Convincing employees to go above and beyond the call of duty may be the epitome of personnel management. We all want our employees to be engaged and motivated. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
Some people are intrinsically motivated to exceed their job descriptions in order to support organizational goals. These self-starters need no external cues to help a co-worker learn a new skill; offer suggestions for process improvement; recruit a new employee; or volunteer for an assignment. Most, however, require some external motivation to go above and beyond their jobs, which often falls under the category of “soft coercion” — pressure that is conveyed in a manager’s tone with employees, and in the cultural influences and incentives that he or she uses to promote positive discretionary behaviors at work. The result of such soft coercion — initially, at least — is often what is intended: good organizational citizenship. But can pushing too hard to create “good soldiers” lead to unintended consequences?
To find out, we designed a pair of studies that would measure the ethical repercussions of externally motivated organizational citizenship.
Our first study examined its effect in the workplace. From surveys of 82 work teams representing a wide range of organizations and industries in eastern China, we concluded that efforts to persuade employees to exhibit above-and-beyond behaviors at work initially led to good citizenship behaviors. But they also led to subsequent deviant behaviors such as making fun of a co-worker or taking office property without permission.
Our second study examined the effect of externally motivated organizational citizenship both inside and outside of work. Surveying 180 teams of employees and managers at U.S. organizations, we confirmed that employees who were externally compelled to be good soldiers at work were more likely to engage in deviant actions both inside and outside of work, such as cursing at a coworker or a stranger.
Why the bad behavior?
Our research draws upon “moral licensing” theory which asserts, essentially, that doing good things gives us license to do bad things later. It views morality as a kind of bank account. Good acts build up credits which act as a hedge against the debits of future bad acts. So when we behave badly, we still can consider ourselves, on balance, good people. Or, as in our paper, good employees.
In both studies, we observed that employees who feel compelled by extrinsic forces (supervisory demands, formal and informal norms, threat of punishment) to exhibit the admirable qualities of a team player tend to develop a sense of psychological entitlement. This entitlement is funded by those recently deposited credits in the moral bank account. And it’s powerful enough to act as a moral license, freeing employees to engage in bad behaviors that can be unrelated to the good organizational citizenship behaviors they’ve been persuaded to exhibit.
In other words, compliance leads to deviance.
We do, however, draw an important distinction between being a good citizen at work because you want to be versus being a good citizen at work because you feel like you have to.
In our study, instances of increased psychological entitlement corresponded only to organizational citizenship behaviors that were externally rather than internally motivated.
- Temper the urge to motivate employees to go above and beyond the job description. Instead, reassess your motivational tactics (and be sure to retrain managers to be mindful of the pressure they are applying). Leaders should customize their motivational techniques for each employee to tap into their intrinsic motives, instead of using a one-size-fits-all motivational technique that will feel controlling to many employees. For example, for employees who are already intrinsically motivated to be good citizens, leaders should learn to rely more heavily on informal rewards such as positive feedback and public praise for these behaviors.
- Develop a work environment in which people are more intrinsically inspired to participate in pro-organization behaviors. Empower employees. Adjust schedules and workloads to maximize each person’s capacity to be self-motivated. Hire people who demonstrate a natural inclination to be good organizational citizens. Communicate stories of employees doing exceptional work for intrinsic value over external reward. And make sure that senior leadership models organizational citizenship without the rewards of bonus pay or other perks.
Ultimately, the key to avoiding the negative consequences of moral credentialing is to create a culture that values and emphasizes the intrinsic value of good organizational citizenship behaviors.
Kai Chi (Sam) Yam is an assistant professor of management and organization at the National University of Singapore.
Wei He is an assistant professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
Scott Reynolds is a professor of business ethics at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.
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