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Mischief or Monotony? Why Employees Break Rules

Feb 06, 2017
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SMITH BRAIN TRUST – When employees break the rules at work, it might not be mischief. It might be monotony.

A new study finds that employees whose tasks are organized in a more routine and repetitive way are more likely to fall prey to ethical lapses and break rules to make their workday easier. But there's good news. The researchers found that shaking up the order in which employees perform tasks – even without changing the tasks themselves – can reduce rule-breaking. 

It does that by encouraging a more "type 2" or deliberative mindset, rather than an automatic or intuitive one, explains Rellie Derfler-Rozin, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Derfler-Rozin, the lead author of the study, conducted the research with professors Celia Moore from Italy's Bocconi University and Bradley R. Staats from the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

The researchers hypothesized that alternating sets of tasks would force employees to remain cognitively alert and would ultimately help them override the impulse to make hedonic or self-interested choices, or to break the rules. The deliberative mindset, they proposed, "supports rule compliance," whereas the "automatic pilot" mindset opens the door to making more egocentric, viscerally attractive, hedonic and self-serving choices.

They tested that theory in a mortgage application processing unit of a Japanese bank and found that workers who had more variety in the order of their assigned tasks were less likely to sneak extra minutes into their lunch break. And they followed up with lab studies, which showed that even a slight manipulation of task sequence helped participants avoid slipping into the kind of automatic-pilot thinking that was found to lead to cheating and shortcuts. 

"Employees steal, loaf, harass others, and take safety shortcuts to an alarming degree," the study says, and at "tremendous costs" to society. And they do so, in many cases, without considering the implications. 

"I wouldn't even describe it as a conscious decision," Derfler-Rozin says. The researchers offer some examples: Hospitality workers might bend the rules in a customer's favor, in hope of better tips. Students might collaborate on independent take-home tests in the pursuit of higher grades. Nurses might rush through hand-washing regimes to finish tasks more quickly. 

The findings, published in a recent issue of the journal Organization Science, add to a growing body of behavioral research that explores the difference between rapid autonomous thinking and higher order, deliberative thinking. 

"What was surprising, but also encouraging, for me was that such subtle changes to task structure in the field and a subtle manipulation in the lab, that does not change the content of the tasks, but merely the order of the subtasks, could create such an effect. It suggests that organizations can create a difference by making simple changes to job design. Tapping directly to people's motivation is a much harder task, that in many cases creates backlash and reactance," says Derfler-Rozin.

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.