Contempt, categorized as feelings of disgust and hatred, can cause emotional problems such as low self-esteem, aggression and anxiety. But a new study suggests that contempt in the workplace may actually improve employee task performance. Shimul Melwani and Sigal G. Barsade of the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a study with undergraduates to determine if receiving contemptuous remarks had a negative or positive effect on work performance. They also examined whether the social status of the recipient of the contempt had any influence on how well they completed the assigned task. Using 268 undergraduate students from the University of Pennsylvania, the researchers divided the participants into three social classes and teamed them with a virtual partner that bombarded them with contemptuous remarks about completed tasks.
The researchers conducted three separate studies on the participants to arrive at their conclusions. “In Study 1, which examined the task performance and interpersonal outcomes of contempt, recipients of contempt had significantly better task performance but also significantly more interpersonal aggressiveness toward their virtual partners compared with recipients of failure, angry, or neutral feedback.” The second study revealed that contempt lowered self-esteem, but those with low self-esteem had less aggression. Finally, the third study showed that those assigned to low social-status had less aggression and higher task performance outcomes. “Our findings, possibly unique to the work environment, highlight that being a recipient of contempt led to significantly better performance quality,” said the team. “Yet, these higher performance outcomes did not occur without a cost.” They added that, “We found a significantly negative influence of contempt on interpersonal relations in the form of greater expressed verbal aggression toward one’s partner.” However interesting these findings may be, the authors concluded on a cautionary note. They said, “Although the results offer support for the positive influence of contempt on task performance, this does not mean that contempt is an unmitigated good within the workplace.”
Melwani, S., & Barsade, S. G. (2011, June 27). Held in Contempt: The Psychological, Interpersonal, and Performance Consequences of Contempt in a Work Context. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0023492
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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