Implicit organizational behavior: What employees aren’t aware of may be important!

Russell E. Johnson
University of South Florida

Have you ever lacked an explanation for why you thought or did something? Compelling findings from research conducted by social-cognitive psychologists suggests that human attitudes and behaviors sometimes occur implicitly. That is, they occur outside people’s awareness and control. For example, seeing an elderly person automatically elicits stereotypic attitudes (e.g., forgetfulness) and behaviors (e.g., slower motor movements) associated with old age (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996). Performance on knowledge tests has even been found to vary depending on whether people are primed with the concepts related to “intelligent” and “dumb” (Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1998).
Many attitudes and behaviors operate outside of our awareness because, as limited information processors, it does not take much for humans to experience excessive cognitive load. In a typical day, a person is forced to juggle numerous goals and responsibilities associated with her or his roles both within and between various settings, such as work- and family-related ones. Thus, it is advantageous when the pursuit of some goals is automatic, which require little attention and consume few cognitive resources. The attentional and cognitive resources that are saved can then be devoted to the most important goals and tasks at hand.
As someone who studies industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology, I am particularly interested in the topic of motivation—that is, understanding employee behavior in organizational settings. Until recently, most theories of motivation assumed that employees act based on controlled, calculative decision-making. For example, when deciding whether or not perform a behavior, employees first determine whether they are capable of performing the behavior and whether performing it will lead to desirable rewards (Vroom, 1964). Although existing theories of motivation have proven useful for predicting behavior, their emphasis on conscious, controlled processes cannot readily explain all employee attitudes and behaviors.
Fortunately, I/O psychologists have begun to explore implicit effects at work. For example, Brief, Butcher, and Roberson (1995) showed that positive mood inductions (e.g., receiving a small gift) caused employees to report higher job satisfaction than those who were not exposed to the mood induction. As another example, Johnson and Chang (in press) found that a self-identity manipulation alters the importance that employed participants place on different types of organizational commitment. Specifically, priming employees’ interdependent identities increased the salience of their affective commitment (i.e., commitment based on identification and internalization), whereas those whose independent identities were primed placed more importance on their continuance commitment (i.e., commitment based on economic exchange). In both studies, the observed effects on employees’ attitudes were implicit.
In addition to attitudes, implicit effects on work-related behaviors have also been observed. For example, Stajkovic, Locke, and Blair (2006) found that unconscious goals enhance the effects of conscious goals on task performance. Thus, the well-known maxim of goal setting theory—that difficult, specific goals that are accompanied by feedback result in higher levels of performance (Locke & Latham, 1990)—extends beyond explicit goals. Behaviors other than task performance are also influenced by implicit processes. Johnson and Lord (2007) showed that organizational justice-related experiences automatically activate different identities, which in turn affect discretionary behaviors. Specifically, exposure to fairness elicited interdependent identities and caused participants to engage in more prosocial behaviors, whereas the receipt of unfair treatment activated independent identities and led to higher incidents of theft. In both studies, the mechanisms that affected their behavior occurred outside participants’ awareness.
Beyond academic curiosity, there are several reasons why we should care about implicit effects at work. First, they account for additional variance in work-related outcomes above and beyond explicit effects. For example, Johnson and Lord (2007) found that measures of implicit effects predicted twice as much variance than explicit measures. Second, because implicit effects occur outside people’s awareness and control, they cannot be readily distorted (intentionally or otherwise). Thus, the use of implicit measures may help resolve problems encountered during employee selection that are due to applicant faking. Third, it may be possible to leverage automatic behaviors to increase efficiency. For example, straightforward tasks can be trained so that their completion requires little attention and depletes few cognitive resources, allowing employees to multitask and divert these resources to more difficult tasks.
I believe that the study of implicit attitudes and behaviors in organizations is intriguing and provides a new avenue of exploration for psychologists. Although there are some inherent difficulties with this approach (e.g., implicit effects are often assessed using reaction time measures, which are burdensome to use in field settings), part of the intrigue involves overcoming such impasses. Furthermore, great dividends can be had by increasing our understanding of implicit phenomena because they potentially impact many facets of work organizations, from recruitment and selection to motivation and leadership. So the next time a colleague at work says or does something inexplicable, don’t fret—she or he may not know why either!

Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype priming on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.
Brief, A. P., Butcher, A. H., & Roberson, L. (1995). Cookies, disposition, and job attitudes: The effects of positive mood-inducing events and negative affectivity on job satisfaction in a field experiment. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 62, 55-62.
Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knippenberg, A. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior or how to win a game of Trivial Pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 865-877.
Johnson, R. E., & Chang, C.-H. (in press). Relationships between organizational commitment and its antecedents: Employee self-concept matters. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
Johnson, R. E., & Lord, R. G. (2007, April). The implicit effects of (un)fairness on self-concept: Unconscious shifts in identity levels. In D. R. Bobocel & R. E. Johnson’s (Chairs), The role of the self in organizational justice. Paper presented at the 22nd Annual Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Conference, New York, New York.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal-setting and task performance. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Stajkovic, A. D., Locke, E. A., & Blair, E. S. (2006). A first examination of the relationships between primed subconscious goals, assigned conscious goals, and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 1172-1180.
Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and motivation. New York: Wiley.

Biographical Note
Dr. Russell E. Johnson is a Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at the University of South Florida. He received his Ph.D.from the University of Akron in 2006. Dr. Johnson’s research interests include employee motivation, leadership, and work-related attitudes. Some of his recent work examines implicit processing and its effects on employee attitudes and behaviors. He can be contacted via email at