Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Status anxiety at work

People who compare themselves against their junior colleagues tend to be more content at work than those who compare themselves against their seniors, researchers have found.

Measuring ourselves up against those around us is a fundamental aspect of human nature, providing another source of information to fuel our boundless self curiosity. But according to Douglas Brown and colleagues, little or no research has previously been conducted on the role of these social comparisons in the workplace.

Nine-hundred and ninety-one university graduates, from teachers to salespeople, completed an online survey about their tendency to compare their fortunes with those above or below them at work. Several factors were associated with a person’s tendency to compare themselves against their superiors. Participants who lacked autonomy at work, who were unclear about their responsibilities, and/or who were uncertain about their own status and abilities, were more likely to compare themselves to those above them at work. This in turn was associated with job dissatisfaction, and a tendency to look elsewhere for work.

Of course, the link between lack of job autonomy, job ambiguity and job dissatisfaction are well established by previous research, but Douglas Brown’s team said they are the first to highlight the important mediating role social comparison plays in all this.

Only one factor – uncertainty about one’s own status and abilities – was associated with making more frequent comparisons against one’s junior colleagues, a somewhat surprising finding considering the same factor was also associated making more upward comparisons. In turn, comparing oneself with more junior colleagues was associated with more job satisfaction.

While acknowledging their cross-sectional design meant the causal role of social comparisons at work has not been established, the researchers concluded “these findings have important implications for understanding how social comparisons work in an organisational context, and how job attitudes form and job search behaviour is initiated”.

Brown, D.J., Ferris, D.L., Heller, D. & Keeping, L.M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of the frequency of upward and downward social comparisons at work. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 102, 59-75.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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