NEW YORK - Over 22 million Americans have experienced layoffs, furloughs, and salary cuts this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As companies are forced to reckon with the difficult decision to let go of workers, the question of how to do so while causing the least pain is a delicate balancing act. New research from Joel Brockner, the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, sheds light on how companies can strike this balance. Analyzing research participants’ reactions to negative workplace decisions, such as company layoffs, he finds that people are less likely to perceive the news negatively if it is communicated in line with their individual way of thinking - what he calls “construal level.” Communicating this life changing news in detailed, straightforward terms, versus vague and abstract ones, as well as the thinking style of the listener, makes a major difference in how it’s received.
The research, When to Explain Why or How It Happened: Tailoring Accounts to Fit Observers’ Construal Level, co-written with New York University postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Ashli B. Carter and University of Waterloo Professor, Dr. Ramona Bobocel, utilized construal theory - how individuals perceive, comprehend, and interpret the world around them - to evaluate the extent to which people think in abstract, lofty terms, or in a more literal, concrete style. The study’s 375 participants were presented with newspaper articles that described company layoffs, in one case emphasizing why the layoffs were done and, in another case, emphasizing how the layoffs were implemented. Prior research on construal level has shown that when individuals are operating at a more abstract level of construal, they are interested in why decisions are made whereas individuals operating at a more concrete level of construal are more interested in how decisions are made. Thus, when the description of the layoff was congruent with the level of construal at which participants were operating (descriptions of “why” delivered to those at an abstract level and descriptions of “how” to those at a concrete level) they perceived the layoffs as more fair and evaluated the organization more positively than when the description was not congruent with participants’ level of construal (e.g., descriptions of “how” delivered to those at an abstract level).
At a time when many companies are being forced to make difficult decisions regarding their employees’ futures, effective organizational communication has never been more critical. Understanding individual employees’ levels of construal might allow business leaders to better maintain relationships with their employees after communicating negative decisions. This in turn could build better trust between employees and company management, and therefore strengthen workplace cohesion and collaboration.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Within the broader field of organizational behavior, Professor Brockner is well known for his work in several areas, including the effects of organizational downsizing...Read more.