Thursday, 17 October 2013

Do conscientious people speak out to improve the workplace?

Conscientiousness – describing those who strive, invest effort, and are reliable – is the personality trait most associated with positive work outcomes, from punctuality to the quality of work. Conscientious people also tend to exceed the core demands of the job, and are likely to engage in citizenship behaviours such as helping others and advocacy for the organisation. Another citizenship behaviour is expressing challenging but constructive opinions, often termed ‘voice’. Voice is good for organisations, but it's risky and potentially disruptive to the smooth running of things, so is this something the conscientious do?

Subrahmaniam Tangirala and colleagues felt this is a question without an obvious answer because conscientiousness involves two components that point in opposite ways. One component is all about duty: following principles, looking after the interests of the group, and generally 'doing the right thing' - such as speaking out when something is wrong. Its counterpart, achievement orientation, is about investment in personal success and career aspirations, which can potentially be put at risk by being the first to comment on the emperor's new clothes. Following the lead of 'role theory', the researchers investigated whether these different orientations influence how individuals see their role, and specifically whether they think expressing voice is part of their job.

Tangirala's team asked 262 employees at a Singaporean mail and financial services company to rate themselves on various measures including how much they judged different aspects of voice to be part of their job. Their managers contributed ratings of how much they actually exhibited these behaviours, as well as information on their status and how much visibility they had of each employee, as these could easily influence the results if not controlled for.

Participants who rated their duty orientation more highly were more likely to see voice as part of their role, whereas more achievement oriented participants tended to see voice as out of scope. This sense of responsibility translated to more voice behaviours, as observed by managers. The boost that duty gave to speaking out was greater for participants who had also rated themselves high in voice efficacy, the belief that their use of voice could bring about change. Meanwhile, the suppressing effect of achievement orientation was heightened for participants who had rated their team low in psychological safety, meaning that they suspected any risky behaviours may be judged, evaluated or even reported by their colleagues.

Speaking out can invite ridicule or even hostility, despite the fact that voice behaviours are associated with organisational benefits like preventing errors or readying the organisation for unexpected situations. This means that people focused on getting ahead are liable to keep their head down, but we can reduce that risk by cultivating psychological safety in teams. Conversely the duty-minded are ready to act, especially if they believe they can make a difference, so enhancing those skills can also help getting voice into your workplace.
ResearchBlogging.orgTangirala S, Kamdar D, Venkataramani V, & Parke MR (2013). Doing Right Versus Getting Ahead: The Effects of Duty and Achievement Orientations on Employees' Voice. The Journal of applied psychology PMID: 23915430

Further reading:
Morrison, E.W. (2011). Employee voice behavior: Integration and directions for future research. Academy of Management Annals, 5373-412.

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