Social comparisons can be defined as the psychological process by which an individual compares him/herself to another person or people (Gerber, 2018). According to Wheeler and Miyake (1992), people are predisposed to compare themselves to another at least once a day. However, in recent years, with the technological revolution and the birth of social networking websites, it is believed that this tendency has increased (Sabatini and Sarracino, 2016). According to these authors people in fast developing countries react more positively to this kind of comparison, because they hope that soon they will catch up, but the opposite happens with countries with stagnated growth. The social comparison theory first appeared in 1954, in the work of Leon Festinger. The way he put it, this theory implies that every individual has an innate drive to build an accurate self-evaluation of themselves. This innate aspect helps people to create meaning and reduce the uncertainty of their lives (Brown et al., 2007). However, before this year, even though comparison studies existed in the literature already, the concept of social comparison had not been mentioned yet. Two examples of these are the work of Sherif (1936) and Hyman (1942), which highlighted the importance of comparisons between individuals in various contexts. It was not until Festinger, in 1954, that the concept of social comparison first appeared. Consequently, with the changing times, the studies on social comparison grew both in complexity and knowledge. With these theoretical advances new concepts were born.
This paper’s aim is to analyse the relationship between social comparisons and employee behaviour in the workplace, through a literature review. It will be organised as follows: in section 2 it will be looking at the history of social comparisons theory, how it was born and its major developments throughout the years. In section 3 it will explain briefly what employee behaviour is and how it works. In section 4, this paper will build a bridge between social comparisons and employee behaviour, by identifying in the literature the different kinds of relationship between the two. Lastly, it will conclude with section 5, a brief conclusion and analysis on the literature and the subject.
2. Social Comparison Theory
According to Festinger (1954), social comparisons arise when people find themselves in situations with uncertain outcomes. However, recent authors have gone beyond this conception. This paper will, in this section, speak about four main theories developed over the last decades. It will start with the classic social comparison theory, followed by the fear-affiliation theory. Next, it will talk about downward comparison theory, and finally, individual differences in social comparison.
2.1. Classic Social Comparison Theory
This theory, first mentioned by Festinger (1954), states that individuals have a distinctive drive to make sure that they are right about their opinions and their skills. According to this author, an individual tends to prefer objective information to evaluate a particular situation or attribute. In fact, the best way for someone to evaluate a situation is to have an objective view about it, in order to weigh the pros and cons. However, when this information is not available, the individual tends to turn to others for information or ways of comparison. Social comparisons, in which an individual engages, can take multiple shapes. With this reasoning, Wheeler (1966) first introduced the rank order paradigm. This study focused on individual’s upward and downward comparisons. An upward comparison is a comparison made by an individual with someone who is better off or ranked higher. A downward comparison, on the other hand, is a comparison with someone who is worse off or ranked in a lower position than the individual. More recent studies show that, where abilities are concerned, people tend to make upward comparisons. As for downwards social comparisons, some authors argue that people tend to apply them in threat situations, even though there are evidences that “threatened people prefer similar targets more than downward targets” (Gerber, 2018).
2.2. Fear-affiliation theory
This theory was first mentioned in the work of Schachter (1959). According to this author, when an individual finds themselves in an uncertain situation, they tend to turn to other people in the same circumstances and feel more comfortable with them. More recent studies have shown evidence that an individual who experiences uncertainty in their work demonstrates an increased need to discover more people who have gone through the same.
2.3. Downward Comparison Theory
The first studies on social comparisons tried to manipulate conditions to discover the motivations for social behavior. According to these, people compare themselves with others due to a number of reasons. They can be self-evaluation, self-enhancement, self-improvement or the necessity to feel better about oneself. It was because of this reasoning that the downward comparison theory (Wills, 1981) first appeared. According to this theory “people can feel less threatened, or better about themselves, by comparing with someone who is worse off than themselves” (Gerber, 2018). This theory also suggests that people who use downward comparisons tend to have a lower self-esteem.
It is not hard to understand why people with lower self-esteem tend to make more downward comparisons. That is why people tend to be less willing to acknowledge engagement in downward comparisons (Gibbons and Buunk, 1999). This happens because, if a person has low self-esteem, they will try and do the best comparisons for them, in order to elevate self-esteem (Greenberg, Ashton-james and Ashkanasy, 2007). However, “when self-esteem is threatened, comparison changes to an upward direction” (Gerber et al., 2017). The reasoning behind the fact that people tend to make upwards comparisons is that, when a high self-esteem is concerned, no one wants to be viewed on the same level as someone who is worse-off.
