Receiving feedback on job performance is critical to success in the workplace. Positive feedback, like support and confidence, can aid job performance, while negative feedback is essential for limiting overconfidence, which can lead to malpractice in fields such as medicine. But while negative feedback is clearly important for employees to receive honest assessments of their work, researchers from New York University and the University of Konstanz have published a study suggesting that people who are highly determined to pursue professions in law, business, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields may be inclined to act unethically in response to negative feedback.

Research in the field of “identity goal pursuit” has demonstrated that we associate our personal identity with our professional pursuits, and that when we receive negative feedback about those pursuits, we attempt to compensate for it by showing others that we are similar to successful members in our profession. On the other hand, when these notable professionals tend to behave immorally, receiving negative feedback may lead us to partake in questionable or immoral behaviors. To explore this possibility, the researchers conducted three experiments with college and high school students who intended to pursue professions in business, law, and STEM.

In the first two experiments, college-level students were given a mock aptitude test to measure their potential in their respective fields. The first experiment focused on business students, while the second was for law students. In both scenarios, some students were told they performed well on the exam while others were told they did poorly. Following the researchers’ feedback, the students were asked how they would respond to multiple scenarios involving unethical behaviors. The business students, for example, were asked whether or not they would break a contractual agreement in order to increase profit margins.

In both experiments, the students who were told they did poorly on the test were more likely to endorse immoral behaviors, compared to those who were told they performed well. "Strongly held professional goals, when combined with public criticism of our potential in that field, can have unintended effects on ethical behavior for some," said Ana Gantman, a doctoral candidate at New York University and one of the paper's authors, in a press release.

For their third experiment, the researchers distributed an exam to high school students, who were told the test was going to measure their potential to successfully major in business or STEM fields in college. Again, some students were given positive feedback on their performance while others were given negative feedback. Then, the students filled out a personality questionnaire that was already filled out by a “successful” member of their desired profession, whose answers were associated with immoral behaviors, like dishonesty and selfishness.

Similar to the results of the first two experiments, the third experiment showed that those who were highly motivated to pursue business or STEM majors, and were also given negative feedback about their performance in those fields, were more likely to give immoral answers on the personality test, indicating their potential to act immorally in the workplace following negative feedback.

"When we consider large-scale instances of fraud, such as the financial crisis of 2008, we must not only look at potential greed, but also at other motives such as commitment to identity goals," Gantman said. "If we can better understand the triggers of these behaviors, such as when negative professional feedback leads to the compensatory endorsement of immoral behavior, we might even prevent incidents of large-scale fraud in the future."

Source: Marquardt MK, Gantman AP, Gollwitzer PM, Oettingen G. Incomplete professional identity goals override moral concerns. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology . 2016