Looking back key to moving forward

October 12, 2010

Despite modest economic gains, gloomy unemployment numbers and low workplace morale still loom large within corporate America. Whether or not companies can capitalize on the momentum of this fragile financial revitalization is dependent on more than enhancing consumer confidence or introducing new products to the marketplace--it falls largely on employees working for organizations and their level of commitment to corporate success. Researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley have discovered that building a more committed workforce can be as simple as asking employees to reflect on their company's history.

"Institutions that can communicate a compelling historical narrative often inspire a special kind of commitment among employees. It is this dedication that directly affects a company's success and is critical to creating a strong corporate legacy," said author Adam Galinsky, Morris and Alice Kaplan professor of ethics and decision in management.

Galinsky, along with Kellogg professors Hal Ersner-Hershfield (visiting assistant professor of management and organizations) and Brayden King (assistant professor of management and organizations) and Haas professor Laura Kray (associate professor, Harold Furst Chair in Management Philosophy and Values) explored how reflecting counterfactually on an institution's origins--that is, thinking about "what if" scenarios--can influence employees' actions and commitment. Their findings demonstrate that when employees are asked to think about an alternative universe where their company did not come into being, they come to see their company's current circumstance and future trajectory in a more positive light. This "near-loss" mentality increases their commitment toward the institution and overall morale.

The researchers point to FedEx as an example. The courier service successfully positions its origin story by leading people to reflect on what would have happened had FedEx founder Fred Smith chosen not to fly to a Las Vegas casino one fateful night in 1973 to help his troubled company meet payroll.

"The result for FedEx is a deep employee appreciation and the recognition by top magazines as one of the best companies to work for," said King. "The key to generating these sentiments is reminding employees how things could have turned out differently for their company."

"Businesses can better position themselves to prosper when they clearly articulate their origin stories to employees," said lead author Ersner-Hershfield. "In order for companies to effectively communicate their narrative, they should ask themselves whether there were key meetings, events or people during the economic crisis, without which the company's outlook would have taken a turn for the worse. Focusing on how things could have turned out differently fosters a positive view of the current circumstances among employees and thus generates an increased sense of commitment."

The researchers demonstrated that this is a very general phenomenon by finding the link between counterfactual reflection and increased institutional investment among its members regardless of the company involved, and even showed that this relationship extended to countries (i.e., counterfactual reflection of country origins increased patriotism).

To demonstrate the importance of counterfactual reflection on enhanced employee commitment, the study's authors developed a series of experiments. Two of the experiments explored whether counterfactual thoughts produce a greater sense of commitment to organizations and whether these thoughts are of greater significance than pro-social activities offered by a company such as employee support programs.

Participants who engaged in counterfactual reflection and were asked to describe all the possible scenarios resulting in the company not coming into being demonstrated a higher commitment to their organization compared to participants who thought about the ways that their company actually came into being. In the same respect, when the company was described as pro-social and in counterfactual terms, counterfactual reflection remained a significant factor in organizational commitment. Furthermore, it was found that the relationship between counterfactual reflection and organizational commitment is driven by a sense that an employee's connection to the company was fated or meant to be.

"Our study demonstrates that this process is a universal one, applying also to countries and personal connections", said Ersner-Hershfield. Galinsky added that these results suggest "that this link is an endemic aspect of the human mind: Ruminating on origin stories and reflecting back on what might have happened rather than what actually took place leads to increased commitment."

Once a business (or even a country government) identifies key turning points, it should make reference to them in its origin story with a focus on how things could have turned out differently. The result is a renewed sense of devotion that is an inherent factor in an institution's overall success and crucial to its ability to prosper within the current, fragile state of the economy.

"Company, country, connections: Counterfactual origins increase organizational commitment, patriotism and social investment," will appear in the October issue of Psychological Science.
-end-
MORE INFORMATION: To arrange an interview with the authors, please contact Aaron Mays or Emily Bendix at the contact information listed below:

Aaron Mays (Kellogg School of Management) 847-491-2112 or a-mays@kellogg.northwestern.edu

Emily Bendix (MS&L) 312-861-5214 or emily.bendix@mslworldwide.com

The APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. For a copy of the article "Company, Country, Connections: Counterfactual Origins Increase Organizational Commitment, Patriotism, and Social Investment" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Keri Chiodo at 202-293-9300 or kchiodo@psychologicalscience.org.

Association for Psychological Science

Related Employees Articles from Brightsurf:

How initiatives empowering employees can backfire
Strategies meant to motivate people in the workplace may have unintended consequences -- depending on who's in charge.

Some employees more likely to adhere to information security policies than others
Information security policies (ISP) that are not grounded in the realities of an employee's work responsibilities and priorities exposes organizations to higher risk for data breaches, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Covert tobacco industry marketing tactics exposed by former employees
Tobacco companies use covert marketing tactics and exploit loopholes in Australian tobacco control laws to promote their products despite current tobacco advertising bans, finds new research from University of Sydney and Cancer Council NSW.

How employees' rankings disrupt cooperation and how managers can restore it
First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado, second prize a set of steak knives, third prize you're firedĀ».

Employees less upset at being replaced by robots than by other people
Generally speaking, most people find the idea of workers being replaced by robots or software worse than if the jobs are taken over by other workers.

Some LGBT employees feel less supported at federal agencies
Workplace inequality is visible when it involves gender and race, but less so with sexual identity and gender expression.

Workplace interventions may improve sleep habits and duration for employees
Simple workplace interventions, like educating employees about the importance of sleep and providing behavioral sleep strategies, may produce beneficial results, according to a new review.

To keep the creative juices flowing, employees should be receptive to criticism
Though most firms today embrace a culture of criticism, when supervisors and peers dispense negative feedback it can actually stunt the creative process, according to a new study co-authored by Yeun Joon Kim, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

How a positive work environment leads to feelings of inclusion among employees
Fostering an inclusive work environment can lead to higher satisfaction, innovation, trust and retention among employees, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

How susceptible are hospital employees to phishing attacks?
A multicenter study finds high click rate for simulated phishing emails, potential benefit in phishing awareness training.

Read More: Employees News and Employees Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.