Can we improve manager processing of information relating humane treatment of workers to business performance?

We now know that managers who see workers in dehumanized terms do not accurately process the negative relationship between abuse and worker productivity. The next question is whether we can improve information processing by rehumanizing workers in the minds of managers.

In one of our experiments we conducted in Bangladesh, we employed the strategy of perspective-taking to rehumanize workers in the minds of managers. Harris and Fiske (2006), using fMRI, demonstrated that rehumanization can occur when study participants were simply asked to imagine the preferences of another person.  Dehumanized people are processed in the brain as objects rather than people.  Simply asking the participant to consider whether a dehumanized individual likes broccoli can lead the participant to process the dehumanized individual in the social parts of the brain.

Bangladesh factory managers in our experiment were first shown a graphic indicating that 53 percent of workers in their factories report verbal abuse by their supervisor.  Factory managers were then surveyed on their perceptions of verbal abuse and its prevalence in their factory.  Remarkably, in spite of having just been shown data clearly indicating significant verbal abuse, when managers were asked how common verbal abuse was, 42.9 percent responded “not at all common.”  Only 21.8 percent responded that verbal abuse was either “somewhat common” or “very common.”

In the experimental manipulation, half the factory managers in our study were engaged in a perspective-taking exercise. Managers in the treatment group were first asked to respond to a set of questions about details of their workers’ lives, both mundane and profound—from what they might have had for breakfast to aspirations they might have for themselves and their children.  The control group was asked the same set of questions but pertaining to themselves rather than their subordinates.

Perspective-taking did appear to affect information processing.  The treatment effect emerged when the sample was divided into two groups.  The first group consisted of managers who think that verbal abuse is appropriate and, thus, likely see workers in dehumanized terms.  The second group consisted of managers who think that verbal abuse is inappropriate and, thus, likely see workers in humanized terms.

Among managers who see workers in dehumanized terms, perspective-taking increased their willingness to acknowledge the prevalence of verbal abuse. Among managers who see workers in humanized terms, perspective-taking increased interest in the data and willingness to make changes based on the data.  Heightened interest and willingness to make changes among the humanized group suggests that these managers may have processed the information about the prevalence of verbal abuse, even if they were not comfortable explicitly acknowledging it.

One of the objectives of our research with Impactt is to see if a deeper intervention that addresses the resistance that arises when managers are asked to take the perspective of workers might be more effective in promoting accurate information processing.

Harris, Lasana S. and Susan T. Fiske (2006), ‘Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups’, Psychological Science 17, 847–53. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01793.x

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