Going above and beyond: Fostering citizenship in the workplace

Going above and beyond: Fostering citizenship in the workplace
Mentoring a colleague who needs help. Doing an extra candidate interview. Celebrating a coworker’s birthday. Some call these things "going above and beyond," others think they’re simply the right things to do. Academic researchers call them "organizational citizenship behaviors."

Researchers agree that organizational citizenship behaviors, or “OCBs,” are often good for the organization, but are not explicitly required or rewarded. Just as voting is a civic duty in democracies, OCBs are necessary for workplaces to function. Some employees do them readily, others grudgingly; either way, researchers have been fascinated by them for years. Why do employees do these things? What would happen if they didn’t?

For a long time researchers thought some people were just predisposed to be “good citizens” or “good soldiers;” in other words, they do these things because they’re good people. But research we conducted at Google suggests that when employees perceive their team climate to be one rooted in fairness, trust, autonomy, and cooperation, citizenship behaviors are more common. Workplace culture, not just individual virtues, can drive OCBs.

To study this, we asked Googlers how often they observed teammates going above and beyond in the workplace, along with questions about team dynamics and climate, and team member characteristics. We surveyed over 500 Googlers across 118 teams and found that the team climate had a significantly stronger effect on how often Googlers engage in OCBs than a Googler's own job satisfaction or their personality characteristics. What does this mean? It’s not that certain individuals are the so-called good or bad citizens; it’s that a good work environment can inspire anyone to become a good citizen. By influencing the organizational culture, leaders can help create, or destroy, environments that encourage good behavior.

Organizations should be eager to understand citizenship behaviors because these often seemingly invisible and insignificant behaviors are actually critical to long-term effectiveness. There are a few common categories of OCBs to consider:

  • Altruism - helping someone else with a work-relevant task or problem
  • Conscientiousness - going far beyond minimum requirements of one’s job role
  • Sportsmanship - not complaining about petty or small issues
  • Courtesy - checking in with people whose work is likely to be affected by one’s own work
  • Civic Virtue - participating in the fabric of the organization, doing one’s “duty”

Depending on the nature of an organization’s goals, employees find and undertake all kinds of important activities that are key to keeping the system running smoothly. But the same activity may count in very different ways, depending on the work environment. A 1983 study on manufacturing companies found that when employees didn't take extra breaks during their shifts, they were viewed as engaging in citizenship behavior. The absence of a break was lauded. Meanwhile, in our research here at Google we found the opposite; taking time away from one’s core job for team activities with coworkers was valued because it strengthens the culture and generates new ideas. So the environment not only can encourage OCBs but actually determined what counts as good behavior.

It’s difficult for organizations to predict exactly what employees need to do in each moment, particularly in dynamic, competitive, or fast-growing industries. To remain nimble, teams must be able to see what needs to be done and empowered to take the reins to get it done. Researchers have argued that over time, a positive cycle unfolds: as employees undertake OCBs when they’re needed, the social capital built strengthens relationships among coworkers and helps people work more effectively together.

By making work better for employees, organizations are not just treating people the way they ought to be treated. They can create more vibrant workplaces and healthier systems, where employees are likely to take more ownership for the group’s success, and make these small, daily choices to engage in acts of citizenship to help the overall system work better.

Kathryn Dekas is a People Analytics Manager at Google.

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