How would you feel about having someone impulsive join your team? It's possible you'd be concerned: all reckless decisions and blurting out sensitive information, they'll hardly help. How about someone high in emotional intelligence (EI)? A better prospect, surely: mindful of others and pretty decent all round.
In a recent study, Doan Winkel of Illinois State University and his collaborators found a different picture. Impulsivity, the degree to which we act spontaneously, was found to lead to more organisational citizenship behaviours (OCBs), discretionary behaviours that promote the organisation. Meanwhile emotional intelligence, as measured using an ability-based assessment (a credible research strategy we've noted before), was associated with deviant behaviours that harm the organisation. These findings are based on 234 participants who rated themselves on a series of questionnaire instruments; the participants came from a range of industries, suggesting the effect may be fairly generalisable.
The findings actually aren't so surprising. EI is a useful resource that helps develop networks, figure out hierarchy, and influence others. But the capacity for action that this provides can be put to many uses. The emotionally intelligent may figure out that they can get away with self-interested behaviours such as falsifying receipts, or calculate when a well-timed put-down will serve their interests. By rating items on these and other deviant behaviours, participants with higher EI reported more of these activities.
How can we make sense of the impulsivity finding? Well, OCBs are discretionary and can take time away from assigned responsibilities. “In an ideal world, sure I'd keep on top of organisational developments and help out my struggling colleagues, but now, with this deadline?” reasons the cautious employee. Meanwhile, the rating data suggests that their impulsive colleagues jump in to help more often, less mindful of downsides to doing the right thing. In a sense, impulsivity reflects a 'can-do' spirit, full of motivational energy to act.
The researchers expected to also find more intuitive effects of impulsivity being associated with deviant behaviours and EI relating to organisational citizenship. Surprisingly, these previously reported effects weren't found here, leading the authors to call for a greater understanding of what is needed for them to arise.
This study is not the first to find these kinds of incongruous effects. There's evidence that optimism and cognitive ability, both sought by employers everywhere, also predict deviant behaviour. These counter-intuitive findings are useful; they caution us against viewing individual qualities as forever good or bad, turning organisational people strategy into a game of Top Trumps where we try to collect the 'best'. It's clear instead that a characteristic represents both benefit and risk, is a potential rather than given, and that potential depends on many factors, including the workplace situation itself.
Winkel, D., Wyland, R., Shaffer, M., and Clason, P. (2011). A new perspective on psychological resources: Unanticipated consequences of impulsivity and emotional intelligence Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 84 (1), 78-94 DOI: 10.1348/2044-8325.002001
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