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Keep Up the Good Work: The Business Application of Self-Complexity Theory

Keep Up the Good Work: The Business Application of Self-Complexity Theory

In 1985, Patricia Linville published her research on how self-complexity and affect (aka emotions) interact. In other words, how does the understanding of who you are affect your emotional state? The Yale psychologist stumbled upon a particularly interesting phenomenon– it has the ability to transform the way we manage people. Self-complexity is the idea that

In 1985, Patricia Linville published her research on how self-complexity and affect (aka emotions) interact. In other words, how does the understanding of who you are affect your emotional state? The Yale psychologist stumbled upon a particularly interesting phenomenon– it has the ability to transform the way we manage people.

Self-complexity is the idea that we have many identifiers of who we are given social context. For example, Katherine recognizes herself as a mother, daughter, sister-in-law and an aunt, all at the same time. Alex recognizes herself as a marketer, daughter, an MBA student, and kite flyer. Someone with a more complex self-complexity–like Alex– will identify themselves with more identifiers, but they will overlap less. Someone–like Katherine– who has lower self-complexity can have the same number of identities but they would overlap more.

In Experiment 1, individuals were asked to take a test in which they performed a trait-sorting task. Upon completion, they received an affect score. They were then asked to perform an affect test with some self-evaluation questions. An “error message” appeared after the last question was answered. The researcher supposedly left the room to go check on the error, while the participant answered an intelligence based questionnaire. When the researcher returned, participants had the opportunity to receive feedback on how they did– all the participants said yes. They then received extremely positive or negative feedback from the researcher and were asked to retake the earlier self-evaluation test because the computer had “crashed”. Linville found that people with lower self-complexity (e.g. Katherine), experienced higher mood swings, when exposed to positive or negative experiences.

In Experiment 2, participants performed the same task as in Experiment 1, but instead they were asked to sort traits into certain roles. Participants were then asked to report how they felt for 14 days. They had no access to the previous day’s score. Linville discovered that people with low self-complexity experienced larger mood swings over a span of two weeks. Both these results indicate that high self-complexity is a buffer when exposed to extremely positive or negative experiences.

Linville’s findings are often applied to clinical settings. However, her work has relevance in business by potentially increasing worker productivity. Workers with lower self-complexity who find themselves often in what they perceive to be a negative work environment are more likely to quit their job (Vinokur-Kaplan et. al 1994). Lower retention rates can lead to a significant loss of talent that would otherwise bolster profits. Such negative environments may come from poorly constructed job evaluations– if managers are able to find workers with lower self-complexity they can positively impact the organization and more importantly, the employee. Positively framed evaluations provided to people with low self-complexity will allow them to work exponentially more according to Linville’s findings. They can be twice or even thrice more effective than their high self-complexity counterparts. Early identification of these people also allows managers to expend more resources to their targeted audience. In concert with the self-fulfilling prophecy and first impressions effects, retention rates would greatly increase.

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