When does going the extra mile become a damaging behaviour?

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Extensive research has revealed the contribution that HR strategy and practice can make to organisational performance. Much of this research focuses on the influences on and consequences of different types of employee attitudes and behaviour.

Particular attention has been given to the positive consequences of employees ‘going the extra mile:’ that is, engaging in various kinds of what is termed organisational citizenship behaviour or OCB.

This seems like an obvious ‘win-win’ for all parties and something which demonstrates the contribution that leading edge HR practitioners can make to senior managers and directors.

However, like all things in the HR field, things are rarely this simple in practice.

Although there is ample research supporting the positive role OCB plays in improving performance, the possible costs have received much less attention.

In this article we draw on the detailed study of one organisation and take a balanced view of the benefits and drawbacks of asking employees to go beyond the call of duty and consider the implications for those managing people.

What are the benefits of going the extra mile?

OCB lies at the heart of models linking HR and the creation of organisational competitive advantage. HR strategies and practices are designed to encourage the employee attitudes and behaviours which are linked to organisational success.

When these practices are implemented as intended by line managers they encourage employees to do more than the minimum asked of them. The employee puts in extra time, or takes on additional responsibilities, feeling more engaged with their work and positive about their career prospects.

The employer gets committed staff, with improved productivity or results. Engaging in OCB also influences managers’ decisions on an individual's performance ratings, promotion, training and pay (see here and here, both gated).

What are the costs of engaging in OCB?

We studied five different types of behaviour to understand the downsides of putting in extra effort beyond the call of duty:

  • altruism (helping a colleague),
  • conscientiousness (going beyond the minimum),
  • civic virtue (involvement in the organization),
  • courtesy (avoiding work-related problems with others)
  • sportsmanship (tolerating inconveniences and impositions of work).

We were especially interested in the effects of conscientiousness and altruism because these time-consuming activities have the potential to exhaust employees emotionally and leave less time for family life. We also believed the greatest impact would be where employees were already doing well at work.

What did the study involve?

Our research site was a telephone customer contact centre of a banking organisation in the United Kingdom. The customer service employees were involved in responding to customer enquiries, opening new accounts, and selling investment, insurance and mortgage products.

This kind of organisation had the benefit that data was readily available from a range of sources and respondents and the tasks carried out of those employees studied were relatively standardised.  In practice we surveyed the customer service employees and their supervisors on two occasions 12 months apart, and drew on existing performance data throughout this period. 

Our research (gated) had two major findings:

  1. We discovered that going beyond the minimum required was directly linked to higher levels of emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict.
  2. Employees who already performed well in their job and had a high level of conscientiousness suffered significantly higher emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict. Those who exerted greater effort in their work and family roles, with a general sense of not wanting to let people down, found they had little left in reserve, increasing the challenges of balancing work with a healthy family life.

What are the implications for HR?

It is clear that senior practitioners need to consider both the benefits and potential drawbacks of asking employees to engage in OCB.

In particular, they need to carefully weigh the advantages which might be gained in the short term against longer-term drawbacks.

For example, a rush to meet a deadline set by a client might be achieved in the short term but in the long run employees might find that their personal and family life suffers, leading them to think about leaving.

Consideration needs to be given to the kinds of behaviours that HR practices are encouraging and how they might cope with the consequences. Reviews of practices in key areas are relevant:

  • A narrow focus of reward and performance management systems on short term goals might encourage the kind of ‘sprinting’ which increases the longer-term costs of OCB. 
  • Education and training practices for both line managers and employees could aid recognition of situations where employees risk becoming emotionally exhausted.
  • Health and safety practices, especially those associated with mental health and emotional wellbeing, can help those who suffer from the problems we identified.

The implications for line manager behaviours

Finally, there are implications for the ways line managers actually interact with their employees and especially when it comes to allocating work.

Managers are prone to delegate more tasks and responsibilities to conscientious employees who are likely to try to maintain consistently high levels of output.

Managers should therefore think twice before asking the same ‘good soldiers’ to take on yet more additional tasks and consider how the burden might be shared. Even the highest performers will eventually run out of emotional energy.

The message is clear: encouraging employees to go beyond the call of duty has advantages for organisations because it enhances performance, and for individuals since it can lead to better supervisory appraisals and higher reward recommendations.

But just as the perceived benefits affect both employees and employers, the negatives also go two ways. Organisations need to ensure that the gains made by encouraging employees to go the extra mile are not outweighed by the costs in the longer term.

To achieve this, HR practitioners need to be aware of the potential drawbacks of OCB and consider what actions they need to take to offset these.

Article is drawn from research published in the US journal Human Resource Management (gated) by Professor Stephen Deery, Professor Janet Walsh (both of King’s College, London), Dr Bruce Rayton and Professor Nicholas Kinnie (both School of Management, University of Bath)

About Nicholas Kinnie

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11th Jul 2017 09:41

Discretionary effort isn't 'free' - there's a cost incurred by the worker in time/energy. And management have a habit of 'rewarding' productive people with more work because they get things done.

This took 3 Professors and a Doctor to figure out?

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to Mr_Lizard
14th Jul 2017 18:03

Thank your for the comment, Mr_Lizard. Your observation that discretionary effort isn’t free is exactly the point we started from in our research. I agree that this feels like common sense, though I would also note that I always find it comforting to see that my priors are backed up by data. If they aren’t, then I need to consider whether my common sense is actually leading me astray!

Your second observation, the idea that managers assign more work to high performers, isn’t actually one of the findings of our research. Our research shows that undertaking the same amount of these ‘extras’ has a larger impact on the levels of emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict reported by employees who are high performers in core tasks. That’s actually a very different point.

Managers, faced with the choice of where to go for that little bit ‘extra’, may well be tempted to give the task to those already performing at a high level in core tasks. We don’t dispute that. We just think it’s important for managers to recognize that the costs of doing so may be disproportionately high, and we have concerns about the long-term sustainability of this approach.

Sorry if that wasn’t clear from the above, and thanks for your comment.

Bruce (aka, “The Doctor”)

Thanks (1)
to Bruce Rayton
17th Jul 2017 09:40

Thank you for the clarification. I'll re-read the material. That is a very different point to the one I originally took away.

I am often brought up short when the response to "But isn't that obvious?" is: "Well, it wasn't until we proved it...".

Thanks for the cogent response.

Thanks (1)