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Influence of social interactions on working behavior

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In general, people tend to set goals for themselves during their leisure time and, more important in this context, at the workplace. Goals are outcomes which have a certain value to the individual and are therefore motivating to engage in actions to reach that goal (Locke & Latham, 2006). Locke and Latham (2006) have shown that setting specific but difficult goals would lead to better performance, since one tends to have more motivation for doing tasks leading to those goals. Further, setting own goals can foster intrinsic motivation and personal control and was found to be a significant predictor of increased work performance (Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981; Mento, Steel, & Karren, 1987; Locke, and Latham, 1990). Literature suggests one’s performance, motivation, belief in oneself, and well-being can be positively influenced by setting personal goals (e.g. Wood and Bandura, 1989). This demonstrates the importance of goal setting in general, but also at the workplace. Thus, interruption of these self-set goals through social demands could also impact well-being and general intrinsic motivation, besides the work outcome. Therefore, interrupting goals makes later task completion more difficult.

With regard to goal setting and resulting performance, Barker (1963, 1968) proposed that daily activities can be separated into distinct episodes that appear in a sequence and are organized around goals, other people, or thematic entities and are consistent. Behaviors are supposed to be directed towards a desired outcome, which is what all episodic units have in common (Barker, 1963). Beal et al. (2005) related these behavior episodes to the workplace and came up with the concept of performance episodes. These are different from behavior episodes in the way that they focus on only work related activities. Further, the researchers linked performance episodes to affective episodes, which supplement the temporary effect of emotions and moods. Taken together, performance episodes and affective episodes are presumed to compete for the individual’s resources, affect the attentional focus and task completion due to behavior styles (Beal et al., 2005). Thus, experiencing an intensive emotion would lead to the inducement of an affective episode, interrupting the performance episode of trying to reach a goal by working on a task.

Previous literature has also shown that moods and emotions, stimulated by social interactions, can influence working behavior quite a lot. Examples of these working behaviors are behaviors related to worker negotiation strategies (Forgas, 1998), momentary response tendencies that are performance related (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996), and prosocial behavior (George, 1991). To summarize, social conflict and resulting emotions have been shown to lead to various outcomes and, therefore, it is worth analyzing strategies to regulate the emotions caused by social demands at the workplace.

Social Connections: Resource and Stressor

The way in which one interacts with people, in this case supervisors, coworkers and colleagues, can have a strong influence on people’s well-being. Sonnentag and Frese (2012) explain social stressors at work as aggression like bullying, (sexual) harassment or simply interpersonal conflicts with supervisors, customers or similar. As a consequence, higher rates in turnover, lower job satisfaction, and lower organizational commitment can follow negative social interactions (Frone, 2000; Spector & Jex, 1998; Thomas, Bliese, &, Jex, 2005).

Furthermore, Volmer, Binnewies, Sonnentag, & Niessen (2012) found that social conflicts at work can also extend into non-work time which makes it difficult to detach from work and to restore resources for future needs. Thus, social conflict can not only lead to poorer work outcomes, but also influence individual’s personal lives. This statement is supported by a finding from Fritz, Yankelevich, Zarubin, and Barger (2010), who showed that mental distance from one’s job has a positive influence on general life satisfaction and a negative relation to emotional fatigue. Emotional exhaustion, in turn, would probably be followed by less motivation to reach one’s goals the next day. This process would resemble a downward spiral for individuals, which should be interrupted at the beginning (Volmer et al., 2012).

Social connections at the workplace also serve as resources for individuals, which are essential for a functioning workspace. Job resources have an impact on reaching one’s goals, personal growth, and development (cf. Bakker & Demerouti, 2007). Referring back to the focus of this paper, handling social stressful or unpleasant situations effectively would restore those job resources and maintain a stable work performance, leading to goal completion. Based on these considerations, we proposed:

Hypothesis 1: Social conflict at work is positively related to unfinished tasks.

Emotion Regulation

The basic thought is that social conflict hinders people completing their tasks, for example because they are being distracted by thoughts of an argument one had before or being in a tense emotional state which makes it hard to concentrate on the task at hand. Beal et al. (2005) suggest that it does not matter where the distraction comes from, being either physical, psychological or emotional in nature, the consequence is a more limited performance on tasks. That hindrance is caused by a disruption in the episodic memory process, which can be further explained by a finding by Thomas (1990), who suggests that there is a decline in the ability to think during an emotionally arousing situation. Moreover, interactions with or interruptions through coworkers, for example, occupy attentional resources which subsequently lower capacities to complete work related tasks (Jett & George, 2003). The distracting thoughts are also found to persist over time and cause additional distracting thoughts (Klinger, 1996; Yee & Vaughan, 1996), thus, preventing individuals from completing further tasks.

