Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

Organizational Apology and Defense: Effects of Guilt and Managerial Status

Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

Organizational Apology and Defense: Effects of Guilt and Managerial Status

Article excerpt

Research in public relations and crisis communication (e.g., Coombs, 2004; Hearit, 2006) has shown that following a significant failure, various antecedents, including the likelihood of lawsuits, the organization's reputation, and its history of positive performance, influence how organizations communicate with external stakeholders, such as customers and the general public. With the exception of a few studies (e.g., Ketola, 2006), however, much of this research has assumed that communication decisions of this nature are ultimately made on the basis of rational cognitive processes (e.g., Boyd and Stahley, 2008). In response to crises, decision-makers are seen as individuals who act strategically, framing messages for external audiences and consciously taking constraints or parameters into consideration (e.g., Huang and Su, 2009). Accordingly, organizational representatives are viewed as making communication decisions "in the best interest" of the organization and, as employees whose personal outcomes depend on organizational success, are acting out of their own personal self-interest (e.g., Kline et al., 2009).

What research in this area has not examined thus far, however, is the influence of moral emotions: affective states triggered in response to situations in which the interests or welfare either of society at large or, at the very least, of persons other than a focal decision-maker, become salient (Haidt, 2003). By their very nature, organizational failures can often evoke negative moral emotions, not only among affected external stakeholders, such as customers who may experience the moral emotions of disgust or righteous anger (e.g., Kim and Cameron, 2011), but also among organizational members and decision-makers themselves, who may experience moral emotions, such as guilt or shame, over the failure (e.g., Ferguson et al., 2007). Taking a broader perspective, what shapes organizational communication following failure potentially reflects moral considerations that emerge during an organization's attempts at face-saving and reputational recovery (e.g., Haidt and Joseph, 2007). Decisions, such as whether to publicly apologize or defend the organization, can prompt organizational representatives to consider the well-being of individuals other than their own. Thus, these communication decisions have, at their core, a moral dimension (Hearit, 2006; Marcus and Goodman, 1991). As such, these types of decisions are unlikely to be made purely on the basis of strategic considerations, or merely out of managerial "self-interest" (cf. Folger and Salvador, 2008).

This paper aims to extend research on organizational communication in response to failure by integrating the antecedent role of moral emotions. Specifically, the focus is on the influence of one such emotion that appears to be quite relevant in shaping decisions following a transgression or failure: guilt. The paper is structured as follows. In the succeeding section, a framework for characterizing organizational communication following failure is discussed. Next, an overview of theory and research on the behavioral correlates of guilt is presented. These two streams of research are then linked in the development of four hypotheses, which relate an individual's experience of guilt to his or her inclination to use particular communication approaches following an organizational failure. The results of two studies designed to test these hypotheses are reported. Finally, the contributions of this research to the extant literature, the implications for managerial practice, and the directions for future research are discussed.

ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION APPROACHES

In attempting to restore their reputation and relationship with external stakeholders, organizations employ communication approaches that can be broadly characterized either as accommodative or defensive (Coombs, 1998; Marcus and Goodman, 1991). Accommodative responses, which include full apologies and corrective action, are characterized by the organization taking full or substantial responsibility for the failure, and a sincere willingness to repair the damage done. …

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