Forget CEO Hero Stories—they Seldom Motivate Staff

gettyimages-112156285-compressorAmerican history is strewn with rags-to-riches stories that have become CEO folklore for companies big and small.

Take the story of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, who grew up during the Great Depression milking cows and delivering newspapers to help his family make ends meet.

Walton later served in the military before purchasing his first variety store and going on to found one of the biggest retailers in the world.

“Stories about low-level organizational characters engaging in values-upholding behaviors are more positively associated with self-transcendent, helping behaviors than are similar stories about high-level members of the organization.”

It’s an inspiring story. But will re-telling it really rouse the troops?

Perhaps not, according to the results of one academic study just reported by Fast Company.

Sean Martin of Boston College monitored the progress of 290 recent graduates at a large IT firm hired as entry-level programmers. They were broken into four groups, with each group being told stories that differed as to whether the subject was a senior or junior employee, or had done a good or bad thing in their past.

It turned out staff were far more motivated by the high achievements of junior employees, rather than senior management.

“The results indicate that stories about low-level organizational characters engaging in values-upholding behaviors are more positively associated with self-transcendent, helping behaviors—and negatively associated with deviant behaviors—than are similar stories about high-level members of the organization,” Martin concluded.

He suggested an explanation for the difference could come down to trust. A previous survey, for example, by PR firm Edelman showed that lower-ranked employees tend to trust peers in the same boat as themselves, rather than an aloof CEO, with regard to company information.

So instead of openly boasting about a CEO’s past achievements, it could be time for companies hunting for talent to get the rank-and-file to share their tales of yore.

Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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