Does Contempt Increase Work Performance?

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 John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • aaron


    August 9th, 2011 at 11:57 PM

    well I believe the way a person reacts to contempt or anything negative for that matter depends on that person and also the scenario in which he or she received those comments.the reaction can either be positive or negative but I think more people would react negatively!

  • shayleigh


    August 10th, 2011 at 4:31 AM

    Well I can see how this could work on a couple of levels.
    Maybe when you are angry and disgusted you have all of this energy, and when you put that energy to work you do get a lot accomplished.
    Also what if you really are angry with someone at work and you want to show them how good you are? Again direct all of that negative energy into work and you might be amazed at the projects that you can complete.
    And sometimes it feels pretty good to show someone up.

  • Ruff n Tuff

    Ruff n Tuff

    August 10th, 2011 at 1:25 PM

    Many many factors would play a role in deciding how contempt is received at the work place. These include, but not limited to, workplace hierarchy, job guarantee, age of the people involved, rapport between them and many other things. I dont think the results can be generalized but would like to say that contempt is never a great thing so avoiding it would be the best thing to do

  • Cassie V.

    Cassie V.

    August 15th, 2011 at 9:06 PM

    I am not enjoying the idea of a workplace where all the employees are at each other’s throats. The workplace is not somewhere where you should be surrounded by people who are unpleasant to be around or that want to belittle you. You spend too many hours a day there for that!

  • Janis Gillespie

    Janis Gillespie

    August 15th, 2011 at 10:05 PM

    @Cassie: Agreed. What the study says is true. If I feel a coworker thinks I’m not up to the job, I’ll work my butt off to prove them wrong. I like to have a nice broad line between work and home and always remember I’m not there to make friends, only to get on in life. You won’t find me inviting a colleague over for drinks or attending the Christmas office party.

  • Sandy Gerrard

    Sandy Gerrard

    August 17th, 2011 at 2:05 PM

    Workplaces should encourage teamwork and getting along with everyone, not contempt. Okay it may improve productivity but at what cost? Do they want staff sniping at each other all day? Backstabbing out of competitiveness has always been a part of office politics.

    I’ve never worked in a company and not seen workers attempt to undermine others to make themselves look good. That is not a corporate culture that creates profits! Because make no mistake, their attitudes will soon filter down to their dealings with customers and/or vendors.

  • Shona Caldwell

    Shona Caldwell

    August 17th, 2011 at 3:18 PM

    “We found a significantly negative influence of contempt on interpersonal relations in the form of greater expressed verbal aggression toward one’s partner.” So what’s being said there is that they go home after bearing the weight of all this contempt and take out their pent up emotion on their families.

    Oh well, that makes it SO worth it if they got an extra sheet of paper off their desk eh! Ridiculous.

  • Andy Faulkner

    Andy Faulkner

    August 19th, 2011 at 4:17 PM

    It’s a good thing they said that it’s not something you should encourage. The lengths that staff will go to get ahead in business including lying, cheating, sabotage, blackmail, and even murder. I’ve read it in the news and seen it happen.

    Why can’t we all just get along and be happy at our work? Aside from the rare worker that genuinely loves their job, not one of us would be there if we didn’t have bills to pay and a family to support. Let’s keep it as civilized and drama-free as possible.

  • Leeanne Gibb

    Leeanne Gibb

    August 19th, 2011 at 5:13 PM

    If I had to choose between having nasty staff like that whose actions meant their victims were more productive or nice, easy-going staff that were less so because they were left in peace, it would be a no-brainer. The nice staff would win every time.

    I’d happily trade a little productivity for a contented staff member. I have no desire to work in such a poisonous atmosphere and wouldn’t wish that upon my staff either. Teambuilding, not team wrecking is the goal.

  • o.m.


    August 20th, 2011 at 1:47 AM

    To all the bosses that are wondering how to get their staff to pick fights: Bear in mind too that you’re risking a lawsuit by allowing staff to behave badly toward another member of staff. There are rules against that and I’d wager a lawsuit would cost you more than any slight productivity improvement you gained from them.

  • Patrice C. Depp

    Patrice C. Depp

    September 28th, 2011 at 8:53 PM

    Yes these workplaces where contempt is prominent might be more productive but have we considered the other factors? A short study can’t take into account the yelling matches that distract everyone in the workplace, the escalation into violence which is a huge liability and finding new employees when old ones have enough and quit. Training these new employees would cost far more than lesser productivity.

    I assume that the reason contempt causes an increase in productivity is because of competitiveness. If this is the case they will be rushing through work without doing it carefully and likely decreasing the quality of it.

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