Good colleague relationships make willing workers

Social relationships between colleagues determine whether employees will take on responsibilities beyond their formal job description, according to a recent study. Previous research has suggested that how an organisation performs is the key to whether workers will do more than they strictly need to. The new research contributes to the understanding of how willingness and commitment at work shifts and adapts as it is shaped by social rules and specific contexts.

Social relations and workplace responsibility

Companies and organisations value highly employees who show commitment and responsibility beyond what would normally be expected of them or is set out in their employment contract.

Examples of what can be described as informal accountability include working before or after formal working hours, showing loyalty to an employer, or making a contribution to the work environment that really cannot be expected under any interpretation of the formal employment contract (Judge et al, 2001; Stockhult 2013).

A recent doctoral thesis by researcher Helen Stockhult, Employees in dialogue: A study on the willingness to do more than the formally expected, concludes that social relations between colleagues are at the root of employee willingness to take on responsibilities beyond their formal job description.

The research project aimed to study the social aspects of employee behaviour to determine what makes employees take on responsibility. The study was conducted within a local branch of the Swedish public sector company Posten, the Postal Service.

The study identified six social rules that had an effect on employees’ sense of responsibility. Using interviews and observations, these rules were found to determine their willingness to do more at work than formally expected of them.

Contextual and complex behaviour

The study shows that even though rules can be formulated for employees’ behaviour, this does not mean that their willingness to take on informal responsibilities can be regarded as fixed. Because the rules are social, they are constantly being renegotiated and adapted in the context of the personal relationships between employees.

For example, an employee’s willingness to help a colleague depends on whether the same colleague in turn has been helpful in the past. This implies that helpful behaviour is more unpredictable that has generally been assumed in earlier research.

The study also shows how a company’s management is not aware of how much employees adapt to specific situations rather than following general guidelines. In an article (in Swedish) about the study in a Swedish engineering magazine, Ingenjören, the study’s author commented:

Since willingness to take on responsibilities beyond those formally expected is created in dialogue between people, it is important that companies and organisations not only understand how important relations between colleagues are, but also what the social rules are that affect a worker’s willingness to ‘go the extra mile’.

Study background and design

The study characterises employee behaviour using the framework of Organisational Citizenship Behaviour (OCB). OCB accounts for the willingness of an employee to go above and beyond the ‘call of duty', and do more than the formally expected roles and demands of the organisation served. The study aims to contribute to the current understanding of OCB by studying how social structures are embodied, constructed and reconstructed between employees in an organisation.

OCB is behaviour that is not regulated by the job description, but which still makes a positive contribution to how the organisation functions. A meta-analysis of research on OCB and organisational performance (Podsakoff et al, 2009) concluded that OCB is positively correlated with a number of desirable qualities such as productivity, efficiency and customer satisfaction.

However, earlier research has not focused on the contextual and social nature of OCB and instead has linked OCBs to several types of outcomes at the individual level, such as managerial ratings of employee performance, reward allocation decisions, and a variety of withdrawal-related criteria such as employee turnover intentions and absenteeism.

Commentary

As already stated, several researchers before Stockhult have focused on aspects of the working environment that affect productivity. In a world where work has become increasingly associated with flexibility and efficiency, Stockhult’s thesis points to an important factor in work productivity, where the social relationships between co-workers may be as important as other factors affecting employees’ commitment.

References

Ingenjören (2013), Kolleger bidrar till ansvarstagande [Colleagues contribute to accountability], 24 January 2013, available at http://www.ingenjoren.se/2013/01/kolleger-bidrar-till-ansvarstagande-2/

Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Thoresen, C. J. and Patton, G. K. (2001), ‘The job satisfaction-job performance relationship: A qualitative and quantitative review’, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 127, No. 3, pp. 376–407.

Podsakoff, N. P., Whiting, S. W., Podsakoff, P. M. and Blume, B. D. (2009), ‘Individual- and organisational-level consequences of organisational citizenship behaviors: A meta-analysis’, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 94, No. 1, pp. 122–141.

Stockhult, H. (2013), ‘Medarbetare i dialog: en studie om viljan att göra mer än det formellt förväntade’ [Employees in dialogue: A study on the willingness to do more than formally expected], PhD Thesis, Orebro University School of Business, Örebro.

Hjalmar Eriksson and Emilia Johansson, Oxford Research

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