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Essay: Social comparison theory – effect on employees’ attitude and behaviour

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The advent of globalisation has caused a huge increase in the number of international businesses in the world, which, in turn, has led to an increase in the demand for employment. However, there have been some changes, both in the workforce itself and in the human resource management of firms. For example, the new generation of employees have totally different characteristics from their former counterparts (Tolbize, 2008) and more people seem to dream of being self-employed, since their number increased to around 660,000 in 2016 from 608,000 in 2015 (Financial Times, 12/10/2017) compared to a decrease of the turnover rate of employees. This appears to indicate that employee loyalty is a sentiment of the part, which leaves many firms struggling with the same issue that needs to be urgently resolved. While some large companies, such as those in the banking or manufacturing industries, are able to restructure their business to use robots or machines instead of humans, other smaller firms are unable to afford these technologies or they may not be suitable for their business. Therefore, human resource management is a key element of employers’ search for a solution to this problem, for instance, by encouraging all employees to be united or advising them on how to change their attitude or behaviour. A theory known as ‘social comparison’ can be used to design the structure of human resource management in terms of measuring job performance (Dai and Xiao,2016 and Suls et al., 2002) and shaping employee’ attitude to be in line with the company’s mission. Festinger first introduced this theory in 1954 in order to explain natural human cognition whereby people are likely to compare themselves with others for many reasons (Suls et al., 2002) and some use this comparison as motivation to exceed their basic standard. The human cognitive system contains various levels of comparison, such as personal self-concept, aspiration and a feeling of well-being (Suls et al., 2002). However, researchers have identified some dark aspects of this theory; for example, Duff et al. found that social comparison can cause envy, which undermines society (2012). The negative effect of this actions not only destroys the performance of teamwork, but also contributes to an unhealthy organisational norm, which will be a long-term issue. However, in my opinion, despite evidence of the dark side of social comparison, it is still a useful technique for engaging employees and changing their attitude and behaviour to unite them; moreover, researchers have recently revealed a new idea to engage employees, which is gentler. As a result, the aim of this essay is to explain the key definition of the social comparison theory and how it can be applied into many aspects. However, the main focus will be the effect of this theory on employees’ attitude and behaviour in the workplace and the new idea of engaging measurement that is currently being used by some firms.

