Surprisingly, being neurotic buffers against performance decrements
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., October 17, 2023 — Against the backdrop of the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting,” employee engagement has become a central focus for many organizations.
But in the rush to embrace new engagement tools and strategies, are managers overlooking the simple facts of human inconsistency?
Yes, says , an assistant professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan School of Management. In her new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, she and her co-authors explore how individuals’ levels of engagement variability—how consistently or inconsistently they engage in their jobs—impact performance. Their paper also highlights a finding that may be surprising to laypeople: higher levels of emotional instability, also known as neuroticism, can buffer the negative effects of inconsistent engagement.
Human nature at work
Employee engagement has been a central focus of management theory for decades, credited with positively impacting everything from customer experience to profitability growth. However, most studies have looked at either employees’ general engagement over time or their engagement within the context of specific tasks in the moment. According to Tewfik, these approaches paint only a partial picture of the relationship between engagement and job performance.
“The reality is, many of us ebb and flow in how engaged we are at work, no matter an organization’s work engagement efforts,” she says. “Given this fact of life, it is important to understand when and why this may be problematic, and when it may not be.”
To understand the impact of these ebbs and flows, or “engagement variability,” Tewfik and her research team ran three studies: a field study of 160 Army and Air Force ROTC cadets; an online, cross-industry experiment measuring the behavioral performance of 600 full-time employees; and a two-week, cross-industry field study involving 152 employees and their supervisors.
The studies supported Tewfik and her colleagues’ predictions: Levels of engagement variability differ significantly between individuals and increased variability can have negative performance implications, even if average engagement remains the same. That’s likely because inconsistent engagement makes it harder to develop efficiencies in the application of one’s cognitive, physical, and emotional resources that can improve performance.
But there’s good news–at least for the neurotics among us.
“Inconsistent engagement at work is generally bad for your job performance. But if you’re also neurotic, inconsistent engagement may not be so bad,” explains Tewfik. “Being neurotic buffers against any performance decrements that may come from inconsistent engagement.”
In fact, employees who were lower in emotional stability (i.e., neuroticism) were able to maintain the same performance levels regardless of whether they were low or high in engagement variability. That’s because individuals with lower emotional stability are more accustomed to shifting their resources in an inconsistent manner—a useful skill in the context of engagement variability. These findings add to a growing body of literature on the functional benefits of neuroticism. For example, prior research has shown that individuals perceived as neurotic were rated as contributing more than expected to group tasks.
The three studies also explored the explanatory role of “flow,” a state in which what one is doing is so rooted in habit that it is almost automatic. Tewfik and her colleagues theorized that inconsistent engagement may not be bad for performance for those who are more neurotic because these employees are still able to get in flow.
Setting realistic goals for engagement
Although Tewfik and her colleagues did not examine the exact causes of engagement variability, there are likely a number of factors that may matter, from an employee's personality to demands an employee faces outside of work.
“A lot of the narrative these days is around trying to get employees to invest more of themselves in their jobs to extract higher performance,” says Tewfik. “But this may not be a healthy approach. Sometimes, you just can’t give more of yourself to your job. You’re depleted.”
Given this reality, it may be more effective for managers to encourage consistency than complete commitment.
“Consistent engagement offers a parallel, potentially healthier avenue,” says Tewfik. “If you can only give half of yourself to work, giving that half consistently is better for performance than fully investing yourself on some days and not at all on others.”
Playing to employees’ strengths
Based on this research, managers might conclude that the ideal hire would have low engagement variability and high emotional stability. Tewfik says that would be a mistake.
“Our research finds that there may be upsides to being inconsistently engaged at work, and there may be bright sides to being neurotic.”
For example, there is reason to believe that greater engagement variability may support creativity, since unwavering concentration on a problem blocks ideation.
“Focusing on hiring those who are low in engagement variability or who are emotionally stable may mean you miss out on other ideal work outcomes,” concludes Tewfik. “ If you want to capture these benefits, you need a workforce that is diverse both in terms of their engagement variability and their neuroticism.”
About the MIT Sloan School of Management
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