Taking One for the Team, Even on Your Way Out of the Door

Kaitlyn works Monday through Friday, 9-5. Sitting at her desk on Friday afternoon, Kaitlyn glances at the clock. It is 4:30 pm. The end of the workweek is a mere 30 minutes away. Visions of a relaxing weekend begin to creep in. And then, the phone rings. A distraught coworker is calling to ask for a big favor. His kids are really sick, he feels there’s no way he’s going to be able to prepare for an upcoming meeting on Monday, and he’s wondering if Kaitlyn might be able to run it for him. She’s not up-to-date on the agenda, so it is going to take a fair amount of time to prepare. If she agrees to help out, she can kiss her weekend goodbye. And no, there isn’t any direct reward for running the meeting. A thank you, maybe. A complimentary latte, perhaps. But she shouldn’t expect a big bonus in her next check. Kaitlyn is simply being asked to step up to the plate, be a good sport, and take one for the team. Will she agree? How might her answer change if she knew, for sure, that she had another job lined up and was about to leave the organization? In the present article, I address these questions by first introducing the concept oforganizational citizenship behaviors and then summarizing a series of recent studies my colleagues Dishan Kamdar, Denise Daniels, Jane George-Falvy and Blythe Duell and I conducted on this topic.

Going Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

As most readers will agree, the dilemma facing Kaitlyn is not uncommon. Indeed, employees are frequently asked to “step up to the plate”, “be a good sport”, and “take one for the team.” Restated, we are often asked to go “above and beyond the call of duty” at work, with no direct expectation of a reward. Given their positive impact on organizations, organizational psychologists have long been interested in understanding these acts of sacrifice, which they commonly refer to as “organizational citizenship behaviors” (OCBs).

Organ (1988) first defined OCBs as “individual [behaviors] that [are] discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system, and that in the aggregate [promote] the effective functioning of the organization” (p. 4). Five commonly studied forms of OCBs include  altruism (helping out coworkers), civic virtue (staying up on company policies),  conscientiousness (doing an exceptional job in one’s role), courtesy (being kind to coworkers), and sportsmanship (not complaining about little inconveniences in the workplace). In a sense, Kaitlyn is being asked to engage in mix of all of these OCBs at the same time, assuming she agrees to her coworker’s request ( altruism), responds to him in a kind fashion (courtesy), does a good job preparing for the meeting ( conscientiousness), refreshes herself on company policies (civic virtue), and chooses not to complain about it to her coworkers (sportsmanship).

The Give and Take of OCBs

How do employees think about OCBs? Technically, OCBs are discretionary and not directly rewarded. While this may be true in the short-term, OCBs can result in long-term benefits to both the company and the employee. In fact, one of the most common frameworks for understanding OCBs is based on the notion of mutual rewards via the related processes of social exchange (Blau, 1964) and reciprocity (Gouldner, 1960). According to this approach, if an employee thinks she is being treated fairly by her organization, she develops a positive connection to the organization and returns the favor by engaging in OCBs (e.g., Cardona, Lawrence, & Bentler, 2004). This suggests that employees are likely to vary in the extent to which they view OCBs as more discretionary (extra-role) behaviors vs. more expected (in-role) behaviors, based on features of the situation and the employee, and these differing perceptions are likely to influence whether an employee engages in OCBs (e.g., Kamdar, McAllister, & Turban, 2006).

OCBs as  Social Dilemmas

One of the challenges associated with motivating employees to engage in OCBs is that, while OCBs may eventually pay off down the line (e.g., via a returned favor), they are unlikely to result in immediate rewards, and in fact, are likely to result in short-term costs (e.g., a lost weekend). This suggests that employees view OCBs as a “social dilemma.” Broadly defined, social dilemmasare situations in which short-term individual and long-term collective interests are at odds (Messick & Brewer, 1983). For example, it would be in Kaitlyn’s own short-term self-interest to turn down the request to help her coworker so she could enjoy her weekend. However, Kaitlyn and her organization would be better off in the long-run if Kaitlyn decided to help.

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