It's mine!

The hidden downside of employee engagement

By Dr Melody Zhang

Dr Melody Zhang, Assistant Professor in the Department of Management, reveals that high job engagement is not necessarily all good news, and can come with a number of unpredictable side effects. This article is based on "It's Mine! Psychological Ownership of One's Job Explains Positive and Negative Workplace Outcomes of Job Engagement," by Wang, Lin; Law, Kenneth S.; Zhang, Melody Jun; Li, Yolanda Na; Liang, Yongyi, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, February 2019.

Do you feel deeply motivated to contribute outstanding results at work? Do you have high levels of initiative, creativity, and a tendency to work beyond your formal job requirements? Well done! Chances are that you also have high levels of a very valuable quality in the workplace: job engagement.

Companies value engaged employees, and they want them to stay engaged.

Companies value engaged employees, and they want them to stay engaged. Ten years ago, Google was beginning to lose talent. Some employees felt they could not continue to make an impact as the company increased in size and matured. In response, Google designed a management algorithm to identify dissatisfied – and potentially disengaged – members of staff, and then took a series of managerial actions to address the situation. Google's practices were used to help improve employee engagement, and ultimately employee retention.

The "two-pizza teams" are firewalled from the company's control, and are designed to encourage ambitious leaders to be highly engaged.

More recently, Amazon has put together autonomous multidisciplinary units, known as "two-pizza teams," – meaning a team that could in principle be fed with two pizzas. These teams work as semi-independent centres of entrepreneurship. The "two-pizza teams" are firewalled from the company's control, and are designed to encourage ambitious leaders and members to be highly engaged and instil a sense of ownership.

Human resources experts believe that job engagement is key to organisational success.

In modern organisations with flat management hierarchies, such initiatives are increasing. Human resources experts seem to believe that job engagement – the degree to which employees immerse themselves in performing their jobs – is key to organisational success. At first glance this looks like a win-win situation. Engaged employees surely enhance a company's competitive advantage, enjoy a virtuous circle of fulfilment at work, and are more likely to stay in the job. But does all this come with a downside? Could job engagement potentially yield negative outcomes for employees and organisations? We explored the double-edged effect of job engagement on work outcomes in a research article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2019.

Work and the "extended self"

Whilst earlier research mostly focused on investigating positive consequences of employee job engagement and identifying factors to promote engagement, recent studies have shown that job engagement can give rise to negative outcomes outside of the workplace, such as increased work-family conflict. But what about outcomes inside the workplace? We use a theory of the "extended self" to develop a framework that could explain how such engagement may yield both positive and negative outcomes at work.

"This is my project… It reflects my value and honour."

Under extended self theory, when people are highly invested in the creation or control of something, tangible or intangible, or become very familiar with it, possessive feelings may be engendered, which can go so far as to be incorporated into personal identity. One of the interviewees for my research expressed an acute sense of job ownership in these terms:

"This is my project. I have spared no effort and worked more than ‘996' on it. No colleague is familiar with its details like me. I could hardly imagine if I lose it or it fails. It kind of reflects my value and honour." – New app developer

People like this feel that they "own" their job, and are then motivated to protect and maintain their "possessions." This could ultimately induce both positive and negative behaviours.

Job engagement as stimulating psychological ownership

Job engagement gives rise to psychological ownership over the job.

We conducted two field studies in southeast China – one among sales representatives in a large pharmaceutical company, and the second among workers of diverse job functions from a large electronics company. We gathered data on employees' levels of job engagement, job-based psychological ownership, and positive and negative work outcomes from different sources. We found support for our theory that job engagement does indeed gives rise to psychological ownership over the job.

This sense of ownership could be related to positive outcomes such as job performance, work proactivity and discretionary work behaviour that goes beyond formal job requirements – a concept known in management academia as "organisational citizenship behaviour." However, the flip side is that the same psychological ownership of the job could also lead to some workers becoming more territorial in their jobs, leading to less information-sharing in the workplace, and even to instances of unethical behaviour. In other words, highly engaged employees are likely to engage in both organisation-enhancing and organisation-hindering behaviours.

