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Spatial distance plays a role in office ethics

Research shows that bad behaviour in the office is contagious. While some companies have introduced ethics training for employees, researchers now believe physical distance may also play a role in the adoption of unethical actions.

According to Gijs van Houwelingen, a researcher at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, spatial distance has a cognitive and emotional effect on how we relate to people and things. “If someone kicks a dog right in front of you, it’ll make you very mad,” van Houwelingen told Fast Company. “But if you hear about someone somewhere in the world kicking a dog, you probably won’t feel as mad about it.”

In a recent study published in the Journal of Management, van Houwelingen and his team did a series of experiments to find out whether this phenomenon shapes conduct in the office. They tested whether middle managers copy or deviate from their boss’s unfair treatment when their physical distance is increased.

To simulate an office situation, a total of 150 students were split into groups with one acting as a middle manager with two subordinate employees. They were told their boss was either in the same room or located at another location across campus and were given tasks to delegate to their employees. One task was creative and ad a reward on completion, while the other was menial and didn’t come with a bonus.

The researchers then sent messages as supervisors dishing out the two tasks. They were either fair or unfair about the boring task, giving a reasonable explanation for why the task needed to be completed, or simply saying they couldn’t be bothered to do it themselves. The middle managers were then asked how they felt about their boss’s behaviour and told to make decisions on how they would treat their own employees.

When the participants were in close physical proximity to their supervisor, they were more likely to copy the bad behaviour and treat their subordinates in a similar manner. The same was true when the middle manager felt psychologically close – when he or she identified with the boss – they were more likely to imitate their behaviour.

The final experiment tied the two factors – physical and psychological – together. Interestingly, when the middle manager worked near their boss, they were more likely to identify with the superior’s point of view.

With all factors taken into account, van Houwelingen and his team have summed up that physical distance directly affects how psychologically close people feel to their boss, which helps determine whether or not they’ll imitate their boss’s behaviour, good or bad.

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