Too much of a good thing in employment counseling.

Author:Von Bergen, C.W.


Employment counseling has been a core element of workforce development since the early 1960s. A service, focused on career development, job placement and other counseling services with the primary objective of improving workforce performance. Government and industry leaders, alike, have embraced the idea that employment counseling supports employee's professional development and job satisfaction, which in aggregate, supports a strong competitive workforce.

There is a tendency to conclude that if a little is good then more must be better, but life is rarely linear and in some cases, what is good in small quantities often becomes harmful in larger doses (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Consider drinking wine. According to the American Heart Association, more than 60 prospective studies have suggested that moderate alcohol consumption--defined by the Department of Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans as having no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men--may decrease the risk of chronic heart disease (CHD), ischemic heart disease and stroke, and other causes of mortality. Research shows that moderate drinkers are at less of a risk for CHD and other causes of mortality than nondrinkers though heavy drinkers are at a much greater risk (Rudis, 2010). While a glass or two of red wine daily can be beneficial, no one recommends drinking a bottle of wine daily. This article will test the assumption that "more is better" when approaching employment counseling while exploring the need for a greater degree of balance in facilitating employee well-being and performance.

Underlying the vast majority of existing psychology, counseling, and management literatures is the often unacknowledged assumption that positive traits, experiences, and emotions have monotonic, linear effects with respect to adaptation and performance. But research (e.g., Grant & Schwartz, 2011; Pierce & Aguinis, 2013; Quinlan, Janis, & Bales, 1982) suggests that there appears to be a robust curvilinear relationship associated with many positive phenomena such that moderate levels of many beneficial antecedents are optimal and that departures from these ranges are dysfunctional and maladaptive (see Figure 1). While Quinlan et al. (1982) advised counselors over 30 years ago to start thinking in terms of a family of inverted U-shaped curves to represent the interacting variables" (p. 184), this guidance appears to need revisiting (Miller, 2008). Accordingly, this paper attempts to address this need by briefly reviewing cultural traditions regarding the significance of moderation, examples of selected positive personal and organizational antecedents that have empirically illustrated nonmonotonic associations, and conclude with a call for balance and the importance of considering curvilinear relationships.



Proverbs and aphorisms, such as the Chinese "too much can be worse than too little," the Buddha's Middle Way, and its Western counterpart "everything in moderation; nothing in excess," suggest that this principle is widely accepted across cultures. In fact, these and similar sayings in both Eastern and Western cultures trace back to philosophers whose teachings have been highly influential in their respective regions (e.g., Aristotle, Buddha, and Confucius; Phillips, 2004). Modern scholars have labeled this universal advocacy for proportionality over extremity the doctrine of the mean (Aristotle, 1999; Confucius, 2004; Urmson, 1973). For its proponents, pursuing the Golden Mean, the Middle Path, or moderation as it is also known, is a moral and practical imperative (Hamburger, 1959). Confucius indicated that "Perfect is the virtue which is according to the Mean!" (2004, p. 2), the Buddha pointed out that moderation was the path to wisdom and enlightenment, and Aristotle said that happiness and success exist at the mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess (Nussbaum, 1995).

Building on the doctrine of the mean, counselors have good reason to believe that life is nonmonotonic. Suedfeld (1969) referred to this principle as the "ubiquitous U" finding that across many domains, one finds that X increases Y to a point, and then it decreases Y. Common examples include the Yerkes-Dodson law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908) and classic theories of optimal arousal (Eysenck, 1967) where too little arousal bogs down task efficiency and too much derails. Despite the intuitive familiarity of the inverted U, counselors have failed to appreciate fully its prevalence and importance. Consequently, the purpose of this article is to draw attention to what may be a fundamental and ubiquitous principle: There is no such thing as an unmitigated good and that all positive traits, states, and experiences have costs that at high levels may begin to outweigh their benefits, creating the nonmonotonicity of an inverted U.

Although influential philosophers have highlighted and promoted this concept, the management and counseling literatures include relatively few discussions of the need for balance between deficiency and excess. Rather, management and counseling scholars and practitioners tend to focus on addressing the former, with less concern for the latter. Consequently, the assumption that "more is better" implicitly drives efforts to maximize desired outcomes. By attending more carefully to this principle, counselors can assist their clients and gain a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the conditions that facilitate well-being and performance.

To document the pervasiveness of the inverted U, evidence for curvilinear effects of a wide range of familiar phenomena on well-being and performance is reviewed. In doing so, we explore aspects of the human world that exhibit these inverted-U relationships and call attention to this often ignored phenomenon. In disparate domains researchers have increasingly discovered that at high levels, positive effects begin to turn negative.


In this section a review of research that identifies well-being and performance costs of high levels of various positive phenomena are presented. This is presented in two broad areas: one addresses more individually-focused characteristics and the second more organizationally-oriented issues.

Individual factors

Because employment counselors are generally more involved with individual-related concerns these issues are addressed in greater detail. These were selected because they are frequently addressed by counselors, and in part, because of the belief that such personal factors are often considered encouraging and where excessive levels may not have been intuitively considered to have a dark side.


In a departure from past research...

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