Going the Extra Mile at Work: Helpful or Harmful?

Is it helpful or harmful to go the extra mile at work? While generally regarded favorably, organizational researchers are increasingly considering the potential dark side of discretionary work behaviors that go beyond the formal requirements of the job. Can psychological research help organizations find a balance between the benefits and downsides of these discretionary behaviors?


In the United States alone, it is estimated that as many as 90% of individuals will work for an organization at some point in their life [i]. Such a ubiquitous experience necessitates an understanding of how organizations function and the psychological experiences of the individuals within them. While generally viewed favorably, researchers are increasingly considering the potential downsides of discretionary work behaviors that extend beyond the formal requirements of the job. These behaviors, conceptualized as organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs), refer to employee behavior that is more discretionary, less likely to be formally linked to rewards, and promote a positive social and psychological climate [ii]. As noted, these discretionary behaviors can be directed at individuals in the organization or the organization itself [ii]. Volunteering for extra job activities, helping others on one’s work team, avoiding unnecessary conflicts, and making positive statements about one’s organization and coworkers are just a few examples of these behaviors.

A large body of research has demonstrated the benefits associated with OCB for both employees and organizations [iii]. Employees who engage in these behaviors can achieve a greater sense of job involvement and meaningfulness, boost their positive affect, enrich their personal resources, and enhance their well-being [iv]. Furthermore,  OCBs are related to additional outcomes for individuals, including more favorable performance evaluations, rewards, workplace absence, intentions to leave the organization, and actual turnover [iii]. Organizations also benefit from increased productivity, efficiency, customer satisfaction, reduced costs, and unit-level turnover [iii]

While research has demonstrated the benefits of these discretionary behaviors, an emerging body of research has challenged the belief that OCB is uniformly beneficial. Specifically, engaging in extra-role behavior has the potential to be associated with costs for employees in terms of their well-being and work-related outcomes. In light of this possibility, it is critical to reflect on the extent to which psychological research can aid organizations in finding a balance between the benefits and downsides of these discretionary behaviors.

The Bad: Examining the Dark Side of Organizational Citizenship Behavior

Proponents of the “dark” side of organizational citizenship behavior have taken several approaches to challenge prevailing notions surrounding OCB. Using a resource-allocation framework, some researchers have suggested a “trade-off” between engaging in OCB and an employee’s core task performance. Research supports the notion that time spent on OCB can have detrimental effects on task performance and long-term career outcomes for individuals who perform more of these behaviors than others [v]. Specifically, workers who spent more time engaging in OCBs receive smaller increases in salary and fewer promotions than individuals who focus more on task performance [v].

Another explanation, role theory, suggests that individuals find it increasingly difficult to manage multiple roles due to limited resources (e.g., time, energy) or the competing demands of different roles (e.g., employee, spouse, parent) [vi]. An examination of the personal costs of OCB, suggests that employees who engage in these behaviors are taking on an additional role, which can have negative implications for their own well-being and personal relationships [vi]. In fact, OCB is associated with job stress, role overload, and work-family conflict [vi].

Scholars taking a self-regulatory perspective argue that OCB consumes energy, which contributes to a depletion of personal resources. Ego depletion theory suggests that individuals have a limited pool of resources that are consumed when engaging in acts that require self-control [vii], and conservation of resource theory (COR) suggests that individuals strive to obtain, retain, and protect these valued resources [viii]. To test this self-regulatory perspective, a recent study found that helping behavior is a depleting act that makes employees more likely to engage in self-serving acts and less likely to help others [iv]. Even more concerning, simply experiencing the pressure to engage in these “discretionary” behaviors can have negative outcomes. Expectations for employee involvement with the organization outside of working hours has led to what is described as citizenship pressure, a specific job demand in which an employee feels pressured to perform OCB [ix]. Despite leading to more OCBs, feelings of citizenship pressure are associated with work-family conflict, work-leisure conflict, job stress, and intentions to quit [vii].

Frequently engaging in OCB may also lead to negative thoughts and emotions that are attributed to these behaviors. The concept of citizenship fatigue has been used to describe a state of feeling worn out, tired, and on edge that is attributed to engaging in OCBs [x]. A study across multiple time points found that citizenship fatigue is negatively related to subsequent OCB [ix]. Furthermore,  the relationship between citizenship fatigue and OCB was stronger for employees with poor organizational support, and weaker when employees had quality coworker relationships and felt minimal citizenship pressure [ix]. These findings point to the clear role that coworkers and the organizational context play in diminishing the potential downsides.

Engaging in these behaviors for the wrong reasons may also have negative consequences for employees. Research examining “darker” citizenship motives has suggested that the motives underlying these behaviors can be driven by the need to enhance one’s image, rather than prosocial motives such as the betterment of the organization [xi]. Attribution theory suggests that individuals rely on cues to make inferences about others’ prosocial behavior [xii]. Research has demonstrated that individuals make accurate attributions about others’ behavior [xiii], and that these attributions affect how OCBs are perceived [x]. and reacted to [xiii]. Across two studies, proactive behaviors were associated with higher performance evaluations, but only for employees attributed with high prosocial values and low negative affect [x]. In sum, many approaches have been used to explain the negative effects of OCB. The aforementioned research highlights a growing body of work that dispel the idea that OCBs are uniformly positive.

