Do your co-workers seem reluctant to lend a helping hand?

Do your co-workers seem reluctant to lend a helping hand?

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Ever wondered why there aren’t too many volunteers when you ask for help at work? New research has revealed that reciprocity, the social norm that compels us to return favors, doesn’t apply as strongly at work as it does to life outside the office. Go figure! Five studies conducted by researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business reveal that people are far more generous when interacting with individuals in a personal context as opposed to an organizational context.

Lesson: Its way easier to make genuine friends outside of work, but like everything else there are exceptions – so keep an open mind.

In one study entitled “How “Organization” Can Weaken The Norm of Reciprocity: The Effects of Attributions for Favors and a Calculative Mindset,” those who were asked to imagine they were being treated to dinner by a friend or acquaintance from the office were less likely to repay the favor than those who were asked to imagine the same scenario with a non-work friend or acquaintance.

In another study, participants were given an unexpected payment and then asked if they would fill out an additional survey. To some, the query was presented in a slightly more personal context, asking if they would complete the survey on behalf of doctoral students. Others were asked to fill out the survey for a lab. When the query was framed as a request from the doctoral students, the researchers received a 43% positive response rate, while only 23% of those given the organizational explanation agreed.

In normal social contexts, people are likely to help each other out, naturally repaying good deeds, according to Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford and an author of the paper, included in the March issue of the new journal Academy of Management Discoveries. But in organizations, that sense of responsibility and selflessness fades. Companies lay off longtime workers who had been loyal, good performers or cut back on employees’ health benefits.

In reality, the daily news provides numerous cases of companies not repaying employee loyalty and, instead, affecting employees and ex-employees through their actions. In some companies, positions have been eliminated or reduced, promised retirement plans and pension benefits—the proportion of private sector workers covered by defined benefit pension plans fell from 35 percent in the early 1990s to just 18 percent by 2011. Employers regularly jettison retiree medical insurance benefits, benefits sometimes offered explicitly to induce the workers to retire. The propor- tion of firms with 200 or more employees offering retiree medical benefits fell from 66 percent in 1988 to 28 percent in 2013. And employers lay off people even when there is no pressing economic stringency, so that few employees now can expect stable, full-time jobs or rising incomes (e.g., Osterman, 2014).

These and other similar facts of contemporary employment raise the question: If reciprocity is a fundamental internalized moral imperative governing so much social behavior, how is it possible that reciprocity appears to be so often lacking in- side work organizations?

One explanation for this employer behavior is that the norm of reciprocity is just not expected to operate inside the workplace at all, so it can be ignored with impunity. However,  evidence suggests that there are consequences for violating perceived reciprocal obligations in work organizations. Such evidence suggests that reciprocity is an operative norm, with differences in employee behavior resulting from non-adherence. For example, studies have found that when employees perceive that their employers have failed to deliver what was informally promised, they become less committed, less productive and more likely to quit (Dabos & Rousseau, 2004).

It seems that people in organizational contexts may be less likely to observe the moral norm to reciprocate because (1) they are less inclined to think that those who have helped them have truly sincere and genuine motives for helping; and (2) organizational contexts encourage deliberative and calculative decision-making that often results in less moral and more self-interested behavior.

People in organizational contexts are likely to attribute favors from others as being driven by factors external to the favor-doer such as aspects of their job responsibilities, they may be less inclined to think that those who have helped them have truly sincere and genuine motives for helping—for example, they may feel that other people are being nice to them simply because they are doing their “jobs.” As a result, they may be less inclined to think that they have a moral obligation to repay the other person.

Furthermore, recent research has found that deliberative and calculative decision-making can result in less ethical and more self-interested behavior. For example, scholars have shown that merely asking people to solve mathematical computations promotes a greater tendency to lie and act selfishly. Organizations are contexts that are more likely to induce and, in fact, reward a deliberative and calculative mindset. Therefore, we predict that organizations are less likely to be settings that encourage reciprocation, a form of altruistic and moral behavior.

So what does this all mean?

For Employees…

From the point of view of employees, the implication is not to expect the norm of reciprocity to operate with as much force in organizational settings—subject to testing the various organizational variables already discussed that would make this statement more or less true—and therefore, not to be surprised when loyalty and efforts are not reciprocated. This implication provides social science evidence and the psychological processes consistent with recommendations made by others.

For Managers/Organizations…

From the point of view of managers, the results, particularly if they are extended to consider the moral outrage and willingness to punish non-reciprocation as these differ between organizational and personal contexts, suggest that inside organizations, reciprocation is less expected and therefore managers and their employers can get away more easily with defying norms, including the norm of reciprocity. This conclusion echoes that of Haran (2013) with respect to breaching contracts.

What do you think about reciprocity in the workplace! Tell us your views.

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