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As special workplace deals spread beyond a charmed circle, they foster better company citizenship, new research suggests

November 1, 2010

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Suppose that a special training program has career-boosting potential, but also requires a supervisor to agree to flexible hours for participating workers. Is an employee with average talents and poor-to-middling relationships with the supervisor and coworkers likely to get this special permission from the boss?
A lot more likely today than in the past, new research suggests. Special deals in the workplace (idiosyncratic deals or i-deals, in management parlance) have traditionally been considered the prerogative of employees who were star talents or highly regarded in the firm; nowadays they are increasingly bestowed on workers outside (even well outside) the charmed circle -- and a new study in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal suggests one important reason why.
What the research suggests is that i-deals foster company citizenship much more in employees who are not highly regarded than in those that are. In other words, i-deals yield a much higher return in good citizenship among the former group than among the latter.
To put it more precisely, the research finds the association between i-deals and good corporate citizenship to be substantially stronger for workers who have low-quality relationships with their supervisors and coworkers than it is for those with high-quality relationships. Further, "the findings suggest that i-deals can offset poor relationship quality," note the study's authors, Smriti Anand and Robert C. Liden of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Prajya R. Vidyarthi of Indiana University Kokomo, and Denise M. Rousseau of Carnegie-Mellon University.
The authors add: "Past research has shown...that employers stand to benefit from high-quality relationships between leaders and subordinates as well as among coworkers. Still, high-quality relationships for all employees may not be possible...In the present era of dispersed virtual teams, coworkers themselves may find it especially difficult to establish high-quality relationships. I-deals offer a potential remedy for the relational challenges, and potentially poor citizenship behavior, such circumstances create...Indeed, i-deals can act as substitutes for high-quality exchange relationships, at least those [that employees have] with manager[s] and peers."
The quality of such exchange relationships, the authors note, "is largely based on affective factors, which organizations do not control. I-deals, on the other hand, can be controlled by an organization's agents and so can motivate citizenship behaviors."
Further, "our findings can be extended to suggest that an i-deal may over time help mitigate the negative effects of troubled relationships between employees and leaders or between employees and teammates. By motivating citizenship behaviors, i-deals can offer a way to rehabilitate problematic individuals in the eyes of managers or peers."
According to Prof. Rousseau, a former president of the Academy of Management, who has emerged as one of the world's leading authorities on i-deals, the study represents a major step forward in exploring their effects in a population that has not traditionally been associated with them. "I-deals used to be thought of almost exclusively as means of keeping star players from defecting to your competitors or as plummy arrangements for workers with close relationships with bosses, arrangements that were sometimes only a short step from outright favoritism or cronyism or even theft. Over time though, i-deals have  come to be extended to a larger part of the workforce, as employees come increasingly to demand a say on matters affecting them at work. For example, surveys of workers in Generation Y have found that 90% or more want jobs that have flexible work schedules. Increasingly, employees have the attitude of a colleague of mine who says, 'I want to be part of an organization that treats everybody well and me just a little bit better.' "
Negotiations for i-deals, the professor explains, can be initiated by either workers or managers, most commonly around the time of performance reviews and most typically focused on non-monetary work aspects, such as career-development, job flexibility, job content, and work reduction. "I-deals strictly involving pay can be tricky," she notes, "because i-deals should be acceptable not just to employer and employee but to other workers as well -- and that can be more of a problem with money than with other job aspects."
Prof. Rousseau allows that the current recession may have slowed down the expansion of i-deals. "My guess is that hard times have not affected i-deals for high performers, but average workers may be less inclined to ask for them, out of insecurity, and bosses may be less forthcoming. That is probably a mistake on the bosses' part, our study suggests, because i-deals appear to be such a good way not only to keep average workers happy but to evoke good corporate citizenship -- such as helpfulness to coworkers or increased commitment to the company. Good-citizenship behaviors can be of great value to employers, and, when evoked by i-deals, they may be practically a freebie."
She adds: "If the recession has induced a slowdown in the growth of i-deals, in all likelihood it will be only temporary. At a time when the span of employment relationships has diminished and the demand for skilled workers is on the increase, employees more and more expect their jobs to suit their individual needs. The customization of work seems destined to advance as surely as the customization of goods and services."
The new AMJ study is based on surveys carried out in five companies engaged in software design and development. Some 231 employees in 53 work groups, along with their supervisors, completed questionnaires. Supervisors were asked to rate subordinates (from 1, strongly disagree, to 7, strongly agree) on organizational citizenship behavior (for example, "This employee goes out of his/her way to help coworkers with work-related problems" or "This employee defends the organization when other employees criticize it") and also on the extent to which employees had negotiated i-deals -- that is, work arrangements different from their colleagues'. Workers responded to questions about what management scholars call leader-member exchange (employees' relationship with their supervisor in terms of affect, loyalty, extra work efforts, and professional respect); team-member exchange (relations with coworkers); and perceived organizational support (for example, "My organization really cares about my well-being").
The key finding: There was a significant positive connection between i-deals and organizational-citizenship behaviors for individuals who had low-quality relationships with their supervisors but no significant connection between the two factors for those with high-quality relationships with their supervisors. Or, in the words of the study, workers "who already feel appreciated...experience little enhancement from an i-deal, despite the special resources it provides them. In contrast, those in low-quality relationships are likely to derive greater value from an i-deal, which will compensate at least partially for the quality otherwise lacking in their relationships."
The new study, entitled "Good Citizens in Poor-Quality Relationships: Idiosyncratic Deals as a Substitute for Relationship Quality," is in the current (October/November) issue of the The Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with about 19,000 members in 103 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives and Academy of Management Learning and Education.
Media Coverage:
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Special deals improve the work of all employees, not just top performers. (Tuesday, January 25, 2011).
Toronto Star. Special deals are game-changer for problem employees. (Friday, January 21, 2011).

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