Winning through cheating or creativity: how emotions influence behavioral choice in competition

Steinhage, Anna L (2016) Winning through cheating or creativity: how emotions influence behavioral choice in competition. Doctoral thesis, University of London: London Business School.


This dissertation investigates the role of emotions in determining when and why employees use creative versus unethical behaviors to win internal competitions. I propose that organizational policies and practices encouraging competition can elicit anxiety or excitement, and that these emotions can cause employees to respond very differently to the competitive situation. Building on theories of action and appraisal tendencies, I propose that when competition elicits anxiety, employees are more likely to engage in unethical behaviors to gain a competitive advantage. Drawing on theories of positive emotions and creativity, I predict that when competition elicits excitement, people are more likely to strive for creative means to get ahead of their competitors. I test my hypotheses in five studies. Two survey investigations with financial services managers (Study 1) and employees from various industries (Study 2) show that employment policies encouraging internal competition elicited anxiety as well as excitement, and that these emotions were related in hypothesized ways to unethical and creative competitive behaviors. Studies 3, 4, and 5 experimentally tested the influence of anxiety and excitement on competitive behaviors. Study 3 found that people's reactions of anxiety and excitement influenced the extent to which they chose to sabotage their competitor, and the extent to which they chose creative behaviors in a promotion scenario. It also revealed that people's anxiety about the competition was due to the perceived significance of the consequences of losing the competition. Study 4 then demonstrated that the framing of the competitive situation can result in excitement or anxiety about competing, and that these emotions affected bank managers' attraction to unethical or innovative behaviors to outperform their internal competitors. Finally, Study 5 sought to directly observe individuals' competitive behaviors using a computer game. This dissertation makes three core theoretical contributions. First, I add a new perspective to the managerial competition literature by investigating the role of competitors' emotions for their choice of behaviors. Second, existing scholarship has focused on task performance or unethical behaviors as outcomes of competition, and has paid little attention to creative behaviors. I address this important omission by theorizing and investigating creative behaviors as a positive behavioral response to competition. Third, extant research has suggested that people experiencing anxiety commit more unethical behaviors in order to buffer their anxiety and boost their self-esteem. I extend this line of research by showing that competitive anxiety also increases strategic unethical behaviors - that is, choosing to act unethically in order to avoid defeat, and thus offer important insight into the motivational underpinnings of unethical behaviors in competitive contexts.

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Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subject Areas: Organisational Behaviour
Date Deposited: 10 Feb 2022 16:08
Date of first compliant deposit: 10 Feb 2022
Subjects: Emotions
Last Modified: 17 Feb 2022 02:18

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