Some researchers try to study the social comparison theory by applying it to many aspects, particularly its usage in organisations. As mentioned earlier, this theory was firstly introduced by Festinger (1954), who proposed that, since people generally engage in self-evaluation, the comparison process becomes a natural part of their daily lives. In fact, it happens automatically, even in simple situations; for example, children may compare their ice-cream with that of their friends, or employees compare their works with that of their colleague, partner or family member. Sometimes the effect of comparison causes a conflict between them because people usually compare themselves with a superior target so that they are dissatisfied with their achievements and possessions (Wood, 1989). For example, when A buys a new car and his friend, B, also buys one, A’s brain will automatically find something to compare and feel dissatisfied. It is generally believed that the process people use to evaluate their capability or possessions if mainly based on their opinions, experience and belief. Humans are generally gregarious by nature and this tends to change their personality and behaviour as they strive to be as similar as possible as others in their group (Wood, 1989). This is why people in the same group seem to have some similar characteristics or attitudes to others around them. This theory can be applied to the workplace in several ways, but most of researchers apply it to measure job performance; for example, Goffin et al. (2009) used social comparison to rate “job performance” and found that it was more accurate than the old method of “absolute rating standards”. They further found that the process of this theory was natural and automatic, as well as being able to stimulate the reprocessing of social judgments in terms of relevance and accuracy. The evaluation process involves comparison based on using another member as the standard and rating others by comparing them with that member. On the other hand, it can be quite difficult to choose someone who has the best performance to represent the standard. In all honesty, this solution seems to be biased and capable of incurring interior complaints. Surprisingly, Goffin et al. claims that, apart from comparing themselves with others, people also compare others. Additionally, Gilbert et al. argue that although they received irrelevant data, people’s cognitive comparison process often works automatically (1995). Goffin et al. (2009) split the social comparison process into two stages, the first of which is the automatic stage, which is uncontrollable and a deliberate, in which people only compare relevant information. Based on their nature, humans prefer to compare themselves with people who are close to them or have something in common (Wood, 1989), as well as the majority are likely to compare themselves to someone they perceive to be superior, which is known as “upward comparison”. In their study, Gerber and Wheeler (2017) reveal that people tend to select an upward target because their desired expectation is to be as similar as possible to their target. Although upward comparison appears to be generally automatic in the human cognition when people tend to compare themselves with others in an attempt to find better alternatives and the most similar attitudes or characteristics, in some cases, when people have lost their self-esteem, a downward comparison is likely to restore their esteem and also boost their self-evaluations (Gerber and Wheeler, 2017). Wood also maintains that someone whose job has been disrupted by such issues as marital problems, physical injury or general stress makes a downward comparison in the workplace (Pearline et al., 1981 cited in Wood, 1995). In terms of focusing on the application of social comparison, motivation is seen to affect employees’ attitude and behaviour. Although no studies directly suggest that social comparison can change people’s attitude and behaviour, many researchers claim that, based on the human cognitive system, individuals are likely to automatically compare themselves with others who are similar to them and they generally aim for an upward target rather than a downward one (Festinger, 1954; Wood, 1989; Suls et al., 2002; Gerber and Wheeler, 2017). Therefore, it can be assumed that employees tend to compare themselves with others and are able to change their attitude and behaviour along with others in the company. This can be predicted to have two different outcomes. Firstly, from a negative perspective, when new employees are infected by the unhealthy attitude and unacceptable behaviour of leaders or senior colleagues, it is easy for this to become the organisational norm. On the other hand, if the company has a well-organised structure, which is sufficiently efficient to control the workforce and encourage all employees to follow the company’s mission, the outcome of comparison will be a positive one. Besides, some researchers propose that the dark side of social comparison normally appears when a comparison is based on envy (Duffy et al., 2012). This can lead to a harmful culture in the workplace, which tends to block the performance of teamwork, as well as having an overall negative effect. It usually occurs in the context of social identification between colleagues and their workplace norm, since Duffy observes that a high level of social identification with others makes individuals feel more intense (2012). Envy occurs when individuals are unhappy and they expect others to have the same possessions or experiences as them (Duffy et al., 2012). Envious workers lead to atrocious behaviour, such as gossiping, accusing or calumniating, which can become the organisational norm if leaders ignore it; moreover, this has a negative effect on the work performance of team members. In their research, Duffy et al. (2012) conceptualise behaviour called as “moral disengagement” as belonging to three broad categories, namely, devaluing the target, reconstructing conduct and obscuring/distorting (2012). Those concepts represent behaviour in which colleagues dehumanise, attribute blame or use improper language to devaluate others. While it is hard to completely eliminate envy, the solution lies in reducing the envious emotion. It is suggested that envy can be reduce or undermined by people’s ‘perception that they are superior and raise their own relative standing’ (Duffy et al., 2012). Although human cognition is complex and difficult to understand because individuals react based on experience, attitudes and behaviour they have never know before, companies should invest in improving their human resource strategy by focusing on encouraging all their employees to have similar views, since their attitude and behaviour are the main dimensions that affect the overall business performance. Saari and Judge (2004) explain the relationship between employees’ views and job performance by separating this relationship into three different influencing factors, namely, emotional, cultural and work situation. Firstly, it is necessary for HR to understand the attitude of individual employees in order to design strategies to motivate each of them to continually engage with the business. Furthermore, Judge, Heller and Mount (2002) observe that the most significant impact on job performance is based on employee’ personal traits, such as extra- version, honesty and self-evaluation, which is how they usually evaluate themselves according to their background experience (Judge, Heller and Mount, 2002 cited in Saari and Judge, 2004). Although there is no clear evidence that organisations are able to change their staff’s attitude or personality; Saari and Judge suggest that job performance can be improved by selecting the right people for the jobs which would encourage them to become more involved with the firms and increase their satisfaction at work (2004). The number of global businesses have currently increased, which has led to cross-cultural workplaces. Hofstede (1980, 1985) studied employees’ attitude by focusing on people with different culture backgrounds who work in the same workplace. He categorised the attitudes of people into four dimensions, namely, individualism-collectivism, uncertainty avoidance versus risk-taking, power distance, or the extent to which power is unequally distributed and masculinity/femininity. Hofstede explained the characteristics of each category by providing examples, such as “the United States is found to be high on individualism, low on power distance, and low on uncertainty avoidance (thus high on risk taking), whereas Mexico is high on collectivism, high on power distance, and high on uncertainty avoidance” (Hofstede 1980, 1985 cited in Saari and Judge, 2004). The study of the social comparison theory in different sectors helps to understand the evolution of this theory and since it covers many angles, it can be utilised to develop the most appropriate human resource strategy.