Referencing back to the idea that social conflicts impair job performance, resulting emotions should be considered in more detail. Gross, Sheppes, and Urry (2011) explained a three-layered process of how emotions are generated. They suggest that emotions arise when an interaction between a person and a situation enforces attention, has a reasonable meaning to the person, and leads to a multi-system response in the individual. That multi-system response can be coordinated but also flexible. This very general explanation builds on the fact that emotions can be both, almost not notable or very intensive for individuals (Gross et al., 2011). Furthermore, Gross (1998) defines the concept of emotion regulation as processes that direct emotions, that is, when and which emotions one experiences, and also the expression and experience of emotions. Put differently, emotion regulation is any action that is enacted with the goal to change emotions, thus the concept is not so much determined as form but rather as function (e.g., Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010; Berking & Wupperman, 2012; Gross, 2015; Gross & Jazaieri, 2014). Taken together, emotion generation is a process that decides whether an emotion is triggered and subsequently formulated and emotion regulation is the process that decides whether this emotion is also expressed and how it is expressed. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that there is a difference between emotion regulation and coping, which is a word used in everyday language to describe handling situations either physiologically or psychologically. Coping is mostly used to decrease negative emotions and protect the individual (Gross, 1998), whereas emotion regulation deals with positive and negative emotions and further, does not only serve as a protection reaction as coping does (Naragon-Gainey et al., 2017).

Engagement Strategies

Emotion regulation covers quite a lot of processes and is therefore a broad concept. James states that emotions are response tendencies which are either behaviorally or physiologically adaptive for individuals. These responses might be adaptive in general, but probably not in every context. That is the point where emotion regulation splits up into different kinds of regulations. Subcategories of emotion regulation processes include engagement, maladaptive and neutral strategies (Naragon-Gainey et al., 2017). Engagement strategies are actions by which an individual actively focuses attention on a problem in order to work on it, instead of directing the attention away from the problem. Quite a lot of researchers share this perspective on the differentiation (e.g. Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989; Endler & Parker, 1990; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991; Stanton, Danoff-Burg, Cameron, & Ellis, 1994; Thayer, Newman, & McClain, 1994; Weinberger, Schwartz, & Davidson, 1979).

Furthermore, Naragon-Gainey et al. (2017) differentiate engagement strategies further into adaptive and maladaptive strategies by their outcome regarding psychopathology. That is, adaptive engagement strategies have a negative influence and maladaptive engagement strategies have a positive influence on psychopathology. Referring to adaptive and maladaptive strategies, literature suggests rumination, experiential and behavioral avoidance, and expressive suppression as belonging to the maladaptive engagement strategies and problem-solving, reappraisal, mindfulness and acceptance as belonging to the adaptive engagement strategies (Aldao & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2012; Aldao et al., 2010). However, this paper focuses on the subcategory adaptive engagement strategies.

Among adaptive engagement strategies, acceptance is a response to emotions which describes the readiness of taking one’s emotions as they are, including unpleasant ones (Naragon-Gainey et al., 2017). It was found to be a concept that can either be seen as a selectively used cognitive strategy (e.g., Aldao et al., 2010; Webb, Miles, & Sheeran, 2012) or as an underlying ability on a person-level (e.g., Berking & Wupperman, 2008; Gratz & Roemer, 2004). That means that some researchers studied acceptance rather as a trait an individual possess and others as an actively enacted strategy. This paper takes on the cognitive strategy perspective as it implies the active use of strategies, which the current study was testing in the work environment. Reappraisal is also considered as an adaptive engagement strategy in terms of looking for positive facets of a certain situation by altering one’s perspective or interpretation (Naragon-Gainey et al., 2017). Problem-solving is a special strategy among the adaptive strategies because of its focus on external features which are tried to be changed or modulated in order to regulate one’s emotions (Aldao & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2010). In contrast, reappraisal and acceptance focus on cognitive change, not situational change. Engagement strategies represent the moderator of the current study, which is thought to have a negative influence on the positive relationship between social conflict and task completion, and thus weakens that relationship. Therefore, the following hypothesis was formulated:

Hypothesis 2: Engagement strategies moderate the positive relationship between social conflicts and unfinished tasks. The relationship is weaker in those using more engagement strategies.

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