Workplace Teams Not The Key To Determining Worker Behavior

August 26, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO -- Workplace teams remain a hot trend in American companies, but new research suggests they may not be the key factor in determining how workers behave on the job.

The study found that basic standards of employment -- things like job security and good worker-manager relations -- were more important than how the workplace was organized in determining employee behavior.

In workplaces that met those basic standards, the study found that workers were less likely to resort to various forms of workplace resistance, such as playing dumb and withholding effort. The type of management system, such as workplace teams or assembly line, did not affect the amount of resistance behaviors.

"Workers can adjust to different systems of management control and continue to perform well," said Randy Hodson, author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

"However, workers do not adjust easily to management abuse or incompetence. Workplace teams are not a substitute for decent standards of employment."

Hodson presented results of the study August 25 in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

For the study, Hodson and three advanced graduate students did a detailed analysis of 86 book-length studies of employees in various workplace settings. One important factor they examined was whether the workplaces met basic workplace standards. They looked for things such as evidence of abuse by management, excessive and capricious firings, and quality of communication within the organization. They also noted the type of management control: direct personal control over employees, assembly line, bureaucratic, or some form of worker participation.

The researchers then examined how these workplace standards and forms of management control were associated with worker behavior, both good and bad.

The results showed that the workplace standards -- not management control -- was the only factor associated with employee resistance behavior, such as intentional work slowdowns and machine sabotage.

"The main factor that provokes resistance in workers is the absence of decent conditions of employment," said Hodson. "If you don't have a fundamental trust between workers and managers, how can you have workplace teams in which everyone is supposed to pull together for the good of the company?"

Hodson said he suspects that worker participation will fail at companies that implement such systems without considering the more basic factors of employment.

"In some settings, workplace teams are instituted almost as a substitute for decent working standards," Hodson said. "In those situations, teams are not going to work very well."

Hodson also examined what he called citizenship behaviors among workers -- things like helping colleagues, giving extra effort freely, and a commitment to organizational goals.

Results showed these citizenship behaviors were also associated with workplaces that met basic standards. However, management control also had an impact: citizenship behaviors were more likely in workplaces that offered highly skilled jobs and that gave employees a great deal of autonomy.

"In order to get extra effort from employees, companies need to offer more than just the basic standards," he said.

While consultants and other experts spend a lot of time considering the latest management trends and fads, Hodson said this study shows that such a focus is misplaced.

"Factors such as job security and non-abusive bosses are sometimes ignored by management experts because they aren't glamorous or new. But those things are pretty big in the workplace."

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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