CUHK Business School Research Highlights the Need to Manage Employee Engagement to Avoid Negative Workplace Behaviours

CHINA - Media OutReach - 14 May 2020 - Ask any human resources guru and they are likely to say
unequivocally that employee engagement, or the degree to which workers immerse
themselves in performing their jobs, is key to organisational success.
Employees who are high in job engagement are described as being "fully
there"; They are devoted, attentive and focused in their work roles, which
are all traits that modern organisations crave in their workforce.


However, a new study conducted by
the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) has revealed for the first time that
while employee engagement does indeed lead to increased job performance, it
could also lead to some workers being more territorial in the jobs, less
information sharing occurring in the workplace or downright unethical


Entitled It's Mine! Psychological Ownership of One's Job Explains
Positive and Negative Workplace Outcomes of Job Engagement, the study was conducted by Kenneth Law,
Professor of Department of Management and Associate Dean (Research) at CUHK
Business School, his students Dr. Melody Jun Zhang (currently Assistant
Professor of Department of Management at the College of Business of the City
University of Hong Kong) and Dr. Yolanda Na Li (currently Research Assistant Professor
of Department of Management at Lingnan University), and Profs. Lin Wang of Sun
Yat-sen University and Yongyi Liang of Jinan University, who noticed that while
much previous research has been devoted to the positive outcomes of job
engagement, little attention has been paid to its potential costs.


"To the best of our knowledge,
no study on the possible negative outcomes of job engagement in work related
domains has been studied," said Prof. Law, adding that the few studies
which have examined negative outcomes have focused on non-work settings, such
as whether it can lead to more family disputes.


The researchers theorised that when
employees are highly engaged in their jobs, they identify with their jobs and
treat it as part of their personal identity -- becoming what is known in
psychology as the "extended self." As a result, they feel they "own"
the job.


On the one hand, this psychological
ownership promotes on-the-job performance, proactive behaviour, and incites a
willingness for employees to go above and beyond their formal job requirements
in the daily execution of their duties -- a concept known in management academia
as organisational citizenship behaviour.

The flip side is that this ownership
can also translate to resentment when employees feel their job "space"
is being infringed, leading to territorial behaviour and knowledge hiding. As
an illustration, a sales representative may decide against sharing product and
customer information, know-how, and skills to promote sales with colleagues.


Job ownership could also generate
actions that benefit the organisation but which falls short of being fair play
-- such as discrediting others' performance and purposely excluding others in a
work group -- a condition known in academic circles as pro-job unethical


In addition, researchers also
speculated that how job ownership manifests itself depends on an employees'
overall outlook or mindset. They posited that employees who are driven by a
desire to achieve their aspirations and desirable outcomes -- known clinically
as an approach motivation -- tend to focus on the gains related to their
ownership of their jobs. This translates into improved job performance, and a
higher level of proactive work and organisational citizenship behaviours.


This contrasts with those of an
avoidance motivation mindset, or people who focus on avoiding distressing
problems and undesirable outcomes. For them, it was speculated that they were
driven by concern over losing the ownership of the job, and are likely to
engage in undesirable behaviours to protect what they perceived to be part of
their personal possessions.


To test out this theory, the
researchers sampled a large pharmaceutical company in southern China. They sent
questionnaires to employees and their supervisors, who were asked questions to
rate their job engagement, job ownership, performance, as well as their
tendencies to engage in both good and bad workplace behaviour.


Of the 353 questionnaires sent out,
178 valid responses were received. Analysis of the results confirmed the
researchers' theory that job engagement can lead to both positive and negative
workplace outcomes. It found that engaged employees would perform positive
workplace behaviours, regardless of their mindset, but employees with stronger
avoidance motivation may engage in a concurrent set of undesirable workplace
activities that lead to territorial behaviour, knowledge hiding, and pro-job
unethical behaviour.


Also, it found no evidence that
employees driven by an achievement or aspirational mindset are even more likely
to engage in activities that benefit the organisation.


Workplace Implications

Prof. Law said this research has
important and far-reaching implications for the modern organisational
workplace. This is especially so for, but not the exclusive domain of,
industries dealing with creativity, innovation and intellectual property.


"At the end of the day, job
engagement will always have more advantages for an organisation than
disadvantages. It's when high job engagement is not being managed properly that
it could lead to issues," he said. The more engaged an employee, the
higher their performance. When focused on the job instead of a career,
engagement could also lead to lower employee turnover, since an employee is
unlikely to find the exact same job they are attached to at another


"Our findings are cautionary
reminders that engaged employees may generate negative workplace behaviours,"
he said, adding that managers should at least be aware of this possibility and
to actively manage to reduce negative outcomes of employee engagement when it
occurs. This could include the fostering of a high-trust environment to promote
the perception that workers respect each other's ownership of their respective


Another key possibility is to
mediate an employee's ownership of their job. "You can't really take away
psychological ownership, but you have to explain to employees that their focus
is on the organisational objectives, rather than on the benefits they
personally derive from their jobs," Prof. Law said.


Managers should also be extra
mindful of employees with an avoidance mindset, who are more likely to exhibit
detrimental workplace behaviours. To counter this, he said managers should
consider implementing policies and procedures to discourage the negative
outcomes which may result. Finally, companies should develop training
programmes, supplemented by personal coaching, to help employees manage their
avoidance tendencies.


"Our results will make it
easier to predict which individuals are more likely to generate positive or
negative work outcomes among employees with high job engagement and job based
psychological ownership," Prof. Law said.


"We hope that our study will
encourage further exploration into the consequences of job engagement in a more
comprehensive way and to identify possible moderators that can alleviate the
negative effects or amplify the positive effects," he added.



Wang, Lin & Law, Kenneth & Zhang, Melody &
Li, Yolanda & Liang, Yongyi. (2018). It's Mine! Psychological Ownership of
One's Job Explains Positive and Negative Workplace Outcomes of Job Engagement.
Journal of Applied Psychology. 104. 10.1037/apl0000337.


This article was first published in the China
Business Knowledge (CBK) website by CUHK Business School:

About CUHK Business School

CUHK Business School comprises two schools -- Accountancy and Hotel and Tourism Management -- and four departments -- Decision Sciences and Managerial Economics, Finance, Management and Marketing. Established in Hong Kong in 1963, it is the first business school to offer BBA, MBA and Executive MBA programmes in the region. Today, the School offers 8 undergraduate programmes and 20 graduate programmes including MBA, EMBA, Master, MSc, MPhil and Ph.D.

In the Financial Times Global MBA Ranking 2020, CUHK MBA is ranked 50th. In FT's 2019 EMBA ranking, CUHK EMBA is ranked 24th in the world. CUHK Business School has the largest number of business alumni (37,000+) among universities/business schools in Hong Kong -- many of whom are key business leaders. The School currently has about 4,400 undergraduate and postgraduate students and Professor Lin Zhou is the Dean of CUHK Business School.

More information is available at or by connecting with CUHK Business School on:




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