A staggering 90% of employees active in the United States today admit to engaging in “deviant behaviors” of varying severity, ranging from intentionally working slower and arriving late to the office to ignoring supervisor instructions and producing poor-quality work. Research suggests that a common cause of such employee deviance—which, incidentally, causes the corporate world billions in wasted funds—is a desire to get even after a perceived psychological contract breach. A new study explains why this occurs and highlights the role mindfulness plays in helping to mitigate such reactions.
A psychological contract breach, a common occurrence in the modern workplace, can take many forms: An employer may renege on promised career development opportunities (e.g., interesting assignments, promotions); work arrangements (e.g., flextime or the chance to work from home); or compensation (e.g., salary raises or bonuses). Such breaches of trust often evoke hostility toward the organization in question. Hostility—a negative emotion leading to feelings of minor frustration all the way to excessive anger—produces antagonistic tendencies and triggers one’s desire to become deviant and exact revenge. That being said, employee deviance need not always be the end result in such situations. In our research, we explore how this effect can be reduced or even prevented.
How psychological breaches can lead to deviant behavior
The idea of a psychological contract emanates from the recognition that not all obligations toward employees can be specified in a formal contract. From this perspective, employees may see a breach of psychological contract as misconduct on the part of the organization—misconduct that leaves them feeling dissatisfied and experiencing cognitive dissonance. To achieve cognitive balance, employees are likely to engage in deviance as a way to get even with the company.
What is mindfulness—and how can it help?
Rooted in Eastern contemplative traditions, mindfulness is a psychological construct (and set of practices) that focuses on and maintains present-centered attention and a general orientation toward life through self-awareness, -regulation, and -transcendence. With a substantial body of research attesting to its health benefits, the concept has become increasingly popular with both individuals and organizations. In fact, approximately 22% of employers in the United States offer some form of mindfulness training to their employees.
Our paper shows that the benefit of mindfulness goes beyond one’s own well-being. We found that mindfulness, because of its self-regulatory abilities, can mitigate a person’s emotional and behavioral reactions in light of a psychological contract breach. We suggest that there are two key mindfulness processes working together and affording individuals the ability to respond more flexibly, both on an emotional and behavioral level: the decoupling of experiences from the self and reduced automaticity. Decoupling reduces ego involvement and enables people to take a more detached view of any events or experiences. In other words, mindful people are able to look at negative experiences through a more neutral lens, thereby stripping them of their emotional impact. Reduced automaticity derails internal reactivity, thereby allowing individuals to pause and step back from a potential negative occurrence.
In our study, we found that mindful employees are better able to decouple and detach themselves from their experiences, allowing them to consider the unfulfilled obligation from different perspectives, as well as consider alternative attributions and extenuating factors. As such, thoughts about the organization not fulfilling its obligation will be seen as events in the mind, which may or may not correspond closely to whether an actual breach has occurred. In the end, the link between breach, hostility, and retaliation (i.e., against the organization) loses its strength, allowing for more flexible responses.
Tips for practitioners
- Given the potential financial repercussions of employee deviant behavior, you, as the manager, must understand how to reduce the chances of your employees responding to a psychological contract breach in a way that hurts your company. This is particularly relevant today given that expectations and obligations have been going unfulfilled more and more due to increased globalization, competition, volatility, and uncertainty.
- Remember that more mindful employees are less likely to respond to a breach with deviance. Because mindfulness can be developed through practice (akin to how one hones a skill), organizations should consider offering relevant training to help employees engage in self-regulatory processes. This will help them better be able to cope with adverse work experiences.
- Note that mindfulness training should not be used to appease employees so that you or your organization can continue breaching psychological contracts without fear of reprisal. Employees may be justifiably angry following a breach. That being said, it is not always possible to avoid having negative experiences at work. To the extent that mindfulness practices can, they should help employees face these experiences productively—and benefit all parties.
Literature reference and methodology
One of the strengths of our present research is the triangulation through different study designs using both survey and experimental approaches across four studies.
In Study 1 (a field study), the research team obtained data from 234 employees working a wide range of occupations across varying industries. The team asked them about their experiences with psychological breaches and measured the level of mindfulness they possessed. To strengthen their ability to draw causal inferences, the researchers developed “breach vignettes” in Study 2 designed to experimentally induce a psychological contract breach. In this second study, 304 employees were asked to read and react to scenarios in which a psychological breach had occurred. Their responses were then measured and recorded.
Shaffakat, S., Otaye-Ebede, L., Reb, J., Chandwani, R., & Vongswasdi, P. (2022): Mindfulness attenuates both emotional and behavioral reactions following psychological contract breach: A two-stage moderated mediation model, in: Journal of Applied Psychology, 107(3), 425. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000878
Assistant Professor Pisitta Vongswasdi
Pisitta Vongswasdi is an Assistant Professor at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. Her research and teaching interests focus on leadership development, diversity management, and mindfulness in today’s organization.