Territorial behaviour

Through triggering a sense of ownership, high job engagement could lead to some employees becoming more territorial, for example, claiming and protecting job-related materials, progresses, and outputs as belonging exclusively to themselves, and preventing others from getting involved in the core aspects of their jobs. Protecting access to clients is a case in point:

"My supervisor asked me to join a colleague and take charge of one of our company's important clients. However, my colleague always goes to meet the client alone and discusses the client's needs without asking me or letting me know in advance. He seems to be wary of me and discourages me from taking part." – Financial advisor

By displaying this kind of territorial behaviour, employees signal to colleagues that "this is mine, not yours." In doing so they express, communicate, and secure a clear identity of their extended self through their jobs.

Knowledge hiding

High job-based psychological ownership may also cause employees to engage in knowledge hiding.

High job-based psychological ownership may also cause employees to engage in knowledge hiding. Job-related knowledge is accumulated through myriad past interactions, and signals an important part of the extended self at work. Through interactive processes, employees come to understand more about their jobs as well as about themselves, and a sense of self-identity is thus established, reproduced, transformed, and maintained. This kind of intimate knowledge makes the job not only "mine" but also a part of "myself." Take sales representatives. A key aspect of the job is product and customer information, know-how, and skills to promote sales. This is how one sales rep reported the situation:

"I have invested so much of my time and talents into developing and maintaining my clients. They are definitely mine."

"I have invested so much of my time and talents into developing and maintaining my clients. They are definitely mine. I cannot stand colleagues who do not make an effort but always want to take a shortcut by asking you for tips on how to acquire clients, or even ask you to introduce clients to them." – Pharmaceutical sales representative

If such tacit personal knowledge were revealed to colleagues, it could mean a loss of exclusive job ownership and cause a threat to the extended self. In contrast, shielding such knowledge helps employees preserve their extended self and maintain the continuity of self-identity.

Unethical pro-job behaviour

People with a strong sense of psychological ownership may even engage in unethical behaviour.

People with a strong sense of psychological ownership may even engage in unethical behaviour that violates organisational norms or threatens the well-being of its members. Highly engaged employees tend to feel threatened by seeming infringements of their jobs. This sense of threat to the self directs them to focus narrowly on their current needs and be less mindful of moral standards. A desire to maintain and protect their job may blind such employees to ethical concerns and make them more prone to commit unethical acts, such as exposing the company to detrimental competition among employees, sabotage or stalking, discrediting others' performance, or ostracising colleagues.

Approach or avoidance motivation?

When does job engagement lead to more beneficial or more harmful outcomes? We speculated that it may depend on an employee's motivational focus – approach and avoidance motivation, two well-established categories in the literature of psychology research. People with a high approach motivation are driven by a desire to pursue gains and achieve their aspirations, while those with a high avoidance motivation are driven by an inclination to avoid losses and distressing problems. We found that for those employees with high avoidance orientation, the stronger sense of ownership stimulated by job engagement is more likely to produce negative workplace outcomes, including being territorial and hiding knowledge from colleagues and even engaging in unethical behaviour. However, the results also showed that engaged employees would perform more positive workplace behaviour regardless of their approach orientation level.

Practical implications

Be aware of a potential downside to the seemingly positive.

What are the main takeaways from this research for managers? First, in the pursuit of employee engagement, it helps to be aware and vigilant of a potential downside to the seemingly positive. High job engagement has a double-edged quality. When highly engaged employees are not being guided and managed properly, undesirable outcomes may result. One possible antidote would be to try to establish a high-trust environment to foster the perception that workers respect one another's work.

Second, managers should be mindful of employees with high avoidance motivation who are more likely to exhibit undesirable workplace behaviour stemming from their high job engagement and sense of job ownership. When these employees become highly engaged, they display a stronger tendency to territorial behaviour, are reluctant to share job-related information and knowledge, and may engage in unethical behaviour such as excluding coworkers, as they focus on avoiding losses. Managers need to consider implementing policies and procedures to monitor and discourage this kind of disruptive workplace behaviour.

Third, we encourage companies to offer training programmes or interpersonal counselling to mitigate negative effects. We do not mean to deprive the highly engaged of their sense of job ownership, but overall employees should be guided by organisational objectives, rather than the benefits they might derive personally from their jobs.

Dr Melody Zhang
Assistant Professor
Department of Management