Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Feedback and Volunteering in Organizations (with the Muppets)

Maybe if I type up all of these research-oriented thoughts in my head, then I'll be able to assemble them a little more clearly. On the other hand, even if it doesn't help with my research, it might ease my guilt over not blogging lately. So let's kill two birds with one stone. Unless of course you like birds, gentle reader, in which case I will be doing no bird killing today. In that case, we will be... ummm... hitting two... targets?... with one... ummm... you know what? I'm no good with metaphors. Asking me to write a good metaphor is like asking Kenny Chesney to be a decent human being. Wait, that was a decent metaphor, wasn't it? Never mind.

In modern workplaces, whether they be offices, retail stores, schools, small businesses, large firms, or non-profits, the concept of "going above and beyond" is becoming increasingly important. There's research backing that statement up, and plenty of it. Organizations expect their team members and employees to not just do what is explicitly listed on their job descriptions, but also to do other things that benefit the organization, the people who work there, and the customers they serve. Many organizations even manage to work these "things-that-are-not-in-the-job-description" into the job description itself, oddly enough. They do this by including a line at the end of the official list of duties that says something like: "Employee shall also perform other duties beneficial to the company outside those listed here, as determined by management." When I was in the corporate world, I called that "The Auschwitz Clause," because under language like that, the company could direct you to do just about anything, from killing innocent people to selling yourself into slavery to buying Kenny Chesney albums.

In the academic world of management research, this "going above and beyond" behavior, volunteering to help out at work even when you're not required to, is called Organizational Citizenship Behavior, or OCB for short. OCB is a large umbrella of behaviors and activities encompassing anything not formally recognized as an official duty but beneficial somehow to the organization or the people in it. There are OCBs that help the organization (like helping to plan the company Christmas party), OCBs that help individuals in the organization (like helping other employees with their heavy workloads), OCBs that help customers (like going out of your way to help them find just the right product), and OCBs that help some combination of those three. Simply put, if you're being nice at work and helping somebody or something when you don't have to, that's an OCB.

There has been a lot of research on OCBs in the last twenty years because they're very important in the workplace. We know quite a bit about what causes them in an overall sense. For instance, if you're in a good mood, you're more likely to perform OCB. If you enjoy your job, you're more likely to perform OCB. If you're committed to the organization's purpose, you're more likely to perform OCB. If you're up for a possible promotion or raise, you're much more likely to perform OCB; after you receive the promotion or raise, you're less likely to perform OCB. If you listen to a lot of Kenny Chesney, you're less likely to perform OCB and more likely to spend your time lamenting your lack of proper priorities and then banging your head against hard objects.

A professor of mine and I were struck by the absence of an understanding, though, as to what happens after an OCB, and how that might impact whether the OCB is repeated. In fact, there's no research that really examines this. Say an employee in the office organizes everybody's office supplies. He's bored, he's really nice, he has a paper clip fetish, whatever. How do managers respond to this? How do his coworkers respond to this? And based on that, does he organize the office supplies again after they get messy?

We have a theory in development on this, but as of now, it's incomplete. Maybe you, dear reader, can help. Especially those of you who like birds, because you're probably nicer and more helpful than those who don't.

It turns out that there are a total of four reasons why somebody would volunteer in an organization and engage in this OCB behavior. The first is organizational concern; you like the organization, you believe in it, so you want to help it. I believe in the mission of Louisiana FFA, for instance, and want to see them succeed, so I volunteer a lot of time for them. That's organizational concern.

The second is prosocial values, or put more simply, altruism. Some people do nice things for people because they just like to do nice things. My old management mentor at LSU, the Grand Poobah, Dr. Kerry Sauley, always argued that there was no such thing as altruism: people don't do nice things to be nice, not even nice people. Instead, they do nice things because it makes them feel nice, and it's nice to feel nice. Thus, it's not really altruism because they're getting something out of it: they're getting that nice feeling they get from doing something nice. But that's really beside my main point. Regardless of whether it's driven by some personal goodness or this false altruism, some people have more prosocial values and will engage in more OCB.

The third reason people do OCBs is impression management, or sucking up. Whereas some people do nice things for people because doing nice things make them feel nice (and most of these people like birds), lots of other people do nice things because they like to stick their noses up the butts of people who have something they want. That something they want might be a raise or promotion, or it might simply be the respect and friendship of their coworkers. Regardless, research has shown that lots of work-related volunteering and OCBs happen not because the volunteers are nice or because they care about the organization, but rather because they're trying to look good. Remember that time the company pressured you to volunteered to work at their booth at the festival over the weekend, and you really didn't want to but everyone else was so you did it anyway to avoid looking bad? That's an OCB with an impression management motive.

Finally, a lot of OCBs are motivated by simple ignorance or misunderstanding about exactly what the job entails. Sometimes people do things that they think are part of their job, but actually aren't. Some managers like to make this happen, because aside from the negative of being rather unethical, it has a really quite positive effect on productivity. There was an interesting study on this back in the 1990's: Dr. Elizabeth Morrison tested whether employees and managers, in general, agreed on the full scope of what employee duties were. She assembled a list of things that employees did at work and asked both managers and their subordinates which of the things were official job duties and which were more accurately defined as volunteer activities. She found that for almost all of these work tasks, there was absolutely no relationship between what the managers thought and what the employees thought. They didn't always agree and they didn't always disagree: it just seemed completely random. There was no correlation between the two.

So for those of you who drifted off over the last four paragraphs to watch birds, listen to Kenny Chesney, or beat your heads against hard objects, let's review: people volunteer, or engage in OCBs, for one or more of four reasons. They either care about the organization, feel altruistic, want to make themselves look good, or don't understand properly what really is or isn't a part of their job. Still with me?

