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When it comes to returning favors, workplace attitudes belie vaunted corporate values and fall short of personal ones, research suggests

February 11, 2015

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, +1(718)398-7642 or +1(917)903-9287, press@aom.org

"You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away -- a man is not a piece of fruit."

Thus does a 63-year-old employee plead in vain with his boss not to cast him aside, arguing honor is due him in his waning years for the achievements and loyalty of his prime.

Now Willy Loman's plea, from the 1949 drama Death of a Salesman, serves as an epigraph for a probing paper on organizational behavior, thereby raising the question whether the play's grim portrayal of the business world is still apt two thirds of a century later.

At a time when teamwork, sharing, and flattened hierarchies are commonly said to be corporate ideals, it would hardly seem so. Yet, the new research, appearing in the inaugural issue of a scholarly management journal, engenders doubts whether the world of work has changed as much as those vaunted values suggest.

The paper in Volume 1, Number 1 of Academy of Management Discoveries   describes a series of studies designed to elicit people's attitudes on reciprocity -- returning favors or help provided in the past with favors or help in the present. And it finds that individuals have markedly less willingness to do so in their work lives than in their personal lives.

In the words of the authors, Peter Belmi and Jeffrey Pfeffer of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, "In five studies, using both attitudinal and behavioral measures, we consistently found that people primed to think of themselves in an organizational context (e.g., co-worker) felt less motivated to reciprocate and did reciprocate less than those in an otherwise parallel personal (e.g., friend or acquaintance) situation." In sum, "organizational contexts reduce people's obligation to follow the moral imperative of the norm of reciprocity."

Comments Prof. Pfeffer: "In view of our findings, it is not surprising that not long ago a Gallup report on the global workplace found that only 13% of workers are, as the report put it, 'engaged,' meaning emotionally invested in their jobs and focused on creating value for their organizations. In fact, actively disengaged workers, who were negative and potentially hostile to their employers, outnumbered engaged employees by almost two to one. Evidently self-interest is not filling the bill in creating dedicated workers."

So universal is the norm of reciprocity in human affairs, Belmi and Pfeffer write, that there are arguments for its emergence through the fundamental processes of human evolution. Yet, also deep, they go on to show, has been unwillingness to extend this norm to organizational life, so that "merely having someone think of themselves as occupying a role in an organization can weaken that individual's desire to reciprocate and the sense of having an obligation to do so."

The authors test this hypothesis in five studies, all conducted online, each involving from 120 to 400 participants randomly recruited from Internet sites for crowdsourcing or panel surveys.

■  In the first two studies participants are informed that a friend or acquaintance, either from work or not, has done them a favor -- in the first study inviting them to dinner and in the second giving them a lift from the airport. Subjects are asked to what extent (on a scale of 1 - not at all, to 7 - extremely) they feel obligated to reciprocate the favor and to what extent they attribute it to the other individual's personal qualities. In neither study did it matter whether the other individual was a friend or a more casual acquaintance. What did matter was whether the favor-giver was someone from work, in which case obligation to reciprocate and attribution to the donor's inner qualities were significantly lower than they were otherwise. For example, in the airport experiment, subjects scored a mean of 4.31 on feeling an obligation to reciprocate if the giver is from work and 5.11 if not, a difference so significant statistically that the likelihood it was due to chance is less than one in a thousand.

■  In an extension of the airport study participants are told either that the co-worker or friend providing the lift is either somebody who can do much for them in the future or someone who very likely can't. If the favor-giver is a fellow employee, subjects were significantly more likely to feel obligated to reciprocate the good deed of one who can do much for them in the future (5.03 to 4.44 on a scale of 1 - not at all, to 7 - extremely). In contrast, if the favor-giver is simply a friend, the calculative mindset activated in the work context was inoperative and subjects were actually more inclined to return favors absent   a likelihood of future gain.

■  In still another study, a variant of the Dictator Game, subjects are asked to interact with another participant (who in actuality does not exist).This other person is supposedly given 10 lottery tickets to be divided between the two parties as that fictional individual wishes, following which subjects are given 10 tickets to divide as they wish. Some participants are asked to imagine that they and the other individual are managers; others to imagine the two of them are office assistants; while the remaining subjects are simply left to interact as person to person. All participants received a generous seven tickets from their other parties, but what they reciprocated differed markedly -- a mean of 5.14 assistant-to-assistant, 6.06 manager-to-manager, and 6.60 person-to-person. Once again the difference between work and personal contexts was highly significant statistically, with the likelihood it was due to chance less than one in a thousand.

■  The final study tests participants' willingness to reciprocate in an actual situation in contrast to a hypothetical one. Subjects are offered 50 cents to participate in research, with half being informed that the offer is from a university behavioral lab and the remainder that the request is from an individual doctoral student. At the conclusion of some tests and exercises, participants receive an extra $1.50 in appreciation for their help, and then are asked if they are willing to take part in some additional surveys on a voluntary basis. Among participants interacting with the university lab, only 23% did so, while almost double that number, 43%, volunteered to help the supposed doctoral student. 

What accounts for the difference so consistently seen in these studies between the emergence of moral responses in personal interactions and their absence when organizations intrude? While the authors don't presume to have the answer, they note that reciprocity "is about the obligation to repay past   kindnesses and reciprocate behaviors already performed for someone's benefit...Organizations, however, are all about rationality and calculation about the future."

Does this mean that something as morally fundamental as reciprocity is destined never to be a core feature of organizational life? The authors recoil from unqualified pessimism. "Not all organizations are the same," they write. "Work organizations differ in the extent to which they focus on and recognize and reward future rather than past contributions. Workplaces also vary in the extent to which they utilize a business-oriented decision frame, in the extent to which they have a culture that emphasizes a business-oriented as contrasted with, for instance, a relationship-oriented mindset."

Prof. Pfeffer adds that lack of worker engagement -- and the moral shortcomings of the business world it reflects --  have not escaped the attention of groups concerned with corporate leadership -- for example, the Conference Board, which recently published a report outlining best practices of companies it views as having achieved strong emotional investment among employees.

"The report found reason to believe progress is being made," the professor notes, "and hopefully that is the case. Still, given the findings of our research, it would appear there's a long way to go."

The paper, "How 'Organization' Can Weaken the Norm of Reciprocity: The Effects of Attributions for Favors and a Calculative Mindset" is among the research published in the March 2015 issue of Academy of Management Discoveries, a new journal dedicated to exploring management issues at ground level. Other papers in the inaugural issue include a study of how the Internet has affected buying and selling at automobile dealerships and a study of how middle managers responded to major changes in the culture and identity of a leading beer manufacturer. The editor of this new peer-reviewed journal is Andrew H. Van de Ven of the University of Minnesota, a past president of the Academy of Management and author or co-author of 12 books, including, most recently, Engaged Scholarship (Oxford University Press), a guide to collaborative research between academics and business professionals.

The new journal will be published quarterly by the Academy, which, with close to 18,000 members in 116 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education,  and Academy of Management Annals.

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