The Good: Shifting the Depletion Narrative

While evidence of the “dark” side of OCB has garnered support in recent years, proponents of the “bright” side have sought to shift the narrative. In support of the “doing good-feeling good” effect, engaging in daily OCB makes individuals experience positive affect [xiv]. Furthermore,  individuals can engage in these behaviors and establish themselves as a generous social exchange partner as a means to gain social status and prestige in the workplace [xv]. In contrast to the depletion perspective, proponents of the “bright” side propose an enrichment-based perspective, which suggests that personal resources are nearly unlimited [iv]. This burgeoning body of research also comes at a time when the ego-depletion effect has come under fire for its failure to replicate [xvi]. In fact, a replication study across 23 labs revealed a small effect, leaving the door open for alternative explanations to self-regulatory perspectives on OCB [xvi].

Rather than draining energy, proponents of the “bright” side argue that OCB enhances energy and enriches personal resources [xi]. Research on the meaningfulness of work suggests that employees experience greater well-being when they believe their job is useful, valuable, and significant [xi]. Engaging in these prosocial behaviors is believed to relate to meaningfulness because individuals feel that they are helping and creating a positive change for others [xi]. These perceptions of meaningfulness lead to feelings of vigor, or the subjective experience of alertness, energy, and liveliness [xi]. A study testing these ideas found that daily OCB was positively associated with the meaningfulness of work at the end of the workday, which in turn was associated with more vigor[xi]. Overall, these studies paint a “brighter” picture regarding OCB and contribute to an ongoing debate about the helpful or harmful nature of OCB.

Striking a Balance: The Best of Both Sides

Rather than debating the extent to which OCB is good or bad, researchers have begun to take a more nuanced approach that seeks to answer the question “For who is OCB good or bad, and why?” Research that simultaneously considers both sides has brought about insight to help organizations strike a balance. A study integrating both perspectives found that daily OCB is associated with positive affect, but also interferes with perceptions of work goal progress. Positive affect and perceptions of work goal progress were identified as mechanisms through which OCB leads to both favorable and unfavorable well-being outcomes [viii].

It is important to note that employees may simultaneously experience both depletion and enrichment as a result of OCB. A daily diary study across multiple work weeks found that responding to help requests depletes regulatory resources at an increasing rate but perceiving a positive prosocial impact can help replenish resources [xvii]. Interestingly, employees who are motivated to do good experienced these depletion effects more intensely compared to those with low prosocial motivation [xvii]. Highly prosocial employees try to help more effectively and value high-quality helping behaviors. As a result, they tend to overexert themselves by investing a great deal of resources when assisting coworkers [xvii].

In line with the resource-allocation framework, too much time spent on OCB can distract employees from their core tasks, and yet engaging in too little will not result in the benefits [xviii]. According to social exchange theory, engaging in OCB can lead to the accrual of social benefits. In support of this idea, a study demonstrated a curvilinear relationship between OCB and subsequent work performance[xviii]. This finding supports the notion that too much OCB, or too little, can result in diminished task performance. Furthermore,  employees with greater time management skills may experience more work benefits from helping behavior[xviii]. These findings support the notion that those who engage in moderate amounts of OCBs may achieve the benefits without experiencing the downsides.

Finally, as a challenge to the “doing good–feeling good” effect, a recent study found that employees experiencing controlled motivation (i.e., motivation attributed to external sources) felt “less good” after engaging in OCB. The positive effects of helping behaviors were only experienced when the helper experienced high autonomous motivation (i.e., motivation to engage in a behavior due to their own choice) [xix]. While organizations should be weary of the potential downsides of citizenship pressure [ix]. experiencing autonomous motivation lessens the negative impact of citizenship pressure on the helpers and strengthens the positive benefits [xix].

Moving beyond this ongoing debate, managers and organizations must find ways to balance the potential benefits and downsides associated with OCB. Based on the aforementioned findings, managers may encourage moderate amounts of helping behavior to reap gains in job performance [iv], well-being [xi], and the organization overall [iii]. Too much time spent on OCB can impede task performance, especially for those with poor time management skills [iv]. Training employees to improve their time management skills may help employees balance the demands of OCB and core task performance [iv]. Organizations should also be weary of the pressure to engage in high levels of OCB as this may be inadvertently harmful to employees [vii].

Finally, research supports the clear role that coworkers and the organizational context play in diminishing negative effects [ix]. Fostering supportive organizational contexts, positive team member exchanges, and minimizing citizenship pressure offer just a few avenues to improve worker experiences [ix]. Research examining both sides of the OCB debate has painted an increasingly complex understanding of these relationships. Future research should seek to inform policies and practices that help organizations and employees maximize the benefits of going the extra mile at work.



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[xix] Lin, K. J., Savani, K., & Ilies, R. (2019). Doing good, feeling good? The roles of helping motivation and citizenship pressure. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(8), 1020-1035. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000392

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