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Workers who have to perform necessary evils like layoffs and evictions get emotionally involved more often than previously thought, study suggests

October 1, 2008

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

"You try to be unemotional."
  -- A manager on laying off workers
"I'll literally turn off my feelings."
  -- A medical student on drawing blood from a child
"I did not feel anything other than just doing my job."
  -- A police officer on carrying out an eviction
All are interview quotes from persons required by their jobs to perform necessary evils, and their words are not likely to strike most people as surprising. After all, as a study in the new issue of the Academy of Management Journal puts it, "Traditionally, research has found that performers of tasks such as necessary evils... disengage and distance themselves from their own emotions, from the experience of the target, and from their own humanity."
The study then proceeds to suggest this traditional view is largely in error.
Surveying 111 individuals whose jobs commonly require them to perform such necessary evils, the study's authors found that more often than not they became emotionally engaged in the task at hand and that in almost three cases out of four carried it out with sensitivity.
"The results reported here challenge conventional views of how individuals respond psychologically when causing harm to another human being," write co-authors Joshua D. Margolis of Harvard Business School and Andrew Molinsky of Brandeis University.
"Rather than disengage from the experience of performing a task that imposes harm and entails great stress," the professors observe, "many individuals in our study remain attuned to their emotions, to the experience of the target, and to their own humanity, even when causing harm to another human being. Furthermore, rather than simply following a mandated protocol or organizationally supplied script, we found that many performers produce customized acts of interpersonal sensitivity, independent of -- and occasionally in direct conflict with -- mandated organizational routines, norms, and protocols."
In another surprise, Margolis and Molinsky found that the 53 women in their sample were only slightly more likely than the 58 men to become emotionally engaged, women doing so 57% of the time compared to 51% for men.
Surprisingly, too, the researchers found that veteran workers, with five or more years in their current job or a similar one, were more likely to be emotionally engaged than less experienced colleagues. As they put it, "The pattern that might be expected for level of experience -- that over time, veterans become desensitized to doing necessary evils and thus are more likely to disengage -- also did not emerge."
The considerable amount of emotional engagement the authors uncover in their sample leads them to wonder about a common hazard of human-service work -- burnout. Is it too much engagement that leads to burnout, as widely believed, or too little? "Although psychological engagement may contribute to bumout for some people," they write, "our findings suggest that engagement and personalization -- especially when combined in an integrated response style -- may provide a means of sustaining and expressing all facets of the self, perhaps forestalling burnout."
Four groups of workers participated in the study -- 44 managers, including 20 from an apparel company and 24 from a variety of other enterprises; 12 doctors and 13 medical students from a pediatric hospital; 22 police officers from a large metropolitan county, 16 specializing in evictions and six in serving warrants; and 20 addiction counselors working at five different residential-treatment facilities run by a non-profit organization. The researchers carried out interviews with 104 informants and gathered data through weekly diary questionnaires from seven of the medical students. In sessions lasting between a half hour and two hours, interviewees were asked to describe at least one vivid recent example of a necessary evil. In total, participants described 230 discrete episodes.
Among the survey results:
-- Fifty-four percent of the time participants became emotionally engaged in the painful task they were required to do. As one manager put it, reflecting on laying off workers, "It is never easy. You have to guard against making it easy...You don't want to lose your humanity, and you are affecting someone else's life." Or, as one evicting officer said, "Most people are just a paycheck away from being homeless. You have to realize that...It is very easy to become a machine and not have any feeling behind it, but I told myself a long time ago that I did not want that."
-- Workers with five years' experience or more performing necessary evils became emotionally engaged 60% of the time, compared to 49% for employees with less experience. Physicians may be an exception, however, since medical students and interns reported becoming emotionally involved 68% of the time.
-- Workers performed necessary evils with sensitivity in 72% of the episodes they described. Even those who did not become emotionally engaged acted with sensitivity 46% of the time. For example, a manager putting a direct report on a 90-day performance plan said he did not feel bad about doing so, but he still deviated from the usual approach of having a witness in the room, thinking a witness would have an unduly discouraging impact on the employee.
-- In 55% of the episodes described, workers customized their approaches, going beyond standard protocol to try to help the people affected. For example, "numerous officers recounted personalized offers of food made to evictees, such as milk, bottled water, and sandwiches."
What difference do such individual initiatives make? Molinsky and Margolis concede that necessary evils are "unsettling" and that it is not surprising companies would devise "carefully choreographed sequences for layoffs, for example, along with verbatim scripts and handy phrases." Still, they add, "these same practices can impede an integrated response style, for those situations and individuals for whom combining engagement with personalization would be possible and preferable. Even as companies provide the standard policies and practices for ensuring a basic level of sensitive interpersonal treatment, they might also find ways to enable individualized responses."
The new study, entitled "Navigating the Bind of Necessary Evils: Psychological Engagement and the Production of Interpersonally Sensitive Behavior," is in the October/November 2008 issue of the Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 102 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives and Academy of Management Learning and Education.
Media Coverage:
The Globe & Mail. Tough times tough messages: managers try a little tenderness. (Friday, October 24, 2008).
The Washington Post. Have Heart. (Tuesday, November 18, 2008).

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