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Want to Inspire Employees? Share Their Peers' Successes

Want to Inspire Employees? Share Their Peers' Successes
Credit: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

Employers tell these tales in an effort to get new employees onboard with their company values and culture. However, a study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal revealed that newcomers who are exposed to inspirational stories of company leaders are no more committed to the organization's values and no more helpful to co-workers than those who are not exposed. 

Instead, employers are better off sharing anecdotes about the rank and file. The research found that new workers are much more likely to be inspired by hearing stories of co-workers to whom they can relate.

"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," Sean Martin, the study's author and a professor at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, wrote in the study. "Stories that one hears about peers, co-workers, or others at one's own organizational level [prove] to be influential means through which organizational values are embedded in newcomers' behaviors."

Martin said that positive stories about high-level members may be useful for making the [company's] values and injunctive norms noticeable. [See Related Story:  Making a Great Impression on Your New Employee ]

"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," Martin said in a statement.

For the study, Martin analyzed the relationship between four different types of stories to which new employees at a large company were exposed and their subsequent behavior at work. The 290 newcomers were trainees of a large technology company with a reputation as a values-driven organization, where employees work hard and go above and beyond to help clients and each other.

The participants were divided into groups and told stories with one of four themes:

  1. High-ranking executives who upheld company values.
  2. High-ranking officers who violated company values. 
  3. Lower-ranking employees who upheld company values.  
  4. Lower-ranking employees who violated values. 

Over the next two months, participants were periodically e-mailed stories that were shared in their particular group in an effort to refresh their recollections. After two months, the participants were surveyed on how helpful and devious their group members were.

Martin found that members of the group that heard stories about high-ranking officers with high values, and those who didn't hear any stories at all, received the same helpful ratings. However, both of those groups received lower help scores than the group that heard stores about lower-ranking employees with high values.

"Stories about high-level members were more likely to convey the [company's] formally espoused values, but the values-supporting and values-opposed stories about lower-level members appear to be more impactful on behaviors," Martin wrote.

The research also revealed that members of the group that heard stories about high-ranking executives with high values had the highest devious ratings. Examples of being devious include "took property from work without permission," "neglected to follow instructions," or "intentionally worked more slowly than he or she could have worked.

Martin said that hearing inspiring stories about company leaders actually ends up resulting in employees judging their peers more critically.

"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,” Martin wrote.

Based on the study's results, Martin believes that employers would be best-served by putting a priority on gathering employee stories.

"Organizations invest significant resources to socialize newcomers and embed in them the desired aspects of the culture,” Martin wrote. "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."

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.