The causes and consequences of thinking there’s an office conspiracy

Businessman eavesdropping on businesswomanBy Alex Fradera

We’re all familiar with gossip in the workplace, both the benign variety – did you know Tom is applying for X-Factor? – as well as more serious talk concerned with perceived injustices, such as the real reason for that recent promotion. When such speculations insinuate a group working together to achieve secret ends, we’re into the realm of conspiracy theory. New research in the British Journal of Psychology suggests that conspiracy theories about the workplace are a thermometer for an employee’s broader feelings about the organisation … including his or her ultimate commitment to it.

It’s already known from past research that people with a conspiratorial mindset can pose problems for organisations because they tend to distrust authority and have a Machiavellian mindset. Building on this, Karen Douglas of the University of Kent and Ana Leite of the University of Roehampton wanted to know if belief specifically in workplace conspiracies has its own unique influence.

They asked 209 working adults recruited online to report how wedded they were to their current organisation, and to rate their conspiracy beliefs: in general conspiracies such as September 11 being an inside job, and in what really goes on in their organisation, rating their agreement with items such as “a small group of people secretly manipulates events”.

Just as prior work has found, participants with a generally conspiratorial mindset were more likely to intend leaving their organisation. But controlling for this tendency, conspiracy beliefs specific to the workplace had a unique association with intent to leave the organisation. Conspiracy believers who considered leaving were also likely to have less emotional commitment towards the organisation, not seeing it as a family worth sticking with, and also had lower job satisfaction.

One way to interpret this is that believing that powerful cliques are playing games indifferent to – or even hostile to – your interests is a powerful turnoff for feeling that your work, or your membership to the organisation, has any meaning. However, as this study can’t establish causality, you could make an alternative argument: that conspiracy theories don’t dampen enthusiasm, it’s simply that people who are bitter and already planning to leave are willing to entertain far-fetched ideas to justify their disenchantment.

To settle this, Douglas and Leite asked 202 more participants (from the same online survey site) to imagine working in an organisation where a conspiracy seemed to be going on, made specific using examples such as a stitch-up for the employee of the year award by a faction in management. Compared to control participants who imagined a conspiracy-free organisation, participants imagining a stitch-up reported that they would be less committed, enjoy their job less, and would be more likely to leave the fictional organisation.

This appears to provide evidence that belief in workplace conspiracies actually causes negative outcomes, but I wish the article provided a summary of the instructions in the two conditions, as on the face of it, they don’t seem ideally matched – after all, regardless of your psychological response to conspiracies, there are good reasons to consider leaving an organisation if you think a PR-disaster might be on the horizon. Nevertheless the study does show that exposure to a conspiracy leads to the same psychological consequences as in the field sample.

In a further study with 119 workers from another online site, Douglas and Leite also found evidence for the kind of workplace that is likely to foster a work-conspiracy mindset. Participants were asked to imagine working for a large consultancy, either a version of it where staff had little autonomy, few chances to benefit, and there was lots of conflict, or a positive version that flipped these qualities. Those in the negative climate condition were much more likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs about the (fictional) workplace, and they showed the same pattern of lower commitment and job satisfaction and a greater readiness to leave. As in broader research on conspiracy theorising, these participants seemed to find bitter solace in secret explanations that could make sense of the lack of control with which they were confronted.

Although this research focuses on the problem end of workplace conspiracy theory, Douglas and Leite point out that there is a flip side: vigilance towards corruption, a willingness to bring power-holders to account, and a desire for transparency are all healthy facets of organisational participation. Things become most corrosive when conspiracies are found where there are none, misdirecting energy and causing breakdowns between echelons who, when working together, could do so much more.

Suspicion in the workplace: Organizational conspiracy theories and work-related outcomes

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

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