Updated: Jul 17
Recently while on vacation out of town, I was running around what I originally thought was a beautiful park. Then I went to find my family and they started pointing out that even though there were beautiful ponds and fun play equipment, there was trash every few inches. Littering was clearly a common phenomenon in the park. My guess it is that it started with one person leaving a water bottle, or a plate blew away from a birthday party. However it happened, our youngest daughter walked up to my husband with a pile of trash because she wanted to do something about what she saw. As I was talking with my family, I realized that like many leaders in organizations, I had kept my head up (also a safe running practice), and in that process, I had missed how frequent the trash was around me. It hadn't been directly in my way, so it didn't rise to the level of me noticing... ouch, talk about a leadership lesson in plain site.
On day two, I saw what my family saw, and as with most life things, it started me thinking about the ideas of "organizational citizenship" and the idea of what I'm calling "organizational littering."
Organizational Citizenship Behavior (sometimes referred to as OCB) is defined as "individual behavior that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system, and in the aggregate promotes the efficient and effective functioning of the organization" (Organ et al, 2006, p. 4). It is sometimes associated with "prosocial" behavior or behavior that are generally considered those actions that benefit others rather than benefiting oneself (Punwanunt-Carter, 2022). Research indicates that sometimes prosocial behaviors can be contagious; if someone does something in support of someone else, it may spread throughout the organization.
So, what does this have to do with "organizational littering?" Cambridge dictionary defines littering as, "the act of dropping trash on the ground in public places" (Cambridge, n.d.). I define organizational littering as "the act of dropping unnecessary, unhelpful, or useless information about others (including teams and organizations) in public places, meetings, or in casual conversation with or without the intention to be malicious" (Reed, 2022). Organizational litter can sometimes be missed in efforts to assess employee engagement or culture because individually, it might be small, but cumulatively, it is creating a pile of concerns and comments that degrade individuals' and teams' abilities to work with each other.
What organizational littering might look like,
The leader in a meeting making a comment about avoiding having to work with another team. (Then pretending to make a joke to "laugh" about it.)
The peer that makes a comment about the quality of someone's work; not in an effort to aid in understanding but to express frustration or (maybe) to dismiss that person's work.
The colleague makes a comment in frustration about another person or team; the listener shares it.
A team works to avoid working with another and builds "work arounds" rather than developing an effective process
Oh how the list could go on ...
Really, organizational littering could seem like a lot of small comments made, but ultimately, it creates an unhealthy and toxic situation. It creates an organization where very few trust others because you can guarantee if you are listening to someone dropping organizational litter about one person or team, they are likely doing it elsewhere. Talk about a situation for degraded trust. Talk about a place that most people will want to escape or leave.
The more visibility you gain as the leader in an organization, the more dangerous is an organizational littering habit. That "littering" comment carries with it a weight that is much larger, a critique that could be crushing. One colleague I have often says "The whisper of an executive sounds like a shout to others." Organizational littering, like many other leadership behaviors, also condones it. It makes comments that are not helpful in nature welcome in an organizational.
On the flip side, leaders who hold themselves and others to a standard of dignity and respect for others will help others process the situations that might be causing the comments or unhelpful behaviors. I encourage you to start listening for the organizational litter around you; are you participating or condoning it? Could you be turning the beautiful place in to a place filled with trash and not even realize it?
Organ, D. W., Podsakoff, P. M., & MacKenzie, S. B. (2006). Organizational citizenship behavior. [electronic resource] : its nature, antecedents, and consequences. SAGE Publications.
Punyanunt-Carter, N. M., PhD. (2022). Prosocial behavior. Salem Press Encyclopedia.
Reed. S. (2022). Are You Guilty of Organizational Littering?