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New BYU study looks at the power of ‘true believers’ in the workplace

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When researchers study the dynamics of power within companies, they usually look at either the structure of the organization or the personal characteristics of those who work there. A new study in the Organization Science journal adds a new dynamic into the mix: the power of true believers.

John Bingham, professor of organizational leadership and strategy at Brigham Young University and the lead author of the study "Status and the True Believer," explains that in this context "true believer" has nothing to do with religion, but with people in a company that really buy into the company's mission.

His study found that people who believe and espouse the unique values and mission of a company end up in positions of "status and influence." This was particularly true in "ideologically oriented organizations."

Inspiring employees

One example of such a company, according to Bingham, is Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and gear company based in Ventura, Calif. "Our mission is to make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement a solution to the environmental crisis," says Patagonia spokeswoman Jess Clayton in an email. "Our mission statement attracts employees who are passionate and exhibit a deep love for wild and beautiful places — and a desire to protect them."

It is just the type of mission that impassions employees, something that Bingham had been wondering about. "I've always had a fascination with companies that attract and keep talented people for a low cost," he says.

In the past Bingham worked at REI, an outdoor industry retailer, and met engineers and other people with master's degrees who left Fortune 500 companies to "work for a company where they could do something they really believed in."

Three ways to interact

In the study, Bingham and his colleagues looked at three ways employees interact with and exchange value with a company.

The first way is "transactional." This is your standard "I will work for you if you give me money." Not very inspirational, but practical and bottom-line driven.

The second way is "relational." As the label sounds, it deals with relationships with co-workers and bosses. Employees feel the company cares about them. They get a sense of well-being and have opportunities for growth and advancement.

The last way, and the one this study examines, is "ideological." This is a company that ties into a cause or causes and works toward these goals. It allows and encourages workers to contribute to that mission in multiple ways.

These three ways of interaction — transactional, relational and ideological — work together, and employees may gravitate to one or more of them as their main way of thinking about their job and what it means to them.

The study shows that those employees who are motivated by the ideological were viewed as more influential by their co-workers. "Social status goes up as you become more ideological," Bingham says.

The study also found that this influence is not necessarily tied to the formal structure of the organization.

Bingham, for example, says two of his colleagues at BYU have had a great impact on how he feels about the mission of the university — yet they are not in any official position over him. Their power comes from their belief in the destiny and purpose of the organization.

Another company that Bingham says has a strong culture of purpose is Provo-based Nu Skin, which sells personal care products and other health items through direct sales. Nu Skin's human resource director, David Daines, says the part of their mission that most stands out is "be a force for good."

"It is not just a statement, but is woven into our DNA," Daines says. "To be a force for good we have to do well as an organization. We have to keep our promises and provide what we say we will provide. Those employees who buy into … what we are as an organization are passionate about doing that. They see the difference they can make. It impacts their day-to-day work to a great degree."

Making missions

That belief doesn't just happen. John Youngren is vice president and group account director for Love Communications, an advertising and public relations agency based in Salt Lake City that specializes in helping companies with branding. Brands are the conceptions people have of an organization. Ideally, a company's brand is lined up with consumer expectation and the values of that company's mission.

Youngren says to help a company articulate, understand and shape a brand and mission requires talking with staff and stakeholders. "You have to get everybody to buy into your brand," he says, "from the person who answers the phone to the CEO and board of directors."

He says it is important to keep expressions of the mission simple. This is like the portion of Nu Skin's mission, "Be a force for good," that jumped out from the rest of their mission statement and has become like a mantra in their organization.

But the mission and branding has to be linked to some kind of reality. Youngren says it doesn't make sense to say you have the best customer service if it is in sorry shape. "That would be like just putting a new slogan on an old building," he says.

Being a mission-driven company can't be faked and can't be imposed. "We have found that employees that are in line with (an) organization's goals, mission statement, objectives, culture are going to be that company's best ambassadors," Youngren says. "They are going to succeed both internally and externally because they are not at odds with a company's platform."


Bingham says some company missions may, at first glance, not seem to tie into the product. Chick-fil-A is a fast-food restaurant that has a strong emphasis on furthering the education of its workers. "What does a leadership scholarship program to help employees go to college have to do with chicken?" he says. "Nothing. … But it is a powerful motivator for employees."

Recently Bingham was doing a training event for a pharmaceutical company in California. He says the bottom line with drug companies is to make money — but the people who work in these companies had something deeper motivating them. They felt they were doing something meaningful and purposeful. "Yes, it's transactional. I make a paycheck," Bingham says the pharmaceutical employees were saying. "Yes it is relational. I get great support from the organization and get to hang out with like-minded people who are intelligent and exciting and interesting."

Bingham says, however, that there was more to it from an ideological standpoint.

"I get to come to work," he says the employees were, in effect, saying, "and do something that adds purpose and meaning in my life and builds purpose and meaning for the lives of other people. And that is incredibly motivating and it gets me up in the morning and gets me out of bed and motivates me to work harder."

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