While on holiday this summer in the magnificent city of Hangzhou in Southern China, I encountered a bilingual sign urging patrons to mind their personal possessions. The Chinese was scrupulously correct and mannerly. Yet the English translation contained an unwitting error, and one that transformed a commonplace message into some of the most pertinent wisdom for our age, “Please take care of your belonging.”
Belonging someplace is one of the most profound experiences in both our work and leisure lives. Yet unbeknownst to many, such a sense of belonging can also be the magic key that unlocks the treasured “go beyond the call of duty” disposition that so many employers and HR leaders spend many a sleepless night figuring out how to cultivate.
Satisfaction doesn’t guarantee
When most managers think about what is going to make their employees choose to go above and beyond, job satisfaction is their go-to answer. The argument here being that not only is job satisfaction easily measured through periodic HR surveys, but it would also seem almost absurd to argue that workers satisfied in their jobs would behave in any way to undermine the causes of their satisfaction.
But time and again job satisfaction has proven to be a problematic indicator of anything that might represent a benefit to the organization. Commonly used measures of job satisfaction are notoriously noisy and are often better at capturing snapshots of current moods and emotional states rather than authentic behaviors that drive future actions.
So how does belonging succeed where job satisfaction has failed?
People go above and beyond when they co-create their work environments and feel a strong sense of belonging. It represents a unique win-win for both employees and their employers, and each benefits in ways that satisfy their respective reasons for being.
What people choose when they really have a choice
Organizational citizenship, the premise that people go above and beyond when they co-create their work environments and feel a strong sense of belonging, is one of the most enduring ideas in managerial psychology, but only recently has it emerged from academia and made its way into business practice.
Long tucked away in scientific studies and journal articles, the concept has finally become more accessible to the mainstream thanks to recent advances in wearable technology, employee wellness programs, work-life balance, and diversity initiatives.
And most pointedly, it represents a unique win-win for both employees and their employers, and each benefits in ways that satisfy their respective reasons for being.
The two most critical aspects of organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) are (1) it is done out of personal choice, and (2) it leads to overall organizational effectiveness. OCB does not denote meeting or even exceeding formal job performance expectations, but rather transcending them through voluntary effort, and with no expectation of reward. In other words, OCB is what employees choose to do when given the choice to do so.
Two of the most important OCB ingredients are altruism and conscientiousness. Both also happen to be areas that HR and line managers are able to influence readily and positively, using tools they likely have already.
Altruism refers to helping behavior as we commonly understand it, but also goes a step further. Helping others is performed with an anticipation of future exchanges, such that giving up something now means getting something later that benefits everyone participating in those exchanges.
Conscientiousness is one of the most powerful predictors of high job performance. It involves a high level of awareness of how one’s actions affect others, and correct judgement of the efforts needed to perform one’s duties optimally, and without unduly burdening others. Self-discipline in thoughts and deeds, empathy, and alertness are hallmarks of conscientiousness.
Other OCB ingredients include civic virtue (doing one’s part to mind the shop), courtesy (decorousness and amelioration of harmful conflict) and sportsmanship (handling setbacks and challenges with equanimity).
Doing well by doing good
As mentioned earlier, OCB is a win-win. For employees, OCB is strongly associated with higher job performance evaluations, and leads to bigger raises and performance bonuses. In many cases, OCB carries equal and often greater weight in job evaluations than does performance on formally prescribed job tasks.
How is this so? All too frequently, job task performance consists of little more than not screwing up. Anyone hired for the role should already have the minimum competencies to perform the tasks adequately, and so only poor performance is visible to managers. But playing nicely with others, minding the shop, and nurturing the hand that feeds everyone is a force multiplier and stands out the right way to managers.
But the really big payoff happens when workers move on to their next jobs. Recent studies have found that candidates who exhibit OCBs during interviews are regarded as more competent, receive better ratings from hiring managers, and are offered higher starting salaries and more valuable compensation packages. Not surprisingly, behavioral interviews are prime situations for hiring managers to assess OCB.
For organizations, there are few performance outcomes that are not affected by OCB. For example, high levels of civic virtue and sportsmanship among sales professionals are positively associated with greater sales revenue, and helping behavior is associated with exceeding team-level sales quotas. Despite a reputation for being coin-operated and resisting socialization with the rest of the business, research suggests that high-performing sales personnel realize the value of a solid organization in supporting sales operations and will readily help themselves by helping others.
Regarding production work, high levels of helping behavior are associated with higher end product quality, operating efficiency, and reduced scrap. When combined with sportsmanship, helping behavior drives both production output quality and quantity. And when all OCBs are combined, the overall effects include increased business unit profitability and customer satisfaction.
Citizens of the world, and its organizations
Work organizations have changed a lot since organizational citizenship first appeared in the early 1980s, having morphed from strapping hierarchies into agile, distributed networks.
And while nearly all workers belong to organizations much differently now than they did in the 1980s, the fundamentals of why they go above and beyond for their colleagues and host organizations remain much the same.
Yet the experience of belonging is becoming much more vivid for today’s workers. Demands for work-life balance and the pervasiveness of remote work are redefining what is discretionary. Going above and beyond now contains the potential for extraordinary public and private rewards. More workers are reaching the top of Maslow’s Pyramid than at any time in industrial history.
But the biggest experience for most workers will lie in the tendency to readily change the organizations where they choose to belong. Over the course of their careers, they will be citizens of several formal work organizations, and even more informal ones that contribute to their work identities. They will be brand ambassadors for many different employers, products, and innovations. They will enrich countless others with many new experiences.
They will belong anywhere, and everywhere. But it’s up to you, as both an HR and a business leader, to make sure that includes your organization.