Pressuring employees to be do-gooders can backfire badly

Armed Robbery In The Office
“Being required to do good meant that they subsequently felt licensed to bend the rules”

By Alex Fradera

Most employers like their workers to think of themselves not as employees but as “citizens” of the organisation, proactively engaging in activities like helping others out or coming up with company improvements – activities that aren’t specified in a job description yet help the organisation thrive. But more and more, these supposedly discretional citizenship behaviours are being demanded by managers more overtly – outlined in ‘The Way We Work’ documents, or threatened informally as necessary to get ahead. Now an article in the Academy of Management Journal suggests being forced to be a good citizen has some perverse consequences: when you’re grudgingly good, you become blasé about doing bad.

Kai Chi Yam’s international team started their investigations by canvassing teams of mainly male workers spread across organisations in industries including banking, telecommunications and manufacturing. They asked managers of the 345 participants to estimate how much they engaged in citizenship behaviours – e.g. “initiates assistance to coworkers who have a heavy workload” – and then asked the participants themselves the reasons why they would do these sorts of things, with some of the reasons pointing towards top-down coercion (“I’ll get in trouble if I don’t”). Yam found that participants who performed more citizenship behaviours due to duress were also more likely to admit to deviant work behaviours, like stealing supplies or making fun of a co-worker.

The reason for this appears to be that enforced good citizenship was associated with higher levels of psychological entitlement, with individuals affirming ideas like “I deserve more things in my life.” Being required to do good meant that they subsequently felt licensed to bend the rules.

In the next survey, using a US sample of 180 participants and their managers, Yam wanted to explore just how far this “moral licence” extends. Again, participants who were better workplace citizens committed more workplace deviance when the good behaviour was imposed top-down. But in addition, Yam found the same effect was true for non-workplace deviance: participants obliged to be good citizens at work were more likely to admit to misdeeds in their own time, such as swearing at someone.

This last finding suggests that these participants felt that they had earned a universal carte blanche to act as they will, and provides evidence against an alternative explanation that they were only committing the deviant acts to take revenge on the organisation they felt had mistreated them.

A final study used an experimental manipulation – asking participants to think about a time they committed a good behaviour, and then rating the extent to which it was imposed on them – to reproduce the effect under laboratory conditions. In this case, participants remembering a time they were forced to be good were more likely to cheat at a self-marked maths test. All in all, the evidence suggests that obliging people to be better citizens encourages them to relax their intrinsic moral guidelines and engage in negative behaviour they would otherwise tend to avoid.

It’s so tempting for organisations to expect more and more from their employees – and so much harder for employees to resist when they are being asked to do socially desirable things like “help out” and “think about the organisation”. But by making such behaviours expected or even mandatory, we can box people into regulated systems that rob these activities of their intrinsic motivation and instead make them into burdens, burdens that can boomerang back on the organisation and even beyond. Demanding we behave like saints risks turning us into sinners.

From Good Soldiers to Psychologically Entitled: Examining When and Why Citizenship Behavior Leads to Deviance

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

16 thoughts on “Pressuring employees to be do-gooders can backfire badly”

  1. What about children and youngsters? When we pressure them to be good, will the results be the same? Do we have to rethink our traditional ways of educating young people?

    1. That’s a very good question!

      You can argue that one component of education is to inculcate moral values, and that we (society) are obliged to shape young minds in line with the demands of society. It may not be pleasant, and our charges may sometimes push back against it, as this study would suggest – but in the long-term, young people leave the education system with habits ingrained that are to the good. Once in a while if you make Biff tidy up the dinner hall, he may feel free to give Chris a wedgie in the bathroom – but after years of practice, Biff will come into society tidier, and his bullying will be addressed by other school injunctions, and he’ll come out (more of) a moral citizen than he would have otherwise…

      Now, there are a lot of assumptions buried in there! My personal view is that although education should involve aligning people with the good, the less we rely on the coercion and the more on understanding, the more ideal the education. I imagine we might be of similar minds. But I think to really stake out this position goes beyond the evidence in this article, which focuses on short-term interactions between moral obligations and moral deviance.

      1. I see your point and I agree with you. Of course, there is no system 100% successful, but we must keep trying anyway. Thank you for your clarifying answer.
        Interestingly, today, I was reading a short story by Aldous Huxley, “The Claxtons” (1929), which is somewhat humorously centered on the education of little Sylvia and Paul. Their aunt says about their mother (page 26, 2nd column, in «Can’t she see that the best way of turning a child into a devil is to try to bring it up as an angel.?»

  2. I think there is something else at work here. I believe people behave badly when coerced to do things because their inherent desire for freedom has been violated. The desire to be free still exists but the fact that they have been oppressed makes them more likely to oppress or violate the rights of others. Coercion or oppression of is damaging to the human psyche and destructive of society.

    1. Yes, I think you have a point here, if we consider the phenomenon of psychological Reactance.
      «Reactance is a motivational reaction to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away his or her choices or limiting the range of alternatives» (Wikipedia).
      So, one way of re-establishing their freedom might be achieved doing exactly the opposite to other people.

      1. You make an interesting point. Oddly enough, psychological Reactance is often of the over-stuffed variety which immediately brings to mind our limitations, you can either run for your life and pretend the overwhelming freedoms aren’t really happening and make running (or walking, whatever takes your fancy) an antidote which requires no special training and will take effect within the first 200 metres or so.

  3. So glad my company gave up tying wearing jeans on Fridays to making a charitable donation. They still encourage the donations, but do not tie it to the privilege of being able to wear jeans. Now, anyone can wear jeans on Friday, regardless of whether a donation is made or not.

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