Citizenship At Work: Draft Of My Talk For TEDxReno

April 16, 2013

On Friday, April 26, 2013, I have the privilege of sharing my thoughts about organizational citizenship at TEDxReno. My main idea is that we are all responsible for our citizenship at work because the evidence shows our citizenship matters. This will be different from any other presentation I’ve given in my career. To deliver a good TEDx talk, you have to clearly understand the format and be extremely well prepared. For the first time in my life, I have scripted my presentation and plan to practice it dozens of times before I take the TEDxReno stage.

TEDx_LRG_LOGOBelow is the draft of my script. I’m sure it will change again slightly between now and then, but I’ve already spent about 12 hours just getting it to this point. If you take the time to read it, I’d appreciate it if you would share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Citizenship At Work

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” President John Kennedy gave us this mantra of citizenship in his 1961 inaugural address.  Two hundred and seventeen words before this now famous call to action, he told us why it matters with these words: “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”

Citizenship matters. Good citizenship has the power to transform not only countries, states, and local communities, but also organizations. Scientists in my field of organizational behavior and management have been studying citizenship at work since the late 1970s and the evidence strongly suggests our choice to be good citizens at work makes a difference. I want to be clear that I am talking about citizenship in the workplace; we all know people that think they are good citizens in the community but at work they either don’t carry their weight or worse are egocentric jerks.

“How can I help?” is the attitude of a good organizational citizen. Good organizational citizens help by exhibiting innovative and spontaneous behaviors and a willingness to cooperate with others.

Are you a good citizen at work? To what extent can you say you do these things:

  • I willingly share expertise, knowledge, and information to help improve the effectiveness of others on my team
  • I always try to lend a helping hand to those people on my team that need it.
  • I try to resolve unconstructive interpersonal conflicts with my coworkers
  • I touch base with other team members before taking actions that might affect them.

If you are doing things like this in addition to performing your job well, congratulations, you are a good citizen and I believe a credit to your organization.

From the C-suite executives to the frontline employees, everyone in the organization needs to see their citizenship as a personal responsibility and understand that helping others creates a sustainable competitive advantage. The evidence is clear that when aggregated over time and people, our citizenship adds up and helps our organizations become more effective.

All things being equal, an organization full of good citizens will outperform one void of good citizens. Studies have shown that across a variety of indicators, organizational citizenship accounted for anywhere from 18 to 38 percent of the variance in performance outcomes. If that were not enough, being a good citizen can also help us personally because when our boss sees us helping others, we often get a better performance evaluation.

Our attitudes, how we are lead, and to a much lesser degree our personality affect our willingness to be good citizens at work.

The evidence shows that more than anything else, our attitudes – specifically how satisfied we are with our jobs and how committed we are to our organization – determine if we are going to be good citizens at work. This is great news because we can change our attitudes. Even if our organizations don’t seem to care about our satisfaction and commitment, we should care.  We should seek work that we enjoy, people we enjoy working with, and people to work for who treat us right. And commitment, even more than satisfaction, merits our relentless pursuit. When we reach the point where we can say “I want to be here doing this important work with you,” our citizenship often flourishes.

Fairness and supportive behavior on the part of our leaders also matters. When our leaders help us, they help themselves by encouraging a work environment where the “helping virus” can thrive.

With the exception of being conscientious and agreeable, our personality has little to do with being a good citizen at work. Even if it is not our personality, all of us can learn to be more organized, thorough, and deliberate in the performance of our job. And even if we don’t naturally go out of our way to help others, when our leaders treat us with courtesy, dignity, and respect, we feel positive at work, and good mood moves people of all personality types to be better citizens.

Our attitudes, personality, and how our leaders treat us matters, but can never be an excuse. Citizenship is a behavioral choice, and even if ours is never encouraged or rewarded, we can never escape our responsibility to do the right thing. Here is the paradox of citizenship for me: the hardest thing I have to do as a citizen is to be fair to people that aren’t fair to me, care about people that don’t care about me, and help people that have thrown me under the bus. But if we ever hope to be effective leaders, we have to first choose to be good citizens.

As we choose to help others at work, we should try to help in ways that makes them increasingly less dependent on our help. The goal is to help others become more autonomous and capable of being interdependent with others at work. Dependent people wear us out with repeated requests for our help. Independent people wear themselves by never asking for help and short us by never providing help to others in need. Interdependent people are comfortable working autonomously, but they also know when and how to ask for help from others when it is necessary. So if we want to encourage interdependence on our team, we too must learn to ask for help from others in ways that ultimately makes us better at performing autonomously.

In his brilliant new book, Adam Grant shows that when we give our time, effort, and knowledge to help others, we create the powerful belief that they are worthy of our help. And when we genuinely seek help or advice from others for the purpose of learning from them, it is a subtle way to invite them to make a commitment to us. Asking for advice can open doors to gaining influence, and the more influential we are, the more helpful we can be.

The evidence also shows that good citizenship requires the willingness to challenge. But challenge absent helping only goes so far. Helping enables challenging to have a more positive impact on the performance of our team. The most effective challengers have a reputation for first being helpful.

As we challenge, we have to be willing to risk disapproval in order to express our belief about what’s best for our team. We must not hesitate to challenge the opinions of others who we feel are directing the company in the wrong direction. And we must recommend changes to policies or procedures that we believe inhibit us from doing our best work. These recommendations for improvement should come from a posture of partnership where we assume as much responsibility as we can for being part of the solution. Real partners don’t dump. They don’t wag their finger and say “this sucks, and so do you.” The rhetoric of the purposeful, partner citizen sounds something like this: This procedure is not working as well as it could be, I think these changes would be an improvement, here is all I need from you to be able to implement this solution myself.

