When we find our work meaningful and worthwhile, we are more likely to enjoy it, to be more productive, and feel committed to our employers and satisfied with our jobs. For obvious reasons, then, work psychologists have been trying to find out what factors contribute to people finding more meaning in their work.
Top of the list is what they call “task significance”, which in plain English means believing that the work you do is of benefit to others. However, to date, most of the evidence for the importance of task significance has been correlational – workers who see how their work is beneficial to others are more likely to find it meaningful, but that doesn’t mean that task significance is causing the feelings of meaningfulness.
Now Blake Allan at Purdue University has provided some of the first longitudinal evidence that seeing our work as benefiting others really does lead to an increase in our finding it meaningful. “These results are important both for the wellbeing of individual workers and as a potential avenue to increase productivity,” he concludes in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour.
A new analysis of elite tennis performance in the Journal of Economic Psychology is consistent with this account. Based on the outcome of thousands of games played across the four tennis Grand Slams in 2010, the researchers led by Danny Cohen-Zada at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, found that men were adversely affected by high pressure by about twice as much as women. Extrapolating to the world of work, Cohen-Zada and his colleagues said this casts doubt on the argument that the gender pay gap is due to women’s inability to compete under pressure, though they acknowledged there are caveats to this conclusion.
As the first cohort of women leaders began pushing up against the glass ceiling, many hoped it would shatter… but it only cracked. Today fewer than 10 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are led by people from ethnic minority groups and women combined, and although the reasons are manifold, blame has been laid at the feet of the early pioneers themselves.
The accusation is that successful people from underrepresented groups act as gatekeepers, keeping out others to maintain their special status and to identify with the dominant majority (the most famous example being the Queen Bee syndrome where a female boss undermines other women). But new research from the Academy of Management Journal suggests a different and very understandable reason that minority members are cautious to show enthusiasm for increasing diversity – because they know it could spell disaster for their own career if they did.
In the lab, psychologists have shown how generosity propagates and spreads. If someone is kind to us, we tend to “pay it forward” and act more generously to someone else when given the chance. But it’s not clear if these findings are realistic. For example, when we’re juggling priorities on a busy work day, might receiving an act of kindness actually be a nuisance, leaving us feeling indebted to return the favour when we’ve got more important things to do? An uplifting new study in the journal Emotion looks at acts of altruism within a real-life working environment, and shows how kindness really does ripple outwards from a good deed.
If there’s one quality you absolutely want in a leader, it’s surely charisma. Celebrated leaders are invariably associated with this magic word, and evidence suggests charismatic people inspire more trust, commitment, and results from their followers. But across a number of other supposedly virtuous traits, such as political ability or assertiveness (pdf), researchers are starting to realise that it’s possible to have “too much of a good thing.” Could charisma fall in that category? That’s the suggestion of new research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Have you heard the riddle about the doctor? A father and his son are involved in a car accident and taken to different hospitals, the boy to a children’s hospital and the father to the general hospital. When the boy arrives at hospital, the doctor on call is shocked, saying “I can’t treat this boy, he’s my son!” The question is: who’s the doctor? The answer, as with many riddles, is obvious once you know it: the doctor is the boy’s mother. Years ago when I first heard this riddle, I was stumped, even though the only doctor I had contact with in my own life happened to be a woman. The very fact that this question works as a riddle is testament to the strength of negative stereotypes surrounding women’s scientific abilities.
Women who take degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects do just as well as their male colleagues, even though they are far outnumbered by them: in the UK, only 14 per cent of engineering and technology students, and 17 per cent of computer science students are women. The picture is similar in the USA, where Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Karisma Morton carried out a study, published recently in Frontiers in Psychology, to investigate why the numbers are so low.
Most employers like their workers to think of themselves not as employees but as “citizens” of the organisation, proactively engaging in activities like helping others out or coming up with company improvements – activities that aren’t specified in a job description yet help the organisation thrive. But more and more, these supposedly discretional citizenship behaviours are being demanded by managers more overtly – outlined in ‘The Way We Work’ documents, or threatened informally as necessary to get ahead. Now an article in the Academy of Management Journal suggests being forced to be a good citizen has some perverse consequences: when you’re grudgingly good, you become blasé about doing bad.
There are lots of stereotypes about the kind of people in different professions. Lawyers and business people are often caricatured as ruthless and self-interested, especially when compared to the kind of folk who enter professions usually seen as caring, such as nursing or psychology. To test the truth of these stereotypes, a new study in Personality and Individual Differences surveyed the “Dark Triad” and “Big Five” traits of hundreds of Danish students enrolled to begin studying either psychology, politics, business/economics or law.
The rationale was that by testing students’ personalities after they’d chosen their subject, but before they’d begun their studies, or careers, the researchers would uncover evidence for whether people with certain kinds of personalities are drawn to particular professions, as opposed to, or as well as, those professions shaping their personalities.
Anna Vedel and her colleagues found that psychology students scored “substantially” lower on Dark Triad traits (psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism) than business and law students. Business/economics students scored the highest of all on the Dark Triad. Law and politics students’ scores were very similar to each other: lower than business but higher than psychology. In terms of the Big Five personality traits, psychology students scored “much higher” than the other student groups of Agreeableness and Openness and Neuroticism (replicating a study published last year). These subject differences remained even when comparing just male students, or just female.
“The choice of academic major and career is a complex decision involving many different factors, but the present study suggests that personality traits are at least part of this decision process,” the researchers said.
Wouldn’t it be nice to work in an environment focused on cooperation and solidarity, one that put the needs of the many above those of the few? Sounds great … but collectivism has some surprising downsides, especially if you’re a star performer. New research in the Journal of Applied Psychology looks at workplace reactions to high performers and their polarising effect on those around them, and shows that in more cooperative climates, hotshots are actually more likely to get a raw deal.
Some of us work to live, others live to work – these toilers see hard graft as virtuous and they’re more than happy to go the extra mile to climb the career ladder and serve their employer. Organisations, understandably, are interested in hiring people with this kind of work ethic and so psychologists are trying to find out where it comes from.
It’s already known that children with harder working parents also tend to have a stronger work ethic. But a new study in the Journal of General Psychology is one of the first to investigate whether our relationship with our parents in the past – when we were teenagers – is related to our attitude and approach to work as adults. Monique Leenders at the University of Groningen and her colleagues found some small but statistically significant correlations, in particular men’s approach to work seemed to be related to the quality of the teenage relationship they had with their fathers.