Being Helpful in the Workplace: A Study of the Motives in a Collectivist Culture

TAKEUCHI, Riki | BOLINO, Mark C. | LIN, Cheng-Chen

Organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB), in which employees contribute to the well-being of their organisation through their voluntary actions, is generally considered critical to organisational performance and long-term viability. Numerous studies have teased out the determinants of OCB, but they have left an important gap: how does it play out in a collectivist culture?

This matters because components of OCB speak both strongly for and strongly against certain values in such cultures. On the one hand there are pro-social values (PV), the desire to help or be involved with others, and organisational concern (OC), the desire to help or be involved in the organisation. On the other hand is impression management (IM), which is about the desire to be seen positively and to avoid being seen negatively.

The latter was of particular interest to researchers Riki Takeuchi, Mark C. Bolino and Cheng-Chen Lin, who wanted to see how these components interacted in a Chinese setting where collectivist values would be likely to dominate.

“Although some studies have found IM motives strengthen the positive relationship between PV motives and OCB, we did not expect the same effect to happen in a more collectivist culture. Indeed, there are proverbs that cast doubt on such interaction. For example, the Japanese have a famous proverb that ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered’ and the Chinese that ‘a bird in the lead is always shot down’.

“These sayings illustrate the potential negative impact of trying to stand out and impress others by appearing to be a more dedicated employee, which in essence amounts to making one’s colleagues look less dedicated in contrast,” they said.

To see if this was the case, the authors surveyed 379 pairs of employees and supervisors in 13 financial institutions in Taiwan.

They first determined that PV influenced employees to engage in OCB towards their colleagues, such as helping them when they had heavy workloads, and OC towards the organisation, such as adhering to informal organisational rules. And they each strengthened the other so if an employee showed more PV, they were also likely to engage in more OCB toward colleagues and vice versa.

However, different effects were found when IM was brought into the picture. IM tended to weaken the relationship between PV and OCB directed at individuals but not that between OC and OCB directed at the organisation.

While this finding needs more study in future, the authors offered a possible explanation. “It may be collectivists are more conflicted about appearing to manage impressions with regard to OCBs that are specifically targeted at other individuals than with OCBs directed at the organisation. Clearly additional work is needed,” they said.

The authors suggested managers should recognise that employees have different motives for engaging in OCBs and this could change with the target and also the cultural context.

As for the mixed findings on IM, “managers may want to discourage collectivistic employees from helping others when they appear to be doing so to enhance their image,” they said.


Adjunct Professor