Performance Management

The “What” and “Who” of Counterproductive Workplace Behavior (CWB)

Counterproductive Workplace Behavior (CWB) – volitional acts that harm or are intended to harm organizations or people within organizations – is a pervasive problem throughout almost all organizations.  CWB can be directed at the organization (CWB-O; can include tardiness or sabotaging the organization) or at individuals (CWB-I; can include spreading rumors or harming another’s possessions)- a distinction that helps to understand precipitating factors that lead to negative emotions.

CWB and Negative Emotion

CWB is thought to be participated in as a means to reduce negative emotions caused by environmental stressors. Negative emotions elicit individuals to identify an event as incongruent with their personal goals. Therefore, individuals may have difficulty thinking about their work and performing at satisfactory levels, which in turn, lead to negative affect (emotion) and  CWB.

The “What”

Understanding the factors that precipitate negative emotions may be important in understanding the “what” behind underlying relationships of CWB and its fundamental causes (e.g., supervisor injustice). It is thought that ambiguous tasks (i.e., uncertainty of project/work descriptions) are an antecedent to CWB-O.  Another underlying cause to CWB-O is dealing with rude customers.  On the other hand, CWB-I is related to supervisor injustice.

Who is More Susceptible?

Identifying employee’s personality traits may enhance understanding just “Who” copes with stressors at work, performs organizational citizenship behaviors, and refrains from CWB. Agreeableness (tendency to be compassionate, cooperative towards others), Conscientiousness (tendency to be disciplined, organized), and Negative Affectivity (pervasive disposition to experience situations/objects in a negative manner) are related to CWB. Those high in agreeableness and conscientiousness may be predisposed to be good citizens and deal with stressors that lead to negative feelings.  Those high in negative affectivity may experience more negative emotions and engage in more CWB.

Implications for Practice

By understanding the “what” and the “who” of CWB it is possible to identify those factors that contribute to counterproductive work behaviors. This can be accomplished through:
  • Decreasing stress associated with ambiguous situations – clearly communicate the tasks given to employees.
  • Decreasing the likelihood of customer aggression – ensure that service is consistently satisfactory and that the service environment (e.g., waiting room, temperature) is sufficiently comfortable.
  • Decreasing supervisor injustice – develop interpersonal relations training for managers/supervisors, assure better communication, or have employees provide feedback about supervisor performance/behavior.
  • Developing training programs that focus on dealing with negative emotions (i.e., stress management or anger management) – this should lead to higher employee capabilities to manage stressors and ultimately, negative emotions.
  • Implementing pre-employment screening to identify personality factors associated with lower CWB – those high in agreeableness and conscientiousness, while low in negative affectivity hold traits that lead to decreased CWB.

Adam Bradshaw


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Yang, J. & Diefendorf, J.M. (2009). The relations of daily counterproductive workplace behaviors with emotions, situational antecedents, and personality moderators: A diary study in Hong Kong. Personnel Psychology, 62 (2), 259-295.