Its time we stop thinking about the success of our organization as someone else’s job. Our fundamental responsibility is to perform our assigned work with distinction. There is no substitute for performance. As we master our assigned work, we should look for ways to partner with others to fix the crappy systems that constrain our performance. We also have a responsibility to care about the work we do, the people we do it with, and the people we do it for. There is no substitute for caring. We need to manage our time in such a way that we can first do our work well, and then look for ways to help others on our team improve the work that they do. And if someone is behaving unethically, we need to care enough to muster the courage to confront them, even if we stand alone. When we perform, care, and operate with integrity, we become worthy of the trust of other citizens.

There is a lot of interest these days in employee engagement. I like engagement, but the hype far exceeds the peer-reviewed scientific evidence. The same is not true for organizational citizenship, where we have three decades of excellent peer-reviewed evidence. I’m not really sure how I need to behave at work to satisfy the engagement gurus, but I’m crystal clear about the importance of first doing my job well, then looking for opportunities to help my organization and colleagues. I wish our organizations would spend more time and effort encouraging good citizenship at work.

Yet for us who choose to ask what we can do to help, it really is true that in our hands will rest the final success or failure of our course. But we are masters of self-deception; highly skilled at telling ourselves stories that make us feel good but simply are not true, stories like “there is no way I can make a difference around here”. But our circle of influence at work is larger than we think. People are watching us, and it is our responsibility to craft the stories others tell about us. Those stories about our behavior have the power to change the culture of our organizations. My challenge to you is to go forward from here and choose to behave in ways that will provide stories of good citizenship because the evidence is unequivocal that if you do so, you can make a difference in your workplace.

Thank you


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Comments (10)

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  1. Shila Morris says:

    How exciting to get to present at Tedx congratulations on the huge honor and accomplishment. I agree that this is an often overlooked, and yet vital component to not only a company’s ultimate success, but to us as individuals as well. I feel your presentation could benefit from a story or example scenario. Perhaps some kind of personal experience, or even a hypothetical situation to give a crystal clear understanding of this in action.
    I love the bullet points of the questions to ask yourself in order to gauge your current citizenship at work.
    Maybe some kind of call to action? Go to your work environment and start with these 5 baby steps?
    Companies that invest in this and their results? people do love numbers. 🙂
    What a fascinating subject I love this and think the audience will too!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I appreciate the advice about the story, Shila. I don’t tell stories in my talks be personally, I don’t like to listen to them – just a style thing. But I’ve already thought of a way I might be able to weave something in… thanks for the suggestions! Bret

  2. Beth says:

    Hey Bret, It’s a great topic, and you give some typically pertinent observations. I agree with Shila that a story might be good — I was thinking the same thing as I was reading through your piece. I was longing for an illustration of some kind to make the abstractness of the topic more tangible and concrete.

    In their awesome book Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about the power of the story to do just that.

    I also want to advise you to go through your text and make the average sentence length about half of what it is now. In my experience writing speeches, presentations and film narration scripts, I have to say that too-long sentence structure is the number one bugaboo that disengages people. Find ways to put periods in mor frequently, and you will also find that you are framing your ideas more helpfully for the hearer.

    Also, I want to add that if I was delivering your talk, I would find a way to rock my audience’s world within the first few paragraphs by introducing an unexpected twist or counter-intuitive conflict of some kind. See my blog post about this trick here:

    My general rule, is, you want your audience to be riveted early on, or you will lose them. So think of what rivets you about this topic, and figure out a way to illustrate that core thing in a clear and provocative way — then lead with that.

    Just my thoughts — and yes, I’m still alive out here in New York City, the official chairperson of the East Coast Bret Simmons Fan Club. Good luck with your talk! – – Beth

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Really appreciate the advice, Beth. I already incorporated Shila’s suggestion. I practiced for 4 hours today and finally have my script memorized. Now I can focus on being more relaxed and finding ways to say it more naturally. I’ve already shortened many sentences. I still have a lot of practice left to go! Hope you are well. Thanks! Bret

  3. Bruce Lynn says:

    As you know, I like looking at both ‘Leadership’ and ‘Management’. Yes, the distinctions are semantic, but words nonetheless have power.

    I think your concept of ‘Citizenship’ is more aligned to the ‘Management’ side. I applaud your eloquent appeal for better citizenship. I too often find that ‘Leadership’ is put on a pedestal, while ‘Management’ is denigrated.

    One way to delineate the distinction might be “Leaders at patriots who defend rights; Managers are citizens who step up to responsibilities.” I wrote about this balance previously –

    One of the challenges I find in especially American society is an over-obsession with ‘rights’, but without the counterbalancing investment in ‘responsibilities’. The same dynamic prevails in business where upside, opportunity, vision, etc. are all applauded. But the avoiding downside, minimizing pain, etc are all discounted. Businesses and organisations need a balance of both. Your piece is a great appeal for great focus and balance on this side of the equation.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Great points, Bruce. Thanks for taking the time to share your advice. Hope you are well. Bret

  4. Beth says:

    How did it go, Bret?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It went Ok. could have done better 🙂

  5. James Strock says:

    Just happened upon this after the fact, Bret. Sounds terrific. One aspect I particularly like is that in using the term ‘citizenship’ you’re implicitly and explicitly linking all of our leadership roles and prospects in all fields. That goes to one of the defining characteristics of 21st century leaderships, the convergence of leadership in all fields. The silos are not merely falling within enterprises; the boundaries are being breached between entire sectors. Thanks for your ongoing service. Best, Jim

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jim. I too like this concept of citizenship as it spans all roles from front line to c-suite. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret