Build Employee Loyalty: Ask 'What If Our Company Didn't Exist?'

Last Updated May 21, 2010 9:09 AM EDT

How would the world be different if your company didn't exist? A new series of studies suggests that you'll boost your team's commitment by encouraging them to look back and envision that alternate reality. Berkeley, Northwestern, Brigham Young, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign collaborated on the research, which explored a possible causal relationship between the human tendency to look back and wonder, "what if?" -- known as counterfactual thinking -- and a second uniquely human trait, the drive to create meaning in life. The researchers correctly predicted that study participants who reminded themselves that their lives could have turned out differently would imbue the actual course of events with a greater sense of meaning. For example, in one experiment a group of undergraduates wrote essays describing how they ended up at their current college -- in this case Northwestern. Upon completion of the essay, half of the students engaged in the counterfactual exercise of describing how things might have turned out differently had they made another choice. The other half of the group did not participate in this step. Next, all participants were asked to assess how meaningful their choice of college had been to their lives. Those who took part in the counterfactual exercise adhered more strongly to the view that their choice of college was a defining moment. Kellogg professor Adam Galinsky (pictured), who co-authored the study, says its findings can be used to build employee loyalty. He cites FedEx, which is known for its extremely devoted workforce, as an organization that wisely positions its origin story to encourage employees to view its success as fated and meaningful. Part of that story relates to founder Fred Smith's desperate attempt to save the company in 1973. Unable to make payroll, he flew to Las Vegas and won a blackjack bet that enabled him to pay his staff and continue to build the shipping giant. It's easy to imagine his round at the blackjack table going the other way, which is what makes the story so powerful.

"I'm very familiar with that story," says career coach and former FedEx employee Thomasina Tafur. Tafur says that in her 20 years with the company she doesn't recall seeing the anecdote, or others like it, in print. "Instead, seasoned employees told these stories to newer ones, much like Native Americans might share their ancestral stories with younger generations," she says.

FedEx turned the near-disaster story into a part of its company culture, and Galinsky says the same strategy can work for businesses that survive the current economic downturn. "Companies have an opportunity to build employee loyalty by capitalizing on the fact that they have come through the recession," he says. His research suggests that reflecting on the opposite outcome -- and encouraging your team to do the same -- will strengthen your convictions that everything happens for a reason.