Coercing employees to be “good soldiers” can trigger deviant behaviors

Scott Reynolds
Scott Reynolds

Convincing employees to go above and beyond the call of duty may be the epitome of personnel management.

But pushing too hard to motivate “good soldiers” can backfire—both in and outside the workplace.

According to new research from the University of Washington Foster School of Business, employees who feel compelled to exhibit the admirable qualities of a team player can develop a sense of moral entitlement. This sense of entitlement gives them license to subsequently act badly, both on the job and in the larger world.

In other words, compliance leads to deviance.

“When employees feel compelled by extrinsic forces—supervisory demands, formal and informal norms, threat of punishment—to engage in organizational citizenship behaviors, we certainly expect to see a negative effect on attitude,” says co-author Scott Reynolds, an associate professor of business ethics at the Foster School. “And more than that, we find a negative effect on actions. The psychological entitlement resulting from ‘forced’ good behavior is powerful enough to act as a moral credential, freeing us to engage in deviant behaviors that may be unrelated to the good behaviors we’ve been persuaded to exhibit.”

Tiger managers

Managers are in the business of motivating their employees—to do their jobs well, yes, but ideally to do more.

“More” includes a variety of discretionary behaviors that go beyond the job description to support organizational goals and team morale: working late or on weekends to perfect a project, helping a co-worker learn new skills or get oriented to the job, offering suggestions for process improvement, recruiting a new employee, volunteering for extra assignments or to lead meetings or teams.

Some people are intrinsically motivated to engage in these kinds of behaviors. Others require added motivation, most often of the kind that Reynolds categorizes as “soft coercion.”

“Motivation to be a good citizen could be in the way that a manager talks to employees, the cultural influences he or she uses, the incentives that he or she offers,” he says.

The result is often good organizational citizenship. But is this always a good thing?

Down with OCB?

To find out, Reynolds collaborated with recent Foster PhD Program graduates Kai Chi (Sam) Yam, an assistant professor of management and organization at the National University of Singapore; and Wei He, an assistant professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology; as well as Anthony Klotz, an assistant professor of management at Oregon State University.

The researchers designed several studies to measure the ethical repercussions of externally motivated organizational citizenship.

The first study examined its effect in the workplace. From surveys of 82 work teams representing a wide range of organizations and industries in eastern China, the authors concluded that efforts to persuade employees to exhibit above-and-beyond behaviors at work initially led to citizenship behaviors but also a distinct sense of entitlement. And this entitlement, in turn, led to an increase in deviant behaviors such as making fun of a co-worker or taking office property.

The second study examined the effect of this entitlement outside of work. Surveying 180 teams of employees and managers at American organizations, the authors confirmed that employees compelled to be good soldiers at work were more likely to engage in deviant actions outside of work, such as cursing at a stranger.

“The effect of moral entitlement can transcend organizational boundaries,” Reynolds says.

Moral bank account

What’s happening here?

The authors draw upon “moral licensing” theory, which asserts that doing good things now gives you a sense that it is okay to do bad things later.

Reynolds explains that we tend to view morality as a bank account made up of debits and credits. “The idea is that when you do good things, you build up credits, developing a kind of cushion,” he says. “Then if you do something bad in the future, you can still consider yourself, on balance, a good person or, in this case, a good employee.”

He adds that any time you say “I deserve,” you could be licensing yourself to do something you probably shouldn’t do.

But he also draws an important distinction between being a good soldier at work because you want to versus being a good soldier at work because you feel like you have to.

In the study, instances of moral entitlement corresponded only to organizational citizenship behaviors that were externally rather than internally motivated.

Inspire vs. impel

All of this leaves managers in a bind.

“It’s natural to expect there to be a bit of coercion regarding employee behaviors,” Reynolds says. “That’s part of a manager’s job—finding ways to help their employees be good soldiers when they feel like they don’t want to. We think of that as good leadership.

“But when this motivation creates in employees a measurable sense of entitlement, that’s when you have problems.”

To prevent these entitlement problems in organizations, Reynolds advises a two-pronged approach.

The first is to temper the means of motivating employees to go above and beyond the job description. Reassess the incentive system. And retrain managers to be mindful of the pressure they are applying.

The second—and most promising in the long term—is to develop a work environment in which people are more inspired intrinsically to participate in pro-organization behaviors. Empower employees. Adjust schedules and workloads to maximize each person’s capacity to be self-motivated. Hire people who demonstrate a natural inclination to be good organizational citizens. Communicate stories of employees doing exceptional work for intrinsic value over external reward. And make sure that senior leadership is modeling good organizational citizenship without external rewards such as bonus pay or other perks.

“Ultimately,” says Reynolds, “we believe that the key to avoiding the negative consequences of moral credentials is to create a culture that values and emphasizes the intrinsic value of organizational citizenship behaviors.”

From Good Soldiers to Psychologically Entitled: Examining When and Why Citizenship Behavior Leads to Deviance,” is forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal.