Showing leniency with misconduct at work leads to conflicting emotions

Being lenient with misconduct leads to conflicting emotions at work
Lazy worker cleaning fish at a desk while manager looks on in desperate frustration

When an employee breaks the rules, what do you do? Enforce the policy, issue a slap on the wrist or look the other way?

Organizational behavior researchers at the University of Georgia found that employees who give a pass to rule-breaking co-workers have conflicting reactions, causing an emotional tug of war that can affect job performance.

“When individuals are lenient, it makes them feel proud, which makes them perform better on the job,” said Terry College of Business management professor Marie Mitchell, who studies dysfunctional behavior in the workplace. “But there’s also a conflicting feeling: guilt. Over time that exhausts them and hampers their performance.”

Mitchell defines leniency in the workplace as any response to misconduct other than the prescribed punishment provided in company procedures and rules. As part of a multi-year, multi-study research paper published this year in the Academy of Management Journal, Mitchell and her co-authors looked at how leniency impacts the self-conscious emotions of other employees — those who work as leaders, managers and peers.

Mitchell, who is the I.W. Cousins Professor of Business Ethics at UGA, collaborated on the research with Terry College Ph.D. graduates Kate Zipay (University of Oregon) and Michael Baer (Arizona State University) and co-authors Hudson Sessions (University of Oregon) and Robert Bies (Georgetown University).

The team’s first study surveyed 175 police officers from four police departments. They asked officers to rate their leniency with their fellow officers over the previous six months and how often they had given others at work a lighter punishment for misconduct than they could have. The officers also rated their feelings of pride, guilt, engagement with their work and exhaustion on a 1-to-5 scale. Supervisors rated the officers’ performance as well.

Mitchell said the officers who reported being more lenient felt proud of their benevolent behavior, which enhanced their work engagement and, ultimately, produced above-average performance.

The second study was an experiment of almost 200 digital freelance workers. The research team randomly assigned the workers into groups, where half were primed with tasks about leniency and the other half were not. They then asked the participants to evaluate substandard work from their peers and monitored them to see if they would punish the peers for it. The workers who were primed with leniency were more lenient, which enhanced feelings of pride and engagement with the work, as well as their feelings of guilt and exhaustion.

Leniency inherently involves rule-breaking or rule-bending — because it involves not holding a person accountable for their misconduct — and that is what generates reactions of guilt and exhaustion, Mitchell said. But, their research showed it also promotes positive feelings.

“On the one hand, you’re doing good for somebody, but at the same time, you’re not following the rules,” Mitchell said. “Rules are there for a reason. They’re there to protect people. They’re there to create standards. So, bending them makes people feel like they’re doing something wrong.”

The third study designed an experiment with about 200 working adults. Half of the workers were randomly assigned to recall a time when they were lenient with a coworker’s misconduct, and the other half recalled a time when they weren’t. Then the workers were asked to rate their forgiveness of that person, their guilt, pride, exhaustion and engagement. Workers who showed leniency and forgave their colleagues for their transgressions, ranging from violations of work protocols to lying and cheating, were more likely to experience pride and engagement and less likely to experience guilt and exhaustion.

“Leniency can cause mixed emotions — the experience of both pride and guilt — which influence employees’ energy and productivity at work,” Mitchell said.

“Misconduct can be a large financial cost for organizations, and not addressing it can create an even larger problem: norms that promote unethical behavior,” Mitchell said. “We know it’s wrong, which is why leniency promotes feeling guilty. Yet, we also want to do right by our peers, which is why leniency promotes feeling proud.

“This is important for organizations because they need to think about the complex emotional process that ultimately influences employees’ performance, particularly if they are supposed to uphold their standards of conduct. Handling misconduct is tricky. It brings out conflicting emotions and motivations in people. Employees need help — through systems or the support of their supervisors — to address bad behavior.”