These are the characteristics of people most likely to cut corners at work
In a newly published study, we found that employees who “cut corners” tend to be morally compromised, low in conscientiousness, self-focused and impulsive. This in addition to the potential for corner-cutting to increase risks.
Surveying more than 1,000 Australians and Americans, we found approximately one in four employees regularly cut corners. Men are slightly more likely to cut corners than women.
Cutting corners at work
Cutting corners is a workplace behaviour characterised by skipping or avoiding steps important to a task, in order to complete the task sooner. Corner-cutting is generally considered an undesirable behaviour, with research linking it to a range of negative outcomes such as low job performance, safety violations and serious injuries.
Although corner-cutting comes with a set of risks, it also comes with a clear possible benefit – cutting corners can possibly lead to greater productivity. Consistent with this, studies have shown that corner-cutting is more likely in jobs characterised by high demands and few resources. It is also more likely in organisations that prioritise efficiency over risks.
However, even in such organisations, corner-cutting is openly discouraged. Mistakes caused by employees cutting corners are typically met with harsh consequences.
To investigate whether corner-cutters can be identified, we surveyed employees from a range of industries including health care, education, hospitality, retail and construction. We looked at several demographic variables and personality traits to determine who is more or less likely to cut corners at work. We focused on both common personality traits (e.g., extraversion, conscientiousness) as well as “darker” personality traits (e.g., Machiavellianism, narcissism).
We didn’t just stop at a questionnaire. We also exposed employees to a hypothetical scenario where they could choose to cut corners or not. We conducted two variations of the study across Australia and the US.
The personality traits of corner-cutters
Across both studies, we found that both common and darker personality traits were associated with corner-cutting. Most significantly, corner-cutters were likely to be low in conscientiousness, low in honesty and high in psychopathy (i.e., impulsive, callous social attitudes). Corner-cutters also scored high in Machiavellianism (i.e., manipulation, self-interest) and narcissism (i.e., grandiosity, pride).
Age and gender were also factors in corner-cutting, such that employees who cut corners at work tended to be younger and male.
But there are also various contexts that play into the decision to cut corners. While a third of employees cut corners when it would likely save them time, they were less likely to do so if they could be reprimanded (only one in six employees cut corners in this situation), or if there was the potential for a poor-quality outcome (only one in four cut corners then).
These results paint a seemingly negative picture of workplace corner-cutters as individuals who are generally self-interested and low in conscientiousness. However, it is plausible that employees sometimes cut corners with noble intentions. For example, the related concept of “workarounds” refers to the more accepted behaviour of “clever methods for getting done what the system does not let you do easily”.
To explore this possibility, we investigated whether corner-cutters were more proactive than those who tend not to cut corners. Our results strongly suggested that this was generally not the case.
Proactive employees were not more likely to achieve their goals by cutting corners at work, even when their goal was to save time. In fact, we found that proactive individuals were slightly less likely to cut corners at work than non-proactive individuals.
We also found little relation between corner-cutting and career success. There was no relationship between corner-cutting and income. However, it was associated with higher income for those who scored high in psychopathy.
This indicates that while corner-cutting generally does not relate to career success, it can result in career benefits for impulsive, self-focused individuals. These individuals are likely to cut corners as a strategy to be more productive, despite possible costs to the organisation or co-workers.
Implications for managers
Overall, we found that corner-cutting is not a desirable workplace behaviour. Those most likely to cut corners are likely to be poor performers aiming to meet minimimal standards in contrast to good performers looking to excel. The possible exception is individuals high in psychopathy looking for short-cuts to get ahead.
Clearly, it makes sense to minimise the number of employees with corner-cutting tendencies. This is particularly true for jobs in which mistakes caused by cutting corners can lead to serious injury (e.g., jobs in mining, construction). At the very least, we suggest employers take into account certain characteristics of applicants (e.g., conscientiousness, psychopathy) when selecting for such positions.
Peter O’Connor, Senior Lecturer, Business and Management, Queensland University of Technology and Peter Karl Jonason, Senior Lecturer in Personality or Individual Differences, Western Sydney University
Promoted to manager? Here are three things you should never forget
Researchers at the London School of Economics have for many years been tracking the performance of managers, as rated by the people they manage. And the results are poor, particularly for managers in the UK, France and Australia.
Perhaps this is why bad management is such a comedic goldmine. An entire genre of television and films celebrates managerial incompetence and ineptitude, providing a rich context for cringe comedy. The best known exemplar of this is The Office, the British comedy starring Ricky Gervais as David Brent, a dim-witted yet ingratiating supervisor. The formula was successfully remade in the US starring Steve Carell and indeed has been further extended to France, Germany, Quebec, Israel and Sweden. The lead character at heart of The Office seems familiar globally.
Managers are a diverse group, but they tend to share one trait – ambition. The fact that ambition, competence and interpersonal skills are not well correlated tells us much about why so many managers struggle in their roles.
Appointment to a managerial role is a challenging career transition for many. For some, the title creates a sense of superiority that negatively impacts longstanding professional and personal relationships. Problematically, the focus for many relationships moves upwards and outwards of the organisation and dissent is often seen as a personal and professional affront.
The outcomes of such behaviours are entirely predictable – social and personal isolation emerges that can weigh heavily on the manager. The burden is especially great for those who return to normal duties after a limited managerial tenure – for those people the pleasures of management were fleeting, but the consequences can be long-lasting and profoundly negative.
How can managers escape from these negatives? There are a few steps that all should take to buffer themselves from the negative personal and professional consequences of the managerial role.
First, managers should listen as well as talk. Valuing open discussion among your immediate team and encouraging a diversity of views will create better decisions and also improve the quality of your relationships within the organisation. When subordinates respectfully challenge managerial decisions, managers should see that as a vote of confidence in their approachability and rapport – not as a challenge to their position.
Managers should maintain the activities that they undertook before their promotion – they should find time to have lunch with subordinates and former colleagues. This will be a powerful signal that these relationships continue to matter.
Second, be prepared to change your views and decisions. Managers who change their position on the basis of new evidence and reasoned discussion are especially well respected. The noted economist Paul Samuelson once quipped: “Well when events change, I change my mind. What do you do?”.
There is a rich academic literature on the escalation of commitment to poor decisions among senior managerial teams. Groupthink is an inevitable outcome of failing to value diverse views and failing to be open to new evidence as it emerges.
Share the pain
Third, beware of having to exercise administrative authority over referent authority. Referent authority comes from displaying fairness and respect to others and is the basis for improving organisational culture and performance.
In the leadership literature there is a classical divergence between transactional and transformational approaches. Transactional leadership is focused on trading behaviours for rewards, while transformational leadership focuses on creating shared values and rapport. Increasingly these approaches are seen as complementary of one another – few managers succeed if they are able to only do one and not the other.
In summary, management is not about being “one of the guys”, or forgetting your past relationships. Social and professional isolation is a warning sign that managers should be well attuned to – its eventual consequence will be damaging both for the organisation and the person involved.