Organizational Citizenship: more than a matter of “scratching backs

Topic: Citizenship Behavior, Fairness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (MAR 2010)
Article: Paying you back or paying me forward: Understanding rewarded and unrewarded organizational citizenship behavior
Authors: M.A. Korsgaard, B.M. Meglino, S.W. Lester, & S.S. Jeong
Reviewed By: Bobby Bullock

When employees go above and beyond at work (organizational citizenship behaviors), we like to imagine that they go that extra mile because of personal strength or drive.  For many years though, it was believed that employees displayed organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs) because they expected some sort form of payback down the line (i.e., “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”).

So, would employees still go that extra mile if nobody noticed their good deeds?  According to a recent study by Korsgaard, Meglino, Lester, and Jeong (2010) the answer is, YES! Korsgaard et al. (2010) explained that OCBs can be provoked by either expected reciprocity  or the obligation to reciprocate.

Expected reciprocity happens when individuals engage in helpful behaviors out of self interest because they expect the favor to be returned in the future (i.e., I’ll scratch your back because I know you will scratch mine later). An obligation to reciprocate occurs when individuals act to benefit others out of an obligation to “pay back” a previous favor (i.e., you scratched my back, now I’ll scratch yours).

While the former is motivated by self-interest, the latter is motivated by other-interest. Korsgaard et al.’s findings suggest that individuals who are other-oriented are more likely to return favors even when nobody is watching.  On the other hand, individuals who are lower in other-orientation (and thus more self-interested) are more likely to display OCBs only when their good deeds can be observed and lead to future benefits.

Based on these findings, organizations can take at least two approaches to increasing
OCBs in the workplace:

1.) Create a meaningful or pleasant atmosphere that instills a sense of psychological obligation in its workers. This should lead to more OCBs as individuals who are high in other orientation will seek to “return the favor.”

2.) Clearly state the potential benefits of OCB. This will create an environment where even those who are low in other orientation will display more OCBs because they can see the future self-benefit. How’s that for some back-scratching?

Korsgaard, M. A., Meglino, B. M., Lester, S. W., & Jeong, S. S. (2010). Paying you back or paying me forward: Understanding rewarded and unrewarded organizational citizenship behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 277-290.