Bosses and bonding: Relationships prove key to employees’ organizational identification

June 27, 2013

Isn’t it fun to hear about lousy bosses … provided the horror story happens to someone else? There was a boss who called his employee at the hospital and interrupted her labor pains to see if she was coming to work the next day. Another manager told employees to take the rest of the day off when the power went out, but that didn’t stop this uncharitable overseer from writing people up for leaving early.

Those are the kinds of anecdotes that win the prizes in the annual Bad Boss competition run by Working America, a nonprofit organization aimed at influencing policy to protect folks on the job.

Such stories prompt groans and grins but, if they’re coming out of your organization, you should know that bad bosses do more than supply good cocktail-party tales. An employee’s immediate supervisor is “quite possibly the single biggest factor in an employee’s willingness to identify with an organization,” says Blake Ashforth, a professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Ashforth’s recent research examined the impact of behavioral and emotional factors on how likely young newcomers were to identify with the organizations that employ them. He found getting employees bonded to the organization may be more closely tied to employee/boss relationships than researchers have previously thought.

Powerful connections

Why should organizations care if employees have strong organizational identification? “Because organizational identification plugs into pretty much everything good in organizations,” Ashforth says.

He defines organizational identification as the extent to which people define themselves through their employer. Yet it goes beyond saying, “I’m an ASU professor” or “I’m an IBMer,” he adds. “It’s how much you let the organization into your heart and allow the organization to become part of who you are,” he explains. “It’s a strong personal attachment.” So, if the organization is highly regarded and you have strong identification, you consider the organization’s accomplishment part of your own.

Such organizational identification is correlated with many positive behaviors that boost organizational effectiveness and strength. With high organizational identification, Ashforth says firms get “more committed employees. They work harder, take the organizations interests to heart and are much better corporate citizens.” That means they do things that “don’t show up on performance appraisals but actually grease the wheels of the entire organization.”

Those wheel-greasing activities might be things like volunteering to help a colleague, talking up the company when out in the community or representing the organization at some kind of charity event – on your own time and, perhaps, dime. People with high organizational identification are “not clock-punchers,” Ashforth says. “They are exemplars of what the organization can be at its very best.”

Along with delivering benefits, high organizational identification cuts problems, such as absenteeism, turnover, rule-breaking and incivility.

Not surprisingly, organizational identification – and how it can be nurtured – is a topic widely studied by management scholars. However, researchers have traditionally looked at how organizational identification is built through organization-wide structures, such as orientation programs and on-the-job training.

Ashforth says his research indicates there are multiple avenues to organizational attachment, and the ones that he finds particularly compelling have little to do with first-day orientations or other formal programs.

Where the heart is

The three avenues to attachment that Ashforth has been examining are affect, behavior and cognition, with cognition being the factor most often studied by other scholars. Cognitive mechanisms, such as formal orientation sessions, impact what employees think about their employer, and cognition supports organizational identification when employees believe they have a good bargain. According to Ashforth, employees may be thinking, “They pay me well, I like the city, the work is good for my career.”

“These are the things an employee might be thinking before deciding to stay for a while. The employee believes it makes sense to identify with the organization,” he explains.

Affect is the emotion an employee feels toward the organization and colleagues, while behavior means internalizing and making sense of the activity inherent in a job. That is, the more a person does an activity, the more natural it feels. A newcomer to the business world might not feel like an engineer right out of school, but the more that newcomer succeeds on the job, the more self-identification she is likely to feel toward the job and her engineer’s role in it.

Still, affect is where Ashforth’s research indicates that companies miss the boat if they’re not paying attention to it. “It matters greatly,” he says. “If you have a very positive atmosphere, people treat you well, they smile, and it’s a supportive, upbeat place, people are more likely to identify with the office because it’s a pleasant place to be. Conversely, if you have a negative climate, people are sour and carping, it really wears on morale.”

The effect shows up in Ashforth’s recent study, too. To conduct it, he and his coauthors (David Sluss, Georgia Tech; Robert Ployhart, University of South Carolina; and Glenn Cobb, U.S. Army Research Institute) surveyed newcomers – young, new-to-the-workforce workers – on multiple occasions at two organizations: a telemarketing company and the U.S. Army. As it turns out, survey responses confirmed what Ashforth had suspected when they started this set of studies. “A lot of what happens to create a strong link between the organization and the individual happens at the tribal level, the daily life you live,” he says.

“When you walk into work each day, you see your coworkers, your boss, maybe you see some clients. What you don’t see are the CEO, the executives, other divisions: Those things are kind of nebulous, abstract and out there somewhere,” Ashforth explains. “You may understand the organization in an abstract sense, but it’s lived – viscerally and daily – through interactions with the people around you. That very local attachment to your specific job, your co-workers and your managers are the reality of what you do day in and day out. That has tremendous impact on how you see the organization more broadly.”

Ashforth’s research showed that people’s attitude toward their immediate supervisors spilled over into how they felt about the organization as a whole. The study also revealed that when newcomers perceive supervisors to be prototypical of company values, the strong relationship the newcomer feels with this supervisor translates into strong organizational identification.

Ashforth notes that this finding reveals how important it is for senior managers to understand what their values are and how subordinates live those values out. “We tend to think that managers – because they’re hired to be managers – naturally exemplify what the organization stands for, that they’re good representatives of what the organization is supposed to be all about,” he says.

“It’s not a given,” he continues. “Even in the U.S. Army, where stereotypically you would think that all drill sergeants would live Army values, we found that’s not the case.” That’s a potential problem, as employees look to their immediate supervisors to get a sense of what the organization is all about, he adds.

Cognitive and behavioral forces matter, but Ashforth maintains that managers may be the primary factor determining whether employees will want to identify with their organization.

“Managers are a hugely important window into what makes the organization tick,” he says. “Their behavior is a predictor into whether employees will care about the organization … or not.”

Bottom line:

  • Organizational identification, the degree to which employees define themselves through their employer, contributes to positive outcomes like commitment and reduces negative outcomes like absenteeism and turnover.
  • Traditionally, researchers have studied cognitive approaches to building organizational identification, such as orientation programs that help employees understand their new employer.
  • While orientations and other programs provide context, employees actually live their work lives in relation to daily tasks and interactions, including interactions with immediate supervisors.
  • New research shows supervisors may be the biggest contributor or detractor to an employee’s organizational identification.