What is Organizational Citizenship Behavior?

Written by Scott Wilson

organizational citizenship behavior

What is organizational citizenship behavior? Organizational citizenship behavior is a gauge of individual commitment to a larger group as shown through voluntary behaviors and actions that build social cohesion or propel the group’s goals forward, even without any expected personal benefit.

What is it that makes two employees with equal talent and work ethic different from one another? What is the secret to creating a team rather than just a group of people who happen to work in the same building? What is the end-game for leaders who are trying to forge an organization that seems to move forward on its own, without constant oversight and input?

You can find answers to all those questions by looking at the psychological concept of organizational citizenship behavior.

OCB describes a phenomenon that happens any time individuals gather together in social groups. It’s a powerful, evolutionary-driven process that has unlocked the key to survival and success throughout the history of humanity.

As a species, we’re wired to cooperate in pursuit of goals that are larger than our individual objectives.

In fact, we’re psychologically motivated to see our own interests as aligning with those larger goals. Everyone wants to think of themselves as helping achieve something greater than ourselves, and we naturally plug ourselves into the efforts of the whole.

This is a tendency we show almost from birth. Put a toddler in a room with an adult who is pretending to have trouble figuring out how to open a door… the child will attempt to assist in opening it, with no prompting and no previous example of being rewarded for the effort.

Evolutionary motivations that run that deep are factors in group behavior that every organizational leader needs to understand and be able to manage.

Organizational Citizenship Behaviors Align With Conventional Ideas of Membership and Belonging

Everyone is familiar with the ideals of good citizenship generally. It’s pretty basic stuff that is generally required for the social cohesion and proper functioning of governance and society:

Citizenship is a form of belonging, and signaling belonging, to a larger group.

Organizational citizenship behavior simply extends that concept of belongingness to the entity that you work for. It’s a kind of civic virtue that exists within the corporate world, giving the organization some of the aspects of society as a whole.

In work environments, OCB is expressed by people who go above and beyond the strict descriptions of their job responsibilities to contribute to either the social environment or the objectives of the organization.

This can be as simple as the person in the office who knows everyone’s birthday and ensures there is cake and a card that everyone else has signed on that date. Or it can be as complex as the person who appoints themself office manager in your absence, attempting to do it all and push for more, not always in strict accordance with your plans.

It also goes in the other direction, where employees self-regulate in order to avoid hurting the cause of the organization, even where there’s a moral conflict or when it might not be in their individual best interests. Staff who hate their job and dislike the corporation who nonetheless will not speak against it in public, or even those who cover up actual illegalities despite disapproving of them can fall into this category. It’s a surprisingly common phenomenon.

Nailing Down the Definition of Organizational Citizenship Behavior

Since the term first became popularized, there have been repeated gunfights within the arena of industrial-organizational psychology to attempt to distill and define it. Psychologists have exhaustively attempted to identify the key traits of OCB, define specific behaviors associated with it, relate it to other social behaviors, and to identify specific values that it holds for corporations.

For the most part, the predictors of positive OCB are pretty similar to qualities you would look for in any well-managed team:

And as it turns out, most of these values are almost always correlated with one another.

Leaders might have to come up with their own gauges for organizational citizenship behavior, but it almost always comes down to a single factor, and you know it when you see it: going the extra mile.

OCB Is a Powerful Tool That Can Cut Both Ways

having cake at deskOCB both assists and is instilled by some of the primary tenets of organizational leadership. As a means of building team cohesiveness, it’s in every leader’s interest to promote positive OCB. It reflects a sense of purpose and energy in the workforce. And it can improve performance and morale.

On the downside, strong organizational citizenship behavior can also create a corporate culture that is highly resistant to change. In a vacuum where staff have developed their own ideas and impulses about how to contribute to growth and success, it’s not always easy for them to let go when it comes time to shift gears.

OCB also leaves open the possibility that certain behaviors may be instituted without the oversight or control of managers. In some cases, that’s exactly what you want as a leader—a team that is both motivated enough and that has enough expertise in certain details to get out ahead of you to take care of issues before they even come to your attention.

In other cases, however, this can lead to staff going off the rails and taking actions that are directly contrary to your plans or wishes. And in all cases, they run the risk of taking place outside your view or oversight, so you can’t be entirely sure of everything that is happening in your area of responsibility.

