Commentary

True Believers Increase In Status, Influence

A recent study finds that “true believers” are more likely than non-believers to increase in status and influence, especially at organizations that are ideologically oriented. So stow away that cynicism, cause marketers, it’s bad for your career!

The research comes from the paper called “Status and the true believer: The impact of psychological contracts on social status attributions of friendship and influence,” published in the Journal of Organization Science.

“Those who were true believers in this company’s cause were considered idea leaders and influenced how other employees viewed their work,” said John Bingham, the lead author of the study and a professor of organizational leadership and strategy at the Marriott School of Management, but, like yours truly, an alumnus of the University of Utah. “If the mission is a legitimate part of an organization’s identity, that tends to be the case,” he says.

Bingham and his co-authors, James B. Oldroyd, Jeffery A. Thompson, Jeffrey S. Bednar, and J. Stuart Bunderson … apparently you had to have a J in your first name to be part of this research team … surveyed teams at organizations with a mission-based culture.

They found three basic ways that employees exchange value with their company: transactional, relational, and ideological. 

Transactional means that you exchange your labor for money. Relational is the relationships you have with bosses and coworkers and how the company treats you. Ideological means a sense of purpose or a cause beyond making the boss rich.

In the past, the way to get ahead was to be tall, have a strong handshake and a steady gaze, know the boss or the board well, be good at small talk and well-positioned in the company hierarchy.

“While those factors still remain strongly influential in many organizations,” the press release said, “especially those without well-defined missions, Bingham believes a growing number of people entering the workforce are passionate about causes and are looking for employers that both ‘do good and do well.’”

Employees motivated by ideology were viewed as more influential, the study found. "Social status goes up as you become more ideological," Bingham told a reporter.

That’s because people want to belong to organizations that have meaning and purpose. That includes nonprofit causes, but also companies like Starbucks, Whole Foods, REI, Patagonia, and the Body Shop which are profit-driven, but have a strong ethic of social responsibility. We live in an age when charities can have profit motives, and companies can have causes. 

But causes and companies need to tread carefully here, the researchers found. George Burns once said, “sincerity — if you can fake that, you've got it made.” But most people have a strong nonsense detector, even when facing talented fakers like the comedian.

“Having a mission-based organization has great potential to recruit and retain talent,” Bingham said. “But it has to be legitimate. If top management doesn’t believe it or is simply using it as a ploy, it doesn’t work.”

If you’re cynical, skeptical, suspicious, or you’re just not cut from a bolt of true believer cloth, it’s easy to just dismiss all this as so much Kool-Aid drinking. Of course the bosses at Whole Foods wants true believers; they’re more likely to work overtime, right?

But there’s more here than just an extra opportunity for management to abuse worker-bees. True believers are a two-sided sword for management. “Status and the true believer” is a study of influence, and if the true believers begin to doubt the sincerity of management or the truth of the mission, then they can take other employees with them as well.

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