"Good soldier" vs. "good actor": supervisors know their workers' true motivation, study shows

Posted on Monday, March 16, 2015

Want to get ahead in the workplace? Act based on what's best for your organization, not what will help your personal bottom line. A study published in the Journal of Business Psychology shows that good supervisors aren't easily duped by employees who are faking it.

Supervisors play an important role in making decisions about rewards and promotions in an organization. They should therefore be able to distinguish between so-called “good soldiers,” those truly committed to the company, and “good actors,” those who are out for themselves, to ensure that workers receive the recognition they deserve. That said, members of both groups may engage in positive organizational citizenship behaviour that goes beyond the basics of their job description.

“Motivation separates the soldiers from the actors,” says Magda Donia, lead author and professor at the Telfer School of Management. “While ‘soldiers' act on selfless motivation and a desire to help the organization and colleagues, ‘actors' focus on furthering themselves within the organization and choose to help when they can personally benefit.”

Donia and her co-authors, Gary Johns of Concordia University and Usman Raja of Brock University, tested whether supervisors can indeed tell a good actor from a good soldier. Their study was conducted in 21 branches of an English-speaking multinational bank in Pakistan. Surveys were completed by 197 bank tellers and cashiers, and their 47 immediate supervisors.

“Our findings suggest that supervisors know deep down whether their employees are behaving selflessly or self-servingly,” concluded Donia. “Employees who want to see their careers advance should learn how to engage in helping behaviours to make a real contribution, without expecting anything in return.”

Previous studies have shown that supervisors tend to prefer good soldiers to good actors. This study builds on these conclusions by suggesting that supervisors may have good reason for doing so. Supervisors may believe that selfless and self-serving workers differ in the quality of what they contribute to an organization and that having too many of the latter diminishes the performance of their group. A follow-up study by the authors aims to test that belief.

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