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Commitment And Counterfactual Reflection

April 2010 - Developing greater workforce commitment can be as simple as asking employees to reflect on their organization's history according to researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

According to Adam Galinsky, one of the authors:

"Institutions that can communicate a compelling historical narrative often inspire a special kind of commitment among employees. It is this dedication that directly affects a company's success and is critical to creating a strong corporate legacy,"

Galinsky, Kellogg colleagues Hal Ersner-Hershfield and Brayden King and Haas professor Laura Kray looked at how counterfactual reflection (thinking about "what if" scenarios) on an organization's origins can have an influence on employees' actions and commitment. It seems that when employees are asked to think about an alternative world where their organization did not exist, they view their organization more positively. This counterfactual thinking process increases their commitment and overall morale.

The researchers highlighted FedEx as a prime example, with employees thinking about the consequences of a fateful night in 1973, a key element of its origin story. What would have happened if founder Fred Smith had chosen not to fly to a Las Vegas casino to help his troubled company meet payroll commitments? Brayden King said:

"The result for FedEx is a deep employee appreciation and the recognition by top magazines as one of the best companies to work for. The key to generating these sentiments is reminding employees how things could have turned out differently for their company."

Hal Ersner-Hershfield added:

"Businesses can better position themselves to prosper when they clearly articulate their origin stories to employees. In order for companies to effectively communicate their narrative, they should ask themselves whether there were key meetings, events or people during the economic crisis, without which the company's outlook would have taken a turn for the worse. Focusing on how things could have turned out differently fosters a positive view of the current circumstances among employees and thus generates an increased sense of commitment."

It appears that counterfactual reflection has more general uses, increasing 'institutional investment' in all kinds of organizations and even extending to increasing patriotism when countries are the target.

The researchers used a number of experiments to show how counterfactual reflection enhanced employee commitment. Two experiments compared the effects of pro-social activities offered by organizations, such as employee support programs, with counterfactual reflection. Counterfactual reflection scored highly. Moreover, the relationship between counterfactual reflection and organizational commitment seems to be driven by 'a sense that an employee's connection to the company was fated or meant to be.'

Hal Ersner-Hershfield said: "Our study demonstrates that this process is a universal one, applying also to countries and personal connections." Adam Galinsky added that the results suggest "that this link is an endemic aspect of the human mind: Ruminating on origin stories and reflecting back on what might have happened rather than what actually took place leads to increased commitment."

If an organization, or government, can identify crucial turning points in its history, it refer to them in its origin story and question how things could have turned out differently. According to the researchers, the result will be 'a renewed sense of devotion that is an inherent factor in an institution's overall success and crucial to its ability to prosper within the current, fragile state of the economy.'

The article, "Company, country, connections: Counterfactual origins increase organizational commitment, patriotism and social investment," will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science.

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