When workers who go above and beyond get tired of trying

Research by PetSmart Chair in Business Leadership Jeff LePine and his co-authors, sheds some interesting light on dynamics in the workplace.

Your eager coworker volunteers to take on an extra project, even as she mentors new team members and organizes the company’s charity race.

Another is so busy helping an overloaded coworker with monthly reports that he takes his work home to finish it after the kids are asleep.

Or perhaps you are the one who stops at the bakery on the way to work and treats your staff to donuts every Friday.

Such “going above and beyond the call of duty” promotes a positive social and psychological climate at work, generating immeasurable benefits for companies and organizations. Workers like these are models of “good citizenship,” but can they keep up the pace in the long run?

Under certain circumstances, the answer is yes, PetSmart Chair in Business Leadership and Professor of Management Jeff LePine says. Other times,  as much as the little extras benefit companies and organizations, he and other researchers say it’s possible that those good-citizen behaviors will sap workers’ resources — time and energy — and lead to what LePine and fellow researchers dubbed “citizenship fatigue.”

The concept struck a chord with the guitar-playing LePine. “The “well, I’m tired of tryin’” quote we pulled from a song” by musician Johnny Winter, LePine said. “It’s a classic blues line — you just keep on trying, but it doesn’t help, so you get jaded or worn out.”

The team’s work builds on the already plentiful research on organizational citizenship behavior, which refers to employee behavior that is more discretionary and less formally linked to organizational rewards than core job responsibilities. Such citizenship behaviors, LePine said, are things people do that are hard to specify or schedule in advance — such as being courteous and respectful, helping coworkers who have heavy workloads, and speaking up with positive contributions in meetings.

“These are all the extra things that people do,” LePine said. “They’ve been referred to as good citizenship behavior, or being a good soldier — an individual who goes above and beyond the call of duty, essentially.”

Other researchers had noticed that workers who were satisfied with their jobs were likely to contribute more to their organization than what their mere job descriptions required. Those researchers regarded citizenship behavior as a good thing and were looking for ways to promote and manage it. But LePine and lead researcher Mark Bolino of the University of Oklahoma wanted to look at “the dark side” of such behavior.

The dark side of citizenship behavior

They knew that organizational citizenship behavior involves the choices employees make when investing cognitive and emotional resources, but that when employees’ resources are low, they can find organizational citizenship behavior to be draining and depleting. LePine’s team suspected that if the same employees volunteered for projects over and over, those employees would eventually get fed up, fatigued, and be less likely to make additional contributions in the future.

“The dark side of it is that it saps your resources, and if you feel like you’re not getting a return on your investment, you’re going to develop citizenship fatigue eventually,” LePine said.

In introducing the concept of citizen fatigue, his team defined it as a state in which employees feel worn out, tired, or on edge, and those employees attribute those feelings to engaging in organizational citizenship behavior. Citizenship fatigue is related to the more general syndromes of burnout, exhaustion, and stress, LePine said, but differs in that even employees who feel citizenship fatigue can continue to perform well in their core jobs.

Conventional wisdom says conscientious employees are the type of people who tend to go above and beyond, LePine said, and that this tendency remains stable over time. He and his fellow researchers challenged that thinking, reasoning that even conscientious employees can get tired of going out of their way to take on extra duties and can cut back on their citizenship behavior in the future.

The danger to employees of their company not recognizing citizenship fatigue comes when managers evaluate overall job performance. Managers who have come to expect extra activities from their good-citizen employees may well view the fatigue negatively and give those employees lower evaluations than employees who never took part in good-citizen behavior in the first place.

“They’ve raised the bar for themselves, and then they can’t clear that bar, which may be worse than somebody with a lower bar,” LePine said.

LePine and his team further suspected that whether employees reach the point of fatigue depends on three factors: an organization’s support for good citizens, the relationships employees have with fellow team members, and whether employees feel pressured to engage in citizenship behavior. The team thought employees would experience more fatigue when support is low, when team relationships are of low quality, or when the pressure to take part in organizational citizenship behavior is high. The more fatigued employees become, the researchers thought, the less likely those employees are to go “above and beyond” for the company in the future.

To test their ideas, LePine’s team conducted three surveys over a seven-month span of 273 faculty members and their peers at private universities in Taiwan. The first study asked participants to rate themselves on their relationships with coworkers. The second asked them about how much they perceived receiving organizational support, being pressured for citizenship behavior, and experiencing citizenship fatigue. The third survey asked about their citizenship fatigue and their subsequent citizenship behaviors.

Support, team relations, pressure, prove to be factors

The survey results showed that the relationship between citizenship fatigue and organizational citizenship behavior depends on the levels of corporate support that employees perceive, the quality of their team-member relationships, and the pressure they feel to engage in citizenship behavior. “I think the most interesting findings were the interactions that we found,” LePine said.

For example, people with higher levels of citizenship behavior tended to experience more citizenship fatigue, but only when they perceived that their organization was not supportive of their efforts. As another example, people with similarly high levels of citizenship behavior experienced less fatigue when they enjoyed high-quality relationships with team members.

In effect, “engaging in higher levels of citizenship behavior won’t necessarily result in citizenship fatigue when you have high supportiveness in the organization or better relationships among the team members,” LePine said.

Citizenship pressure was another strong factor. People with higher levels of citizenship behavior were more likely to experience citizenship fatigue when they felt pressure from the organization to go “above and beyond.” Those who felt little pressure to engage in citizenship behavior, though, did not feel such fatigue.

LePine said the findings show that the concept of citizenship fatigue exists — workers do experience citizenship fatigue as a consequence of engaging in organizational citizenship behavior. The research also indicates that the effects of citizenship fatigue could be lessened when workers have a supportive organization, healthy team relationships, or less pressure to engage in organizational citizenship behavior. Finally, the team found that employees whose previous actions went “above and beyond” and who eventually experienced citizenship fatigue were less likely to make those extra efforts in the future.

Future research could go in several directions, LePine said. Researchers could look at the consequences of citizenship behaviors, such as what happens when some workers participate in citizenship behavior and others don’t. Or they could look for factors that influence the intensity of employees’ citizenship fatigue and for ways employees can cope with that fatigue. There also is the Catch-22 that organizations need good-citizen behaviors to thrive, but that citizenship behavior is discretionary for employees. Making citizenship behavior mandatory, LePine expects, may reduce citizenship behavior in the long run. Making it mandatory may increase pressure to engage in the behavior and thereby increase citizenship fatigue.

With all those possibilities, it could take researchers a while to “get tired of tryin’“ to explore new aspects of citizenship fatigue.

The bottom line

The research has these takeaways for the real world, LePine said:

  • For employees: Engaging in a lot of citizenship behavior may be good because supervisors see you as a better contributor than other employees and recognize that in performance evaluations. Be aware, though, that you can develop citizenship fatigue over time, so it might be important to know when to say no.
  • For managers: Value your “good citizens,” and develop policies and practices to ensure they don’t experience citizenship fatigue. Consider those supportive climates and healthy team relationships reduce the chances of fatigue, but that pressure to engage in good-citizen behavior is detrimental.
  • For team members: If some members participate in a lot of citizenship behavior, it’s important to recognize and appreciate them. Also, consider taking on some of their good-citizen behaviors, so they don’t carry the team’s whole load and experience citizenship fatigue.
  • For organizations: In general, citizenship behavior is good when it develops on its own. To prevent citizenship fatigue among the regular volunteers, however, put in place policies and practices that encourage employees to share more equally in “above and beyond” efforts.