Duffy, the study's lead author. "It is also important that those in charge don't give incidents of co-worker undermining a free pass, because once it starts the tendency is for it to spread."