Maryland Smith Research / May 11, 2021

Are Your Co-Workers Out To Get You Because You’re Paranoid?

Workplace Powerlessness Leads To Paranoia, Which Can Cause Aggression

Are Your Co-Workers Out To Get You Because You’re Paranoid?

Ever find yourself obsessing over the “true” meaning of that email your boss just sent you? Is she mad at you? Did you do something wrong? Or are you just paranoid? It turns out, a lot of people feel paranoid at work, especially those without power. And organizations should take note because that paranoia can turn into aggressive behaviors, finds new research from Maryland Smith’s Trevor Foulk.

Foulk, a management and organizational professor, worked with Michael Schaerer and Christilene du Plessis of Singapore Management University, Min-Hsuan Tu of the University at Buffalo, and Satish Krishnan of the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode on the new research, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Powerless employees are not often the subject of research, because typically research focuses on the powerful, says Foulk. But in hierarchical organizations, most people are powerless. Previous research has studied the effects of power on paranoia (powerful people feel paranoid, too, but for different reasons), and it was basically assumed that people without power would be free of paranoid feelings, says Foulk. Not so.

“Powerless people are generally subjugated,” says Foulk. “When you’re powerless, you realize you’re vulnerable – that somebody could do something to you and you wouldn’t be able to do anything about. Oftentimes, when we feel this sense of vulnerability, the psychological manifestation of that is paranoia.”

It’s a normal response, he says, because paranoia is part of the human brain’s vigilance process of carefully scanning the environment for potential threats that could cause harm. But it can create problems.

“When we’re searching carefully like that, we tend to find threats – whether they are there or not,” says Foulk.

That’s why when you’re paranoid, even a random compliment – like a coworker commenting on your shoes – can make you feel you’re being made fun of. It’s called the sinister attribution bias – it’s when you start seeing everything in a negative light. It’s bad for the workplace because those perceptions can result in aggression.

“Across a number of studies, we saw that because powerlessness induces this state of paranoia, it indirectly causes aggressions, which is very contrary to what we would have expected out of the powerless,” Foulk says.

Broadly, aggression is construed as behaviors that are intended to do harm. The researchers looked at interpersonal aggression at work in terms of behaviors intended to harm co-workers, but also the organization more broadly. Beyond these effects at work, they even found it can go beyond the workday.

“When powerlessness makes you feel paranoid at work, it can carry over and cause you to engage in angry behaviors at home,” says Foulk.

But the effect can be mitigated, the researchers say.

“Anything that could make you feel less vulnerable should break or at least weaken that relationship between powerlessness and paranoia,” Foulk says.

The more economically secure people are and the more support they get from their managers, the less vulnerable they will feel.

“When people are high in socioeconomic status, the relationship between powerlessness and paranoia is weaker. They aren’t quite as vulnerable as they might otherwise have been because they can rely on some of those resources if they need to protect themselves, so they become less paranoid,” Foulk says. “When you have high levels of support from your organization – like when you know your supervisor is there and has your back – that can also make you feel less vulnerable when you feel powerless.”

Organizations must prioritize providing support to powerless employees. “Powerless people are suffering. They are feeling paranoid, but they are also acting out. If feeling powerless is making people aggressive, this is a big problem at work.”

“Anything supervisors can do to help make their powerless employees feel less vulnerable, that is what they should be doing,” he says. Supervisors should check in with their team members regularly and make sure employees know they can share their problems to assuage their feelings of vulnerability. “Then they won’t have to scan the environment as meticulously because they are not their own last line of defense. They have somebody to go to so that sense of paranoia goes down.”

And what if you’re the powerless employee who is feeling paranoid?

“Focus on the support that you do have,” says Foulk. “Think about the resources you could go to. Is it your boss? Your boss’s supervisor? HR? Is there somebody at the organization who could help you if you were to face a real threat? Remind yourself that those things exist; that’s probably the best thing you can do.”

Read the research, “Just Because You’re Powerless Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t Out To Get You: Low Power, Paranoia and Aggression,” in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.


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