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Managers are exploiting ‘good solider syndrome’

Nuala OSullivan

Good soldier syndrome

The financial crisis caused an increase of pressure on managers and their teams, who often pulled together, doing more with less. But does Organisational Citizenship Behaviour, where employees put in extra effort for no extra reward, have a dark side? Nuala OSullivan thinks so

The 2008 financial crisis offered us a different way of looking at work, laced in opportunity and temptation. Organisations have downsized, out/in sourced and obliged employees to work “off site” by closing buildings, undermining the fabric and structure of work as we knew it. The fear was that this would lead to the employment relationship settling at the lowest common element, with employers demanding ever more from their workforce. Redundancies and cut backs meant that more was, indeed, being asked with less. A US staffing survey noted that 50% of workers were being asked to do more with only 7% of those receiving extra remuneration for additional effort (Spherion staffing survey 2011). This resulted in a 2011 finding that only 43% of workers were satisfied with their jobs. In the UK the expansion of roles, or ‘job creep’, was greeted more positively as an opportunity to demonstrate greater autonomy and ownership whilst up-skilling to the next level of responsibility (WERS, 2011). The CIPD (2013) found that employee engagement rose from 35% to 37%, although this is a fall from the 38% autumn 2012 level.

This offers a conflicting scenario because we know that workplace bullying has escalated to the point where a bullying charity was forced to close in 2010 due to the sheer volume of calls (Andrea Adams Trust Helpline) and ACAS confirms that 10% of UK workers experience bullying. Yet the number of cases of bullying, racism, sexism and discrimination being presented at Employment Tribunals has fallen since the recession, not because we have remedied the causes, but because those targeted fear retribution in a tight employment market and decide to endure the situation to survive financially. Mirrored in society at large, tolerance seems tested when resources are scarce, resulting in discriminatory behaviour. This is not news, as it happened in the recessions of the 1990s and the 1980s with research from both decades creating choruses for this one.

Tracing its roots, the research identified that it often began with the exploitation of the ‘good soldier syndrome’ or Organisational Citizenship Behaviour (OCB). The catch was that OCB is voluntary, so it cannot be prescribed, or punished if it is not there. Managers, pushed to deliver with fewer resources, called in favours, coaxed, wheedled and cajoled, knowing that this was not an isolated occasion. Instead managers diligently created climates, which evolved over time into cultures, wherein OCB was not just expected but taken for granted. It became the given norm.  Asking masters students how many of them had a lunch hour saw a forest of hands in reply, versus how many took their lunch hour: a solitary hand. This is because a culture has been established which, although unhealthy in the long term, has certain perceived short-term benefits. To see how it would play out further, look to the Japanese culture where workers voluntarily attend work at the weekend and taking all your leave together is so frowned upon that it is not even asked for. A presenteeism culture so developed that new legislation to combat overworking has simply resulted in hours going unreported.

UK organisations have sleep-walked into a situation where 9-5pm means 8am-8pm and the hand held technology provided by the organisation makes nocturnal glow worms of employees. The way forward is top down with managers taking their breaks so that staff will model their behaviour to break negatively entrenched patterns. The protection of whistle-blowers and fostering a climate of calm support where workers can be empathic and reciprocal in their responses should ensure that casual discrimination and unfairness cannot take root.  

Nuala OSullivan a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at Westminster Business School. Click here for a video Q&A with Nuala talking about Organisational Citizenship Behaviour.

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