All of this creates a real need among organizational leaders to both understand the roots of OCB and to find ways to instill and manage it along the way.

Why Understanding Organizational Citizenship Behavior Is a Must for Organizational Leaders

brainstorming in a business meetingIf you’ve been connecting the dots as we’ve been describing OCB, you will notice that it is absolutely the key underlying factor in promoting and developing the sort of workforce that organizational leadership enables. In fact, the original development of OCB as a concept in industrial-organizational psychology came through explorations of understanding the motivations and processes behind individuals becoming involved with and committed to organizations in the first place.

That’s a subject you run into time and time again as a core part of the curriculum in every kind of organizational leadership degree.

So getting your head wrapped around OCB is important to developing your understanding of the ways in which you can inspire and motivate your team in general.

OCB explores both the types of behaviors that characterize motivation and commitment to the larger organization, and the psychological patterns that can result in those behaviors.

In general, the behaviors that industrial-organizational psychologists look for as indicators of OCB are:

  1. Seeking to become and remain involved with the organization—volunteering, or applying for employment, and then remaining employed.
  2. Carrying out assignments in a reliable and regular fashion. Any employee who shows up regularly and does their basic job checks this box.
  3. Engage in spontaneous and innovative behavior to support organizational objectives above and beyond those assigned tasks. This is the key element for leaders since it shows a depth of commitment beyond the essential.

You can see these behaviors as a pyramid—the first stage is necessary for the second, and the second critical for the third.

The expressions of the final step are impossible to catalog… that’s where the “innovative” piece comes from. You won’t really know your staff are going above and beyond until you see where above really takes them. It can involve things such as:

Most of these behaviors will result from some intrinsic motivation that you, as leader, can’t directly provide. This is in contrast to the extrinsic motivation that comes through paychecks, bonuses, or public recognition.

Building Up Organizational Citizenship Behaviors in Your Team Takes Good Leadership

Yet it’s possible and beneficial for leaders to set conditions for those intrinsic motivations to generate positive OCB. You don’t have to reach very deeply into the OL playbook to find them. Examples include:

  • Leading by example, showing actions that go above and beyond in your own role
  • Offering encouragement and recognition in situations where OCB is demonstrated
  • Avoiding restrictive or overly delineated tasks that might keep employees from exercising their own creativity
  • Offering cross-training and engaging in strategic communication to ensure that every employee has a big-picture perspective on the organization’s goals and status

One of the most important ways that leaders influence positive OCB is simply by hiring the right staff. Finding people who are team players and have the demonstrated capacity to go above and beyond is a clear way to stack the deck toward positive OCB in your organization.

Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that certain leadership styles have a predictive relationship to positive OCB. These are mainstays in the OL educational curriculum and include:

All of them involve big-picture, communicative, inspirational leadership practices that fit naturally into inducing OCB behaviors in staff.

When OCB Delivers Rocket Fuel to Your Organizational Engine

cheering in the officeAlso unsurprisingly, researchers have been able to tie positive OCB to various concrete organizational benefits. Studies have found that sale performance increases, product quality improves, and customer satisfaction goes up for workplace environments that have strong OCB.

OCB is also linked to more autonomy and a sense of purpose in the workforce. As organizational leaders are all taught, developing leadership skills within your workforce can give them more sense of purpose and independence. That pays dividends in flexibility and often in organizational morale.

In general, studies have found that groups that exhibit high levels of organizational citizenship and cohesion perform better across the board. As a leader, that’s always something you will want to cultivate.

Keeping Your OCB Efforts on Track by Understanding Your Team

But all these positives don’t come without a tradeoff. OCB has also been found to have an impact on employees, and not always a positive one. Too much emphasis on meeting company goals and not enough on self-care, self-improvement, and personal interests can lead to exhaustion, burn-out, and resentment.

In particular, when staff engage in extensive organizational citizenship behavior going above and beyond their described duties, and then feel slighted or unrewarded when it comes time for reviews or promotions, the backlash can be significant.

Managers have to guard against staff engaging in OCB to the detriment of their personal lives and interests.

Fortunately, OL also offers answers for this. Organizational leaders who are in-tune with their teams will catch signs of burn-out and over-commitment before they become extreme. By being aware of OCB behaviors and monitoring staff to keep them balanced, you can get all the benefits of strong organizational citizenship without the drawbacks.