2.4. Social Comparison as Social Cognition
According to this theory, social comparisons occur as a result of a cognitive process, inherent to the human race, and its aim is to study the phenomena which occur during the process of social comparison. A person tends to be quicker in evaluating their own characteristics after assessing and judging others on the same ones. The study of Wheeler and Suls (2007) revealed two patterns of comparison reaction: contrast and assimilation. According to these authors assimilation takes place when people put their self-estimate nearer a target after the comparison, whereas contrast occurs when an individual shifts their self-estimate away from the target in question. Reactions to comparison are contrastive in its majority. Upward comparisons lead, in most cases, to lowered ability estimates and lower self-esteem. On the other hand, downward estimates occur when the individual wants to feel better about himself and result in increased self-esteem in most cases. There are several models who try to explain these events. Examples are the GLOMO model (Forster et al. 2008), the identification-contrast model (Buunk and Ybema, 1997) and the selective accessibility model (Mussweiler and Strack, 2000). According to this last model, the individual first makes a judgement of the overall similarity between himself and the target. If he detects similarity with the target, he will move his self-estimate closer to the target. If the initial assessment is of dissimilarity, the individual will shift his self-estimate away from the target.
2.5. Individual Differences in Social Comparison
There are many individual differences in comparison examined in the literature. Self-esteem comparisons are heavily related to downward and upward comparisons. In more recent work, authors try to assess what is the relationship between social comparisons and the individual’s personality. As it has been mentioned above, individuals with low self-esteem tend to respond more positively to downward social comparisons. It has also been discovered that neuroticism – the personality trait linked to worrying, anxiety and depression – is correlated to an increased predisposition to engage in social comparisons, that is, these individuals compare themselves to others more than the average person. Some recent studies have also been studying the possibility that engaging in social comparisons is, in itself, a personality trait (Hemphill and Lehman, 1991).
2.6. Recent Expansions
According to (Buunk and Gibbons, 2007), there were three main expansions in social comparison theory over the last few years: expansion of issues, expansion of methods and expansion of the notion of social comparison. The study of social comparison theories has never stopped expanding. Every year new studies about new issues related to social comparison theory appear. A good example is that only a few years ago did social comparison theory applied to the organisations started to get some attention. The same happened with entity personality theory (Buunk et al., 2003), or even the effects of social comparison theory in mental disorders like anorexia or bulimia. The methods used to study social comparison theory have also evolved, with new ones being used every day. The notion of social comparison has changed as well. Nowadays, “it would appear that social comparison is (…) any process in which individuals relate their own characteristics to those of others” (Buunk and Gibbons, 2007).
3. Employee Behaviour
Employee behaviour is often viewed and defined as the way a certain individual reacts to situations related to the workplace or their profession. This kind of behaviour can be influenced my several external and internal factors. These factors can be the workplace culture, leadership style, job related responsibilities, co-worker communication (how effective it is) and even personal life. Juneja (2018) even went further, identifying several types of employee behaviour. According to this author there are five main types of employee behaviour, such as task performers, organizational citizens, counterproductive employees, loyal employees (workers that stay in the same organization for a long time), and employees who maintain a good work attendance.
4. Social Comparisons and Employee Behaviour
Social comparison theory is a core characteristic of employee behaviour and organizational theory. Even though this was not mentioned in Festinger’s work, it did not take long for psychologists and human resources specialists to write about it. In this section this paper will review the five main topics of interest to organizational psychologists, as mentioned in the work of (Greenberg, Ashton-james and Ashkanasy, 2007). It will start by analysing organizational justice, followed by performance appraisal. After this, it will analyse affective behaviour in the workplace, and finally, leadership.
4.1. Organizational Justice
Social comparison is something inherent to justice evaluations and opinions, since it is essential that one individual compares themselves to another in order to assess justice contexts, and in this specific context, organizational justice. Organizational justice can take one of three possible forms: distributive justice, procedural justice and interactional justice. Distributive justice concerns the “perceived fairness of the distribution of outcomes”, that is, the observed fairness of the distribution of resources. The equity concept is also an essential concept to evaluate justice. This was firstly written about in the work of Festinger (1957), and, in 1965, was defined by Adams as the “ratio of benefits one receives relative to the contributions one has made” (Greenberg, Ashton-james and Ashkanasy, 2007). This means that, in order for an individual to perceive themselves as equal to another, they both need to have an approximate ratio of outcomes and inputs. The comparisons within distributive justice can take several shapes. They can be internal comparisons, where the reference individual must have one of three attributes: instrumentality, similarity or proximity. They can also be external comparisons, for example, when an employee compares themselves to an individual of the same industry but another organization.
Procedural Justice concerns the way employees weigh the processes used to define those outcomes. According to the Referent Cognitions Theory (RCT) (Folger, 1986a and Folger, 1986b) referent cognitions are the mental simulations formed by people when thinking about past events. In the workplace context, an individual tends to use procedures used in their co-workers’ routines to assess the fairness of the weighing scheme used for them. As stated in the work of (Greenberg, Ashton-james and Ashkanasy, 2007), people tend to use these evaluations in a selfish way, even though they evaluate procedures that not only affect themselves, but also others.
