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When organizations break promises to their employees, who will suffer the consequences and why? Intuition, and indeed research, tells us that those who are harmed try to restore balance by harming their perpetrator.
This can, for instance, be addressed to the organisation itself or to the boss himself. However, in a design of three studies within the medical field, our research finds that this is only half the story.
What happens when an employee perceives that his or her employer has broken a promise, for example, by misrepresenting the type of work or refusing to give a promised pay raise? Much of the previous research paints a picture of an employee intentionally avenging his or her organization in order to “even the score.
However, employees can and will exhibit negative behaviors toward other innocent parties, such as co-workers and customers.
Studies show that the reason for this is that unfulfilled promises deplete employees’ mental energy, with the effect that it unleashes unintentional harm on others. Not surprisingly, employees feel angry, disappointed and betrayed when their organizations fail to deliver on their promises.
But because employees have yet to perform their duties, they must repress their emotions and “move on” – this process of emotion regulation and attention control has proven to be particularly exhausting.
In addition, as a negative experience, unfulfilled promises by employers also encourage employees to exert additional mental energy to understand and explain what has happened and make sense of it. Coping with feelings of anger, trying to understand why it happened to me, and thinking repeatedly about what happened consumes energy and drains an employee’s mental resources.
Employees can usually control their temper when provoked by something trivial.
When employees are mentally exhausted, they can assault and harm co-workers who are “innocent” unrelated to the source of the abuse.
The depletion of resources also motivates employees to take shortcuts when making work-related decisions.
Making decisions with vigilance requires effort and energy, but when that energy is not sufficiently available, employees will be reluctant to make additional efforts in energy-consuming decision-making processes.
Therefore, a financial advisor cannot systematically review a series of financial options for a client, nor can he thoroughly seek relevant information and evaluate options in a careful manner before making his financial recommendation to the client.
The client is unlikely to receive the best possible advice from the advisor. Similarly, providing medical advice to a patient also involves choosing between alternatives and thorough processing of the information.
Because an exhausted physician would be unable to execute correct decision making, he or she may make decisions that are not optimal and the patient may suffer.
The financial advisor or physician may not intend to deliberately undermine the interests of their clients, but they do not do so voluntarily because the depletion of their resources prevents them from performing to the best of their abilities.
So what can employers do? The whole process is like a vicious circle in which unfulfilled promises create the first loss for employees (e.g., denial of promised promotion), which triggers a second loss for them (mental energy), leading to a third loss for innocent third parties.
Organizations should be aware that sometimes promises are made implicitly and that employees’ perception of an unfulfilled promise may not correspond to the reality of the organization.
When organizations are in a position where they cannot deliver on their promises to employees, managers should do everything possible to clarify the situation and explain to employees why it happened and how it will be rectified in the future. Doing so can alleviate the negative emotions of employees and help the whole.
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