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Tales from the top don't inspire company hires, but stories about the rank and file do, study finds

October 18, 2016

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They are prominent parts of the orientation new hires receive in many companies – stories about the high deeds and standards of the firms' founders or top executives. At McKinsey & Co. they may be stories about the impeccable integrity and professionalism of long-time managing director Marvin Bowers. At Starbucks they may be about CEO Howard Schultz's commitment to corporate social responsibility and employee welfare.


What impact do such narratives have on the corporate citizenship of newcomers to a firm's rank and file, asks a paper in the current issue of the Academyof Management Journal. Little or none, the research concludes, although the stories may lead employees to judge their co-workers more strictly than they would otherwise do.


The study, by Sean R. Martin of Boston College's Carroll School of Management, finds that newcomers exposed to stories of sterling deeds of company leaders are no more committed to the organization’s values and no more helpful to co-workers than those not exposed. 


What does have a positive impact, Prof. Martin finds, are stories about the rank and file – about employees, in other words, with whom the newcomers can identify. In the words of the study, "Stories about high-level organizational members who might be seen as organizational representatives are perhaps not as effective at influencing some important and desired newcomer behaviors as was once supposed." In contrast, "stories that one hears about peers, coworkers, or others at one's own organizational level [prove] to be influential means through which organizational values are embedded in newcomers' behaviors."


He adds: "Positive stories about high-level members may be useful for making the [company's] values and injunctive norms salient. But to illustrate the ways that values should guide behavior and encourage others to act in values-driven ways, stories about characters at closer social distance may be more effective. Combining both in newcomer socialization may help to both make the values salient and encourage consonant action."


The study analyzes the relationship between four different types of stories to which newcomers at a large company were exposed and their subsequent behavior at work. The newcomers were trainees of a large technology firm with a reputation, Prof. Martin writes, "as a values-driven company where employees work hard and go above and beyond to help clients and each other." The study's sample consisted of 290 recent university graduates, about equally divided between men and women, who were 10 weeks into a five-and-a-half-month training period for entry-level programmers that was to culminate in eight-person projects. The participants were divided into four groups, ranging from 59 to 81 members, with each of the four instructed to share with group members stories from their 10 weeks with the company. Specifically, each of the groups was instructed to share narratives with one of the four following themes, which evoked stories as follows:


 High-ranking executives who upheld company values. The group’s response included stories about company officers resisting temptations to cut corners or take bribes or acting to benefit clients or employees;


 High-ranking officers who transgressed company values. Response elicited by this theme included stories of execs treating people unfairly or lacking integrity;


 Lower-ranking employees who upheld company values.  Mostly evoked stories of individuals going above and beyond the norm to help others;


 Lower-ranking employees who violated values. Group’s response included stories of individuals cheating on tests or acting rudely or demeaning others.


During the following two months, to refresh participants' recollections, they were periodically e-mailed stories shared in their particular group. In conclusion, all were asked to respond to statements about members of their eight-person project teams in order to yield two measures – 1) each person’s workplace helpfulness (for example, "volunteered for things that are not required" and "helped others who have heavy workloads"), and 2) workplace deviance (for example, "took property from work without permission" or "neglected to follow instructions" or "intentionally worked more slowly than he or she could have worked)." Participants responded to statements about helpfulness on a scale of 1/Strongly Disagree to 5/Strongly Agree and to those regarding deviance on a scale of 1/Never to 7/Daily.


Members of the group that shared stories about high-ranking officers with high values had an average helpfulness score of 3.50, just about the same as the 3.54 mean rating of more than 300 trainees who were not part of any story-sharing group and who therefore served as controls. But the helpfulness of both groups was rated significantly lower than the mean of 3.85 achieved by members that shared stories about lower-ranking employees with high values. Prof. Martin writes that “stories about high-level members were more likely to convey the [firm’s] formally espoused values, but the values-supporting and values-opposed stories about lower-level members appear to be more impactful on behaviors.”


In measures of deviance, a considerable surprise was that the group that turned out to be most deviant, with a mean rating of 2.66, consisted of participants who shared stories about high-ranking executives with high values. Controls averaged a significantly lower deviance score of 2.19, as did the group that shared values-upholding narratives involving lower-ranking workers, whose mean was only 1.73.


Does this negative response to stories about do-gooder leaders represent some kind of perverse effect? Prof. Martin thinks it more likely that it reflects a stiffening of standards. In the words of the study, “When newcomers hear stories about high-level characters acting in values-upholding ways, it may lead them to compare their peers to a very high behavioral standard that is difficult to achieve and lead them to evaluate peers’ behavior stringently.”


In short, stories about high deeds by company leaders don’t inspire rank-and-file workers to be better corporate citizens themselves but may very well lead them to be sterner in judging their peers.


Less surprising is the study’s finding that stories about values violations by the rank and file were associated with a deviance mean of 2.55, significantly more than the mean rating of 2.19 for the control group. Prof. Martin sees this as reflecting the special relevance employees assign to peer behavior in determining their own.


In view of this, Prof. Martin says, companies do well to assign high priority to gathering employee stories. “Organizations invest significant resources to socialize newcomers and embed in them the desired aspects of the culture,” he writes in conclusion. “Cultural elements such as narratives might be used more strategically to increase the likelihood that organizational values are embedded in newcomers at the behavioral level.”


The paper, “Stories about Value and Valuable Stories: A Field Experiment of the Power of Narratives to Shape Newcomers' Actions," is in the October/November issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with almost 19,000 members in 126 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. Its other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.


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