How employees can become better organizational citizens

For several years, workers at Food Co., a pseudonym for a large food processing plant in the Northeast, did their jobs well, but with little care and commitment to their fellow workers. “The plant manager said to me, ‘I want people to do the right thing when no one is watching,’” recalls Wharton management professor Michael Parke. “Well, that’s organizational citizenship.”

Three workers in a stock room wearing safety vests, hard hats, and face masks, wave hello to each other.

That conversation led to a yearlong field experiment for Parke and his colleagues that not only helped transform the culture at Food Co., it also proved their theory that both supervisors and peers can be powerful agents of change when they are allowed to intervene at different times of the change process. According to the study, supervisors are more effective at guiding change early in the process, when there is greater uncertainty and confusion about the new standards of behavior, while peers are effective later in the process, when the standards are better understood by everyone.

“Peer-led and supervisor-led role interventions can complement one another, especially in the later stages of change,” Parke notes.

The paper, “Creating Organizational Citizens: How and When Supervisor- Versus Peer-led Role Interventions Change Organizational Citizenship Behavior,” is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Parke explains organizational citizenship as a range of behaviors that promote the social environment of the workplace. “It’s all the things that aren’t task performance that contribute to the organization, its culture, and that benefit the team,” including behaviors like showing up on time, not taking unnecessary sick days, being a team player, volunteering to help, and speaking up. These behaviors aren’t always codified, which is why they can be hard to incentivize. But now, Parke says, more organizations are including them as part of their stated values and are trying to recognize and reward employees who embody them.

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.