New study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School looks at the myth of quitting in anger

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(Don’t) ‘Take this job and shove it’: Anger often decreases – rather than boosts – a person’s intention to quit a job when they identify strongly with their company, says new study co-authored by Dr Jochen Menges at Cambridge Judge.

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The study suggests that company policies that are designed to promote positive emotions or minimise negative emotions may in fact not have the intended effect

Anger is commonly associated with people quitting their jobs – as reflected in the hit 1980 song “Take This Job and Shove It” (“I ain’t working here no more”) by country & western artist Johnny Paycheck. More broadly, positive emotions are usually thought as leading to constructive outcomes and negative emotions to damaging outcomes for business and other organisations.

A new academic study finds, however, that these generalisations are often a myth: When identification with a company is high, anger over job situations often decreases (rather than boosts) a person’s intention to leave because such employees want to stick it out and improve the organisation rather than walk out in a huff.

Conversely, when a person’s identity with their organisation is low, anger increases their intention to quit, says the study published in the Academy of Management Journal.

“For an individual highly identified with the organisation, anger directed toward the organisation is similar to self-blame because the organisation is part of one’s self-definition,” the study says, so such people are “less likely to respond to negative feelings by disengaging.”

The practical implication of the research, the authors say, is that it is unwise for companies to broadly characterise specific emotions as beneficial or detrimental to the organisation.

“The study suggests that company policies that are designed to promote positive emotions or minimise negative emotions may in fact not have the intended effect,” says Jochen Menges, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School and Professor of Leadership at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany. “So rather than seeking to suppress certain workplace emotions, companies should instead adopt practices that seek to encourage greater organisational identification.”

The research focused on a large company in the pilot training and certification business, with a final dataset of 135 people employed in the United States and Europe who were evaluated over a one-year period. They were asked about turnover intention and questions about both general organisation issues (such as schedule and pay) and specific matters related to the job – such as events that “made you feel good at your job,” “made you feel disrespected as a pilot” or “made you feel close to other pilot instructors.”

As a follow-up, the study looked at actual turnover at the flight training company six months after the last survey of employees – and found that turnover intention in that final survey had significant correlation with actual turnover.

The study – entitled “The Meaning of my Feelings Depends on Who I Am: Work-related Identifications Shape Emotion Effects in Organisations” – is co-authored by Samantha Conroy of Colorado State University, William Becker of Virginia Tech, and Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School and WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management.

The study examined guilt and pride in addition to anger – and found certain patterns when looking at those other two emotions: “Discrete emotions can influence work-related cognitions in ways that suggest a dark side of positive emotion and a bright side of negative emotion.”

For example: while the positive emotion of pride generally is associated with lower turnover intentions, for employees lacking in work-related identifications those feelings of pride contributed to increased turnover intentions – in other words, “a positive emotion was associated with a negative organisational outcome.”

The research looked at a people’s identity with their occupation as well as organisation, and found that “while occupational identity is not as powerful as organisational identity in turnover, it does play a complementary role.”

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Charles Goldsmith