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Defining Self-Undermining: Creating Obstacles to Success

4 minute read

By Stavy Papasotiriou, Organisational Psychologist and Founder of Work Unlocked

Workplaces can be a melting pot of challenges, demands, and stressors, and how employees respond to these pressures can have a profound impact on their well-being and job performance. One intriguing phenomenon that has garnered attention in the world of work psychology is "self-undermining." In this blog, we will explore the concept of self-undermining, its relationship with job strain, and its role in perpetuating a vicious cycle of stress and performance issues.



Self-undermining, as defined by Zapf, Dormann, and Frese in 1996, refers to "behaviour that creates obstacles that may undermine performance." In essence, it's a pattern of actions and decisions that hinder an employee's own progress, effectiveness, and well-being. But what drives individuals to engage in self-undermining behaviour?



One key aspect of self-undermining is its strong connection with job strain. Job strain, in the context of work psychology, refers to the stress and pressure that employees experience in their roles. Job demands, like tight deadlines, high workloads, and emotional stressors, can take a toll on an employee's physical and mental health.

However, the relationship goes beyond mere cause and effect. Job demands not only lead to strain, but individuals who experience job strain are more likely to perceive and create additional job demands over time. In essence, it's a reciprocal relationship where job strain predicts exhaustion, and exhaustion, in turn, predicts higher levels of work pressure.



So, where does self-undermining come into play? Employees who engage in self-undermining behaviours are more likely to experience high levels of job strain, such as chronic exhaustion and health complaints. These behaviours are often a result of the stress, confusion, and conflict created by self-undermining actions. It's a loop that feeds itself: individuals who create stress also create more job demands. Here's how the cycle works:

  • Self-Undermining Leads to Stress: Employees who engage in self-undermining actions, such as poor communication, mistakes, and conflicts, contribute to the already high job demands they face. This self-inflicted stress only worsens their job strain.
  • High Job Strain: Employees with higher levels of job strain are less capable of managing their own emotions and more likely to encounter conflicts at work. This exacerbates their self-undermining behaviours.
  • Exhaustion: The cycle culminates in exhaustion, leading to a decrease in job performance. Self-undermining is a consequence of high job strain, and in turn, it acts as the fuel that perpetuates this vicious cycle.



The consequences of self-undermining extend beyond personal well-being. It also negatively predicts supervisor ratings of job performance. Employees who are strained by their work are more prone to self-undermining behaviours, which, as we've seen, lead to higher levels of job demands and further job strain. This not only affects their individual performance but can also impact team dynamics and the overall work environment.



Understanding the dynamics of self-undermining is the first step in breaking the cycle of high job demands and strain. Your organisation can take several measures to address this issue:

  1. Stress Management Programs: Offering stress management programs can help employees cope with job strain and reduce the likelihood of self-undermining behaviours.
  2. Clear Communication: Promoting clear and open communication within the workplace can help reduce the chances of conflicts and confusion that lead to self-undermining.
  3. Workload Assessment: Regularly assessing and adjusting workloads can help balance job demands and employee well-being.
  4. Mental Health Support: Providing access to mental health resources can assist employees in managing their emotions and stress levels effectively.



In conclusion, self-undermining is a complex issue that is deeply intertwined with job strain. It's a reflection of the reciprocal relationship between employees and their work demands, where stressors can lead to self-sabotaging behaviours, ultimately creating a vicious cycle of high job demands and strain. Recognising and addressing self-undermining is a critical step in promoting well-being and performance in your workplace.



Stavy Papasotiriou is an organisational psychologist and the visionary behind Work Unlocked — a leading HR consultancy on a mission to revolutionise employee engagement, performance, and retention in businesses worldwide. With a profound understanding of HR practices, Stavy leverages psychological principles to unleash the untapped potential of workforces. At Work Unlocked, Stavy crafts bespoke strategies that are grounded in research and tailored to each organisation's unique needs. These strategies are designed to yield remarkable results while requiring minimal resources.


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