George Mason UniversitySchool of Business

Built to Last: The Impact of Certain Memories on Organizational Loyalty

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In this very turbulent job market, those seeking jobs and those hiring are paying closer attention to the relationships that can be built for long-term success.

How did you find your current job? Maybe you stumbled upon a listing in the newspaper over your morning coffee or found a post on an online job board. Another likely scenario is that a friend or colleague referred you to your current job. Do you even remember?

What if a referral from a friend or a colleague made your first interaction with the company a memorable, positive experience that impacted how content you were at your job over the long term – would you spend more time looking for a referral? Would you refine your job hunting methods?

Associate professor of management, Dr. Kevin Rockmann, along with Dr. Gary Ballinger at the University of Virginia, has new research suggesting that how individuals join an organization has a lasting impact on how they feel about the organization. When an individual remembers being specifically referred to an organization from a professional colleague, they experience more gratitude and more hope for the future and end up being more loyal. Consequently, any financial gains they receive are seen in a positive light and any negative experiences are more likely to be attributed away. Those without that positive memory of joining have no such benefit—gains from the organization become transactions with no positive emotion and negative events degrade the relationship.

rockmann2The impact of this research for organizations is very important in building an employee's company loyalty. Rockmann says, "Loyalty binds individuals to the organization in a psychological way, leading those individuals to work to improve the organization in ways outside of the traditional job description. In order to achieve a sense of loyalty, organizations need to imprint on their employees a sense of what it means to be an organizational member. In this way, organizations are providing meaning to employees above and beyond providing a paycheck."

In a study of more than 500 business experts consulting for one company, Rockmann's study honed in on those consultants who had been with the company for more than three years. Rockmann said, "This organization was an ideal place to test exchange dynamics, as the only exchanges which occur between the organization and the experts are the consulting assignments. This is unlike traditional organizations, in which exchanges occur at all levels all the time (e.g., manager, team, subordinate, organization, client, etc.)."

Rockmann said, "The compelling thing about these findings is that since the experts have all been consulting with this company for more than three years, it implies these very simple memories (whether you were referred or not) have quite a lasting impact.

"Our unique contribution lies in providing evidence that memory of early exchanges plays a role in driving current exchange relationship behaviors. Research indicates that exchanges in the immediate past may matter less in driving an individual's willingness to initiate further reciprocal exchanges than highly memorable earlier exchanges."

So although you may have been happy last week when you received a positive complement from your boss for your hard work, Rockmann's research indicates that it may not be enough to change your view of the company. Rather, the larger, more significant exchange you had that first brought you to the organization or that happened early in your tenure may be the one that determines all exchanges in the years to come.

One finding of the study that was surprising to Rockmann was the strength of the negative relationship between money earned and citizenship behaviors for those who had no memory of joining their companies. Citizenship behaviors are those helpful actions that an employee performs to help the organization, such as taking the time to join a committee that will not lead to any personal gains for the employee, but will help benefit the organization. It would be expected that numerous positive interactions would improve these negative relationships but Rockmann says, "a pattern of successful exchanges between an employee with no positive memory of joining the organization and the employer made the consultants less, rather than more, likely to engage in positive reciprocity. The reason this might be damaging is that if the consultant expects the relationship to move into a more positive form and it doesn't, they may come to blame the employer."

So what does that mean for businesses? For new employees, companies should focus on their initial exchanges and referrals—taking advantage of the employment offer process so as to create positive memories of joining. Organizations should not only focus on referrals and the act of finding the employees, but also on creating other memorable moments. "Perhaps this could be through mentoring, training, initial ceremonies, or other events that have the goal of making the individual feel like they belong," says Rockmann. "Notice the difference between this goal and the goal of most socialization programs, which are usually designed to simply provide information."

And for those who are already employed? Are they just a lost cause or can the relationship be salvaged? Although their research did not specifically address the question, Rockmann says, "If we extrapolate from the findings it would suggest that invitations to 'engagements' which are seen as important by the employee could have a lasting impact. For instance, inviting an employee to participate in a critical product delivery for the company or to serve on a taskforce that is seen as quite important and meaningful by the organization-at-large could reframe the relationship in a positive light. You have to convey that what they are being asked to participate in is special and meaningful in some way. Of course, the downside to this is that you can't do it for everyone."

Kevin Rockmann is an associate professor of management in the School of Business at George Mason University. He received his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Using theory on identity, decision-making, and social exchange, his research investigates the development and the influence of various types of attachments in organizations, whether they be at the individual, team, professional, or organizational level. His research has appeared in Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Small Group Research, and the Research in Managing Groups and Teams book series. Rockmann's primary teaching assignment is organizational behavior and negotiation in the MBA program. Click here for full bio.