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.