Imagine someone has one or more of those four motives and does something like an OCB. He stays late to help a coworker finish a project. She tells her friends and family how great the organization is. He picks up an extra shift on the weekend that nobody else will take. She volunteers to work a holiday. Tell you what... let's go with a more specific example.

Say Kermit the Frog has booked Penelope Priss and her Prancing Poodles as a guest star for tonight's Muppet Show, but Penelope and her canines don't show up. This leaves Kermit with an awful lot of stage time he's got to fill. Hearing of Kermit's predicament, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, and Scooter the Gopher all agree to work a little extra during the show to fill the time with Dramatic, Musical, and Comedic Acts of Questionable Quality. They each have different motives for this.

Piggy volunteers because she wants Kermit to see what a great part of the cast she is, so that she might impress him, seduce him, and steal him away to some porcine love fantasy. That's an impression management motive.

Fozzie volunteers because he's chronically insecure from years of not being laughed at onstage and being laughed at quite a bit offstage, so he thinks that Kermit's every whim and wish is his official duty as a cast member on the Muppet Show. His motivation for doing things that are outside his job duties is that he doesn't know that those things are outside his job duties. Silly old bear.

Gonzo the Great volunteers because he likes to help out, he likes to be on stage, and he likes to blow himself up for the amusement of others. He is an artist who lives to serve - altruistic in his willingness to perform and full of prosocial values.

Finally, Scooter is ceaselessly dedicated to the theater (because his uncle owns it) and, by extension, to the show. His dedication is an example of organizational concern. Four Muppets, all volunteering, but all for different reasons.

And now, at last, the research question: how will what Kermit says to them afterwards, or what they say to each other afterwards, affect whether they will volunteer again in the future? Say Kermit doesn't acknowledge their volunteerism at all - will that affect whether they do it again? Say the other Muppets don't recognize this OCB - will that affect whether they do it again? What if Kermit thanks them briefly but doesn't treat it like a big deal? What if he treats it like a really big deal, waving his little flippers around frantically? What if he tells them they did a terrible job?

This is the crux of our honestly academic research question: how does feedback from a leader, or feedback from others, interact with the motive for volunteerism to impact future volunteerism in organizations?

Say Kermit thanks Gonzo for a good job and even offers him a raise. Gonzo volunteered because of his internal, prosocial values. Would Kermit thanking Gonzo have any impact whatsoever, and if so, what kind? There are some people who would say that, according to reciprocity or social exchange theories, Gonzo would react to Kermit's thanking him by volunteering more: positive behavior leads to positive payback. There are some people who would say that, according to intrinsic motivation theories, Gonzo wouldn't care in the slightest about Kermit's gratitude and would keep volunteering at the exact same level as before, with no change. And there are some people who would say that, according to cognitive evaluation theory, Gonzo would be confused by Kermit's gratitude: an extrinsic reward for an intrinsic motivation. Because of this, Gonzo would actually volunteer less.

So which prediction is right, do you think?

Now let's look at Miss Piggy for a while (not something Kermit really likes to do, but let's just go with it). Piggy volunteered, or engaged in OCB to use the academic terminology, for impression management reasons. It's not that she's particularly altruistic or that she cares at all about the Show; she just wants to impress the Frog. So what happens if she gets no positive feedback from Kermit? What happens if she gets negative feedback instead? What if she gets positive feedback from Kermit, but NEGATIVE feedback from all of the other Muppets? What if Kermit loves that she volunteered, but the other Muppets notice that she's a suck-up and attack her for it? What if Kermit is happy but she's being pelted with boomerang fish from Lew Zealand and Animal keeps eating her makeup kits? Would she volunteer more or less?

And what happens if Scooter get a kind of feedback that doesn't really match up with his motives? Scooter volunteered because he really cares about the theater, remember. So what happens if his feedback from Kermit and the rest of the Muppets is all about what a nice Gopher he is, or that he's going to be up for a promotion or raise soon? That first bit of feedback would be consistent with a prosocial values motive, and the second with an impression management motive. Neither is really consistent with what Scooter was going for with his organizational concern motive. So Scooter's reward for his volunteering - his positive feedback - is all centered around motives that don't motivate him. What impact, if any, does that have on his future volunteering?

And what about poor Fozzie Bear? Remember, his motivation for volunteering was simply that he thought volunteering was part of his official list of job duties. Say he exits the stage after his impromptu comedic showcase, covered in rotting tomatoes and other putrid vegetables that have been thrown at him (I know, I know, tomatoes aren't vegetables, but just go with it). Say Kermit thanks him for the hard work and doing his job, but the other Muppets make fun of him for thinking that he had to do it. Say that the boss is grateful and Fozzie successfully impressed him (even if he wasn't trying to), but Fozzie learns that it really wasn't part of his job after all. How does he react to that? Will he volunteer again?

So that's the research question: How does feedback from different sources react with different motives for OCB to encourage or discourage more volunteering? If we could answer that question, it would be a step in the right direction of helping organizations and leaders properly address and fulfill team members' motivations, and could also help increase positive behaviors and volunteerism. That, in turn, would increase organization productivity, employee happiness and job satisfaction, and go a significant way towards "enhancing the dignity and performance of humans (and Muppets) and the organizations they work in," which one of my heroes, Dr. Anthony Rucci, referred to as the purpose of my profession.

Well, I'm not sure Dr. Rucci specifically meant to include Muppets in that... but I'll bet he would if he gave it some thought.

So what do you think?

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