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

Social and Temporal Conflicts of Interest

Framing OCBs as  social dilemmas helps us to understand the conditions under which employees will be more or less likely to engage in OCBs because it breaks the decision down into two fundamental underlying conflicts of interest. The first conflict of interest underlying all  social dilemmas is a social conflict between individual well-being and collective well-being. The second conflict of interest underlying most  social dilemmas is a temporal conflict between short-term and long-term interests.

When OCBs are viewed from this perspective, it follows that any factor that increases an employee’s concern with collective well-being (social concerns) and long-term outcomes (temporal concerns) should increase the likelihood that an employee will engage in OCBs. For example, it seems likely that our hypothetical employee Kaitlyn should be more willing to help her coworker out to the extent that she is generally concerned with the well-being of others (e.g., she is high in  empathy) and thinks about the long-term consequences of her actions (e.g., tends to be future-oriented). However, recall that Kaitlyn has also lined up another job and will be leaving her company in the near future. This situation is likely to give Kaitlyn a relatively short-time horizon in her organization. If she does help her coworker out, it is unclear whether it will “pay off” in the long-term (e.g., via a returned favor).

Employee Time Horizon

Like Kaitlyn, many employees in today’s economy can expect several career changes over their lifetime. As a result, at any given time, many employees are likely to have adopted a relatively short time horizon within their organizations. In theory, this poses a major dilemma for organizations wishing to encourage OCBs. Indeed, research suggests that people are less likely to cooperate in  social dilemmas (Axelrod, 1984) and engage in OCBs (Van Dyne & Ang, 1998) when they have a short-term time horizon within their organizations.

Study Goals and Hypotheses

In an effort to better understand how a short-term time horizon impacts employees’ willingness to engage in OCBs, we conducted several studies involving large samples of MBA students and employees in a large Fortune 500 country in India. Our studies had three goals. First, we sought to determine whether employees actually viewed OCBs as  social dilemmas. Second, we evaluated whether employees with a short-term time horizon would be less likely to engage in OCBs. Finally, we examined whether the negative impact of a short-term time horizon would depend on an employee’s level of  empathy and/or tendency to base decisions on the future consequences of one’s actions. We hypothesized that a short-term time horizon would lead to a reduction in OCBs among employees who were low in  empathy (who presumably help primarily to receive future rewards), but would have little impact on employees who were high in  empathy (who tend to help because they are concerned with the other’s well-being). We also hypothesized (somewhat counterintuitively) that a short-term time horizon would lead to a reduction in OCBs among employees who focus on the future consequences of their actions (because these employees would see no future benefit to engaging in OCBs), but would have a less adverse impact on employees who focus on the immediate consequences of their actions.

In-Basket Study

In an effort to generalize our results, we conducted several studies each using a different method for assessing employees’ willingness to engage in OCBs. In our initial studies (Joireman, Daniels, George-Falvy, & Kamdar, 2006), we asked MBA students to respond to an in-basket exercise. Participants were asked to imagine they were a manager in a hypothetical organization, and were presented with a series of 9 in-basket items to which they needed to respond, including

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