When good apples go bad: The effects of being pressured to do good

When a colleague goes the extra mile to help others or signs up regularly for charity fundraisers one might think that it’s from the goodness of their heart

Unlike performance indicators related to a specific job position, such corporate citizenship behavior is supposedly discretionary. Staff who go beyond the call of duty choose to take part do so without thought of being rewarded, but rather to contribute to the social and psychological functioning of the firm.

That, for many, is the accepted wisdom.

Rather than any sense of altruism however, employees often perform such acts not because they want to, but because of pressure – either explicit or implicit – making them feel like they have to or ought to.

In short, they engage in good corporate behaviour because they feel compelled; either because it is considered a workplace norm or because they fear the career consequences of failing to comply.

Interest and engagement in corporate citizenship becomes less sustainable when it is demanded or expected from people.

This feeling of obligation, in turn, can have unintended, negative side effects. Employees who feel they have been pressured to do good, then feel entitled to payback; sometimes leading to deviant workplace behavior, either in terms of relations with other employees or regarding company property.

So why might doing good have bad consequences?

Sense of entitlement

In a collaborative study with between researchers at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, Oregon State University, University of Washington, and Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China we looked at motivations for employees to engage in corporate citizenship and how it impacted other behaviour.

Several studies have shown that interest and engagement in corporate citizenship becomes less sustainable when it is demanded or expected from people. Faced with pressure to join in, people find such behaviour less appealing and even begrudge those who compel them to engage in such acts.

But the negative consequences do not just stop there.

In our study we surveyed almost 900 employees to gauge the sense of any entitlement they felt from carrying out corporate citizenship activities as well as the extent and focus of any deviant behavior that resulted. This might include, for example, making fun of another staff member or taking property from work without permission.

We found that employees pressured into corporate citizenship develop a stronger sense of entitlement than those who voluntarily engage in good deeds. In turn these employees are more likely to feel that, since they are providing services above and beyond job requirements, they have earned more than what is offered by the firm.

As good deeds have a strong moral component, employees begin to feel that the good corporate deeds they had been pressured into doing give them a license for future bad deeds.

Moral credentials

How so? When people see their past good deeds as raising their moral credentials, the entitlement they feel begins to impair their view of subsequent deviant behavior. They may not see such behaviour as becoming good, but rather less bad.

In our study, we observed this impairment not only on the individual, but also to the firm and even outside the organisation in the form of deviant behaviour.

Pressured corporate citizens are more likely to make fun of colleagues, curse at co-workers, take company property without permission or ignore instructions or comments from management. Some participants even cheated to gain extra compensation.

While emphasising ethical standards and tighter monitoring of behaviour is one recourse, such actions can also be seen as moralistic or overbearing to the point of patronising.

Our study found this to be a significant factor even when we factored into account the effect of different personality traits.

For example, regardless of whether individual employees were more irritable or easy going, as long as they were pressured in some way to engage in corporate citizenship behaviour, they displayed more of such deviant behavior because of a resulting sense of entitlement.

This went beyond the workplace, with personal incivility also observed to be higher towards people outside the organization concerned. For example, pressured employees would curse and say hurtful things to family and friends.

Corporate mindset

Good corporate citizenship has obvious benefits to both firms and the communities in which they operate. Given these findings, how can organisations encourage staff participation whilst minimizing any resulting deviant behaviour?

While emphasising ethical standards and tighter monitoring of behaviour is one recourse, such actions can also be seen as moralistic or overbearing to the point of patronising.

A more effective way is for firms to work on ways to cultivate a corporate mindset that values and emphasises the intrinsic value of good deeds.

Effective internal communication programmes can help craft and broadcast stories of employees who enjoy being corporate citizens – not for the sake of bonuses, but for the intrinsic worth of being helpful or supportive to fellow staff or the outside community.

Companies should also keep monetary rewards focused on work performance, instead offering other informal, non-financial recognition for exemplary citizenship behavior.

Top management can actively lead by example, demonstrating corporate citizenship without being compensated for doing so.

The implementation of such intrinsic values should be company-wide and not in just one division, so that the corporate culture becomes one of doing good for the sake of doing good – not for the expectation of being rewarded in return.

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