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

Published: Saturday, June 15 2013 3:55 p.m. MDT

John Bingham, a BYU professor of organizational leadership and strategy, is the lead author of the article "Status and the True Believer," which appeared in the Organization Science journal.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

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.

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