Academic journal article Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship

Tugging at Heartstrings: Narrative-Induced Emotion and Organizational Communication

Academic journal article Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship

Tugging at Heartstrings: Narrative-Induced Emotion and Organizational Communication

Article excerpt


Organizational communication plays a key role in shaping stakeholders' evaluations of firms (e.g. Massey, 2001; Deephouse, 2000). Indeed, such communication is often used strategically by corporate leaders to influence the attention, perceptions, and actions of several groups, including customers, employees, investors, and the media (Morsing, 2006; Higgins & Bannister, 1992). For instance, leaders attempt to influence stakeholders through traditional forms of communication contained in press releases (Henry, 2008), speeches (Den Hartog & Verburg, 1998), and annual reports (Yuthas, Rogers, & Dillard, 2002) and through more modern channels, such as company websites and social media (Mangold & Faulds, 2009).

One form of communication that has a particularly potent influence on stakeholder perceptions is narratives, defined as communication consisting of a collection of actions and events arranged in a temporal sequence and possessing a causal explanation or plot (Onega and Landa, 1995). A vibrant body of research has demonstrated that narratives influence key stakeholder processes, such as sensemaking (Boyce, 1995; Boje, 1991), identification (Humphreys & Brown, 2002), and legitimation (Brown, 1998). For example, Martens, Jennings, and Jennings (2007) studied narratives in the corporate communication used during initial public offerings (IPOs) and found that the complexity and ambiguity of firm narratives contained in a venture's IPO prospectus had an impact on investors' resource decisions that was net of the influence of other, non-narrative information. However, virtually all work on narratives in management literature, including Martens and colleagues (2007), has focused on narratives' ability to influence stakeholders through cognitive mechanisms, such as categorization and legitimacy. Prior work has devoted almost no attention to how organizational leaders use narratives to influence stakeholders' emotional responses.

The lack of attention to a narrative's connection to emotion is surprising because both the comprehension of narratives and the impact they have on audiences is not purely cognitive (Coplan, 2004). Work in disciplines outside of management, such as cognitive science (Hogan, 2003), film studies (Tan, 1995), and psychology (Miall & Kuiken, 2002), has found that emotion is one of the primary means through which narratives can impact audiences. Yet, the mechanisms by which narrative communications influence the emotions of organizational stakeholders remain unexplored.

To address this omission in prior work, this conceptual paper explores the following research question, "How can narrative communication produce emotional reactions in organizational stakeholders?" In examining this question, the goal of this paper is to develop a preliminary theory detailing the precise mechanisms involved in narratives' influence on stakeholder emotion. It is argued that narratives will elicit emotion in organizational stakeholders through several specific elements of their content and structure. In addition, four general processes through which a narrative can impact stakeholder emotion are identified. Thus it is argued that a narrative can induce emotion through factors and processes residing in both the narrative itself and in stakeholders. In addressing the unexplored link between organizational narratives and emotion, this conceptual paper draws from several streams of research in management, spanning from organizational behavior to strategic management, and also from a wide range of non-business disciplines. The paper also represents a contribution to theory and to the practice of management as it uncovers novel ways in which organizational leaders may change the persuasiveness of their communications.

The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. First, before theorizing about the relationship between narratives and stakeholder emotion, it is important to establish conceptual clarity regarding what is meant by the terms "narrative" and "emotion. …

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