Human resource management has only been slightly developed in some workplaces in the past, but many international firms are now turning their focus to employees’ well-being and using new methods to appraise their performance. One of the issues that emerged from the transitional period between generations in organisations was the modifications of human resource strategies to reduce the turnover rate (Saari and Judge, 2004). The generation gap is a huge problem for organisations that needs to be considered by many companies because the current young generation of workers, who were born between 1981 and 2000 (known as Millennials or Gen Y) have become the main driver in the labour market and tend to appear in many firms. This causes a conflict between some of leaders or managers who may be much older (baby boomers for instance) than their colleagues who are millennials with different characteristics (Tolbize, 2008). Tolbize defines millennials (Gen Y) as preferring collective action and teamwork, multi-taskers who can easily adopt to change. These characteristics are completely different from those of baby boomers, who could be their senior leaders or managers (Tolbize, 2008). This total difference between them drives HR departments to find strategies that can motivate them to work smoothly. This situation can be used to exemplify the application of the social comparison theory to measure their work performance. If the theory is used to select subjects to compare and everybody is compared using the same standard, errors are bound to occur because the theory involves a process of selecting subjects with similar characteristics (Festinger, 1954; Wood,1989; Goffin et al., 2009; Gerber and Wheeler, 2017). However, since people of different generations, have nothing in common, it is obvious that social comparison cannot be used efficiently; therefore, it has been suggested that position, salary, aged and experience are the main factors firms need to consider when appraising their employees’ performance (Gerber and Wheeler, 2017). However; selecting subjects by human traits still has an obstruction in terms of bias and this is why some companies are trying to improve their work performance measurement in different ways, apart from social comparison, which they believe are not only be more efficient, but also improves staff well-being.

In a business management strategy, on the one hand, human labour still plays the most significant role in driving firms to achieve a high level of profitability. Although some industries try to use robots, artificial intelligence (AI) or machines instead of human power, human resources are still needed in key positions, such as CEO, Analysts or the Arts. However, only a small number of firms consider their employees’ overall welfare. The majority of companies only invest in employees who work in the main positions and fail to pay attention to the overall workforce (Bryson, 2016). As mentioned earlier in this essay, social comparison is a method that is widely used, especially in terms of job performance appraisals, because many researchers believe the accuracy of the measurement since this process involves the selection of someone who has particular relevance as a reference point compared to other dimensions, which leads to a natural and smooth process (Festinger,1954; Kruglanski and Mayseless, 1990; Olson, Buhrmann and Roese, 2000; Suls and Wheeler, 2000 cited in Goffin et al., 2009). Although there are a number of researchers agree that social comparison is an efficient means to measure employees’ work performance and encourage them to become engaged with the company’s mission, this theory still has a negative effect in terms of generating unhealthy behaviour, such as social-undermining, devaluing and backbiting. Therefore, researchers currently tend to support employees’ well-being because they believe that individuals’ performance improves when they are happy at work and satisfied with their job (Bryson, 2016). Some firms agree with this point and try to enhance the well-being of their staff because they believe that, when their workers have a happy life, their performance will greatly improve. Therefore, instead of using social comparison to measure work performance, motivate or engage workers as many of them did before, they are now using employees’ feedback to identify the cause of their possible dissatisfaction at work (Kimball and Nink, 2006). Kimball and Nink (2006) propose that happy workers are able to improve the productivity of the businesses in many ways, such as when employees work for the same company for a long time, it not only reduces the turnover rate, which affects the budget in terms of finding new staff, but these long-term workers are also knowledgeable and skilled experts in their field as well, being familiar with the company structure. Moreover, another advantage of reducing the turnover rate is the provision of a premium service for customers because, when staff work for the same company for a long period, they know the target consumers and provide them with a superior service, which in turn, increases the company’s productivity.

In conclusion, although social comparison has been used by organisations to motivate employees or rate their performance, some recent studies propose new strategies that seem to be more efficient and beneficial for workers than the use of comparison to limit their ideal standard. Even though experts have found that comparison is an automatic reaction embedded in the human cognition, it still has the solution to reduce by providing equal standards; for example; every employee should received health insurance or training should be provided for unskilled labourers. Therefore, instead of finding new technologies to replace human resources, many firms should try to find the cause of their annual high turnover rate and solve the problem from the root rather than omitting humans from their process. Moreover, it is predicted that, if the majority of businesses reduce their need of employees, the impact on the overall employment rate will have an extremely negative effect on the global economy and those companies will also suffer from unintended negative effects.


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