Blog of Rob Galanakis (@robgalanakis)

Anxiety causes selfish behavior

BPS Research Digest is a great site, highly recommended for anyone interested in why people behave the way that they do. A little while ago, they reported on a study where anxious participants were more likely to cheat and excuse their own unethical behavior than the control group.

When we’re stressed out and feeling threatened, our priority becomes self-preservation. According to new research, this defensive mode even affects our morality, making us more likely to cheat and excuse our own unethical behaviour.

What’s striking is the cause of the anxiety: they listened to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score. Compare this to the stress of micromanagement, yearly review season, project bonuses and deadlines, or even general water cooler politics, and it’s no surprise what goes on in most corporate offices.

I’ve written before about how a manager’s primary job is to build trust and this is a good, concrete example why.

It’s also a good example of why it’s a company’s job to remove anxiety-causing policies. The less anxiety you cause your employees, the healthier they are and the healthier your culture and company is (we want people working together, not behaving selfishly). These policies include:

  • Annual performance reviews. Much has been written about this.
  • Individual performance-based bonuses. They have been proven to be counter-productive, without a single shred of evidence supporting their utility.
  • Limiting career and salary growth based on positions. People should not compete for a single “senior” spot.
  • Limiting PTO and not having separate sick days. Being sick is not a vacation.
  • Not forcing/encouraging people to take a vacation. This causes paranoia, burnout, and envy.
  • Limiting the flow of information. People will worry if they know what they need to know.

The list goes on and on. And the lesson is very simple:

When you reduce anxiety, you get better work.

One thought on “Anxiety causes selfish behavior

  1. Chris Lesage says:

    Very interesting! I wanted to add another perspective. After having just read “Quiet” by Susan Cain, I’m considering the various studios I’ve worked for and their culture of communication and their effect on anxiety. (At least for the introverted employees.)

    – Being in wide open-floor spaces (I’ve measured ranges of 70-100dB in one studio. 70-80 was the baseline.)

    – Being in row desks where everyone behind you can see your monitor, and you are constantly making unintended eye contact with the row ahead of you.

    – Companies which have grown from 30-90 to 100-400 in my experience seem to retain their small-studio culture of communication. For example, meetings of hundreds crammed shoulder-to-shoulder into a common area to announce something which could have been a 2-line email. Shoulder-tapping interruptions and the expectancy to be immediately available for questions instead of email or digital issue-tracking. (Even in companies where there is formal issue-tracking!)

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