Priming Test — Jaeho Yoon, a senior management major from Seoul, South Korea, takes a computerized subliminal priming test administered by Sean Walker (seated at left), a doctoral candidate in organizational studies from Poplar Bluff, Mo. Watching is Steven Karau, Gregory A. Lee Professor of Management in the College of Business. Photo by Chelsea Sturgeon. (courtesy)

Just hearing the phrase "pink slip" is enough to make people nervous.

But could attitude play a critical role when it comes to how people deal with layoffs and downsizing? Can employers and employees "prime" positive attitudes? That's what research by Steven Karau, Gregory A. Lee Professor of Management in the College of Business at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and Sean C. Walker, a doctoral candidate in organizational studies from Poplar Bluff, Mo., indicates.

They sought to answer a number of questions. What influences our attitudes about organizations without us being consciously aware of it? If we feel self-reliant does that make us more open and accepting of layoffs and downsizing than if we feel employer-reliant? Do situational indicators, managerial actions and the culture of an organization influence the perceptions and behaviors of people where they work? Through a series of studies, Karau and Walker worked to find out.

In three studies, participants were "primed" with messages related to self-reliance. The messages were either subliminal (below one's conscious awareness) or supraliminal (noticeable, but unlikely to be the focus of one's attention). Essentially, priming is using stimuli to activate concepts in the mind that may influence perceptions and behaviors without someone being aware it is happening. It's something akin to why restaurant commercials work or why companies pay for product placement in movies.

Karau said while extensive research exists from social and cognitive psychologists about priming and other subliminal processes, it's something management scholars have paid little attention to.

"This lack of attention is unfortunate, as non-conscious influences may have effects on a host of judgments and perceptions that are important to managers and organizations. Our research sought to partially fill this void," Karau said.

Karau said their studies found that people primed with messages of self-reliance "had less negative views of downsizing" and "recorded perceptions of higher levels of fair treatment and decreased levels of anger in response to a termination scenario."

Work relationships have changed over time and in today's world, the landscape frequently includes layoffs and corporate downsizing, according to Karau. Individuals can increase their skills and abilities to be more marketable, which in turn increases their confidence and feelings of self-reliance, Karau and Walker said. But, the research revealed much more.

"Our research suggests that people who feel self-reliant are more comfortable and confident and can better handle whatever may come their way in the work environment," Walker said.

One study involved presenting participants with a series of 25 phrases, each containing five words. They were to choose the four words in each grouping that made a sentence. The participants were unaware that the point wasn't to unscramble a sentence. Some taking the test received sentences that encouraged feelings of worthiness and self-reliance, while some test-takers found sentences encouraging dependence and reliance on others. The third group got sentences that were neutral in nature.

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Two additional studies seemed to test visual acuity as numbers flash in the center of a computer screen. Test-takers were told to keep a running total adding the numbers up while clicking a button to indicate which side of the screen a "flash" came from. Turns out, the "flashes" were actually words shown on the screen for just 60 milliseconds. Again, the words were ones fostering self-reliance, reliance on others or just neutral words.

In the first two studies, right after the priming task, participants rated their attitudes toward downsizing by responding to a number of statements using a scale ranging from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree." In the third study, participants read a scenario about an employee being laid off and were told to imagine they were that employee. They then reported how they would feel about the situation, answering questions about whether they would feel angry and whether the manager's treatment was fair and appropriate.

In talking with Walker, participants universally did not realize there were any hidden messages coming

their way. But, he found consistent differences in their reactions to job loss depending upon which hidden messages they got.

"Those primed with messages of self-reliance reacted much more favorably and felt much better about downsizing and layoffs," Walker said.

He and Karau say the message is clear: Employers and managers can influence how their employees deal with job loss scenarios. Moreover, Walker said the natural inference is that when companies build a culture of trust and feelings of self-reliance in their employees, it will result in more content, more efficient employees and that ultimately benefits all involved.

"The more you can master the ability to prime employees and build a culture of trust, the more efficient they and the business will be and the more that will be accomplished. When people feel valued and important they will be more productive," Walker said.

"Companies can give persistent primes to their employees by talking in terms of 'us' and 'we,' by sharing goals and by setting a tone of working together to reach objectives," Karau said. "Managers and employees serve as models for each other and mimicry often happens unconsciously."

"Automaticity of Workplace Behaviors: The Influence of Non-conscious Processes on Perceptions of Downsizing and Terminations," the paper detailing their research, is currently under review at "The Journal of Applied Psychology." Priming of downsizing attitudes was also the subject of their 2010 presentation at the Academy of Management in Montreal.

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