Interactional justice concerns interpersonal treatment, and how it is used to explain certain outcomes (Greenberg, Ashton-james and Ashkanasy, 2007). According to Lamertz (2002), an individual tends to trust consensual information from their co-workers when creating interpretations of interactional justice. In a study by Greenberg, in 2006, it was shown that people care much more about the empathy of their superior than their feedback, specifically when this person has shown they can behave in a kind and caring manner to others in another occasion. This study also showed that people tend to care less about a superior who has behaved uncaringly or unsensitively to another co-worker.
4.2. Performance Appraisal
Feedback and performance appraisal are crucial human resource management tools in today’s organisations. However, as mentioned by Kluger and DeNisi (1996), in order for this practice to be useful, the employee must accept and reflect on the feedback provided. An employee’s reactions tend to be biased, according to which supervisor is delivering them, or even depending on that supervisor’s attitude with other colleagues. There are two processes which are likely to interfere with the performance appraisal process, by affecting acceptance of information: the rejection problem and the deflection problem (Greenberg, Ashton-james and Ashkanasy, 2007). The first concerns the possibility of an employee not giving enough thought to such information. Usually people engage in social comparisons to assess their ability to succeed in a particular scenario (which is uncertain most of the times), by gathering as much information on the subject as possible. However, two conditions must be present: the proxy’s performance in the task analysed must be similar to the individual’s performance, and if the proxy is thought to have made a good amount of effort on that task. According to this model, when an individual knows about the proxy’s initial effort, they will think of related features as irrelevant to the performance of this task in specific.
The second concerns the “tendency to reconstruct the situation cognitively so as to discount that information” (Greenberg, Ashton-james and Ashkanasy, 2007). This process usually involves comparisons in which one of the parts falls short in some attribute, so they are typically of an envious kind. According to the self-fulfilling prophecy, if an employee perceives themselves to be poor performers, their supervisors will treat them accordingly. However, even if an employee does not lower their performance in response to negative feedback, either because they want to be perceived as good employees or because they feel motivated, there are other kinds of negative behaviours that can result.
4.3. Affective Workplace Behaviour
There are several kinds of social comparison related emotions, that is, emotions that result from social comparisons. We can find almost all of them in the workplace context. These emotions can be either self-conscious emotions or social emotions. Self-conscious emotions can be emotions like shame, guilt, embarrassment or pride, and they exist innately within every human being. Social emotions are a special kind of emotions that are exterior to the individual. Two good examples of social emotions are jealousy and envy. Jealousy usually results from a loss in self-esteem caused by loss in performance or work outputs. Envy is defined as the set of attitudes and behaviours which result from another individual obtaining certain outputs or performance level. These kinds of emotions, when felt within the workplace context can result in withdrawal and/or aggressive behaviour (Greenberg, Ashton-james and Ashkanasy, 2007).
According to some authors, leadership can be seen as a method of social interactions where leaders want to influence subordinates. These subordinates, especially within organisations, often engage in upward social comparisons with their leaders. This phenomenon happens particularly when the employee is highly ambitious and aspires to become the leader. There are two predominantly promising theories of leadership: the leader-member exchange theory and the social identity theory. In the first, it is argued that an individual will relate to their leader conditional on the trust shared between the two. In the second theory, it is discussed that “leaders embody member’s identities as a group” (Greenberg, Ashton-james and Ashkanasy, 2007). Followers perceive this leader to be similar or, at least, have similar personality traits and attributes to themselves.
This paper has analysed what the literature says about specific aspects of social comparisons in the workplace. The main conclusion we can take is that, as it would be expected, social comparisons play a star role in employee behaviour. The fact that the work world is increasingly competitive and selective can heighten the amount of social comparisons made by individuals, or even the importance one gives them. For example, a recent graduate looking for a job is competing with hundreds more nowadays. Having the highest grades stopped being a quality to be a requirement for any job. This and other facts are responsible for the changing reality in every workplace of the twentieth century, specially as we begin to go out of the two-thousand-and-tens into the twenties.
The studies in this area have several limitations. Even though the information found makes sense and follows what would be expected, it can be flawed. Usually, these kinds of papers and articles use surveys, interviews or focus groups to collect data. This way of collecting information can be very biased. It is not guaranteed that a person will respond according to how he or she feels, or even that the individual knows how he or she feels at all times. It is not rare for someone to not be able to identify exactly their feelings, and even in this situation can exist some kind of psychological bias. Thus, is it difficult to make sure that this information is independent and unbiased, making these studies less reliable than one would hope. A good way to improve the methodology in social emotions’ studies would be to create software for, for example, phones or smart watches, where people could record their emotions as their work day goes by, at the precise moment when they feel them, in order to minimize the bias. This could help to improve accuracy to the results and would facilitate the transmission of results.
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