Managing Organizational Legitimacy in the California Cattle Industry: The Construction and Effectiveness of Verbal Accounts

By Elsbach, Kimberly D. | Administrative Science Quarterly, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Managing Organizational Legitimacy in the California Cattle Industry: The Construction and Effectiveness of Verbal Accounts


Elsbach, Kimberly D., Administrative Science Quarterly


these findings refine the relationship between institutional and impression management theories that has been suggested in earlier work (Elsbach and Sutton, 1992).

In addition to linking these two theories, the findings presented here enrich both impression management and institutional theories by filling gaps in their discussions of the construction and effectiveness of symbolic management tactics. First, the framework developed here enhances impression management theories by defining verbal accounts by their form and content. Further, it suggests that spokespersons may improve the effectiveness of their accounts in protecting organizational images by using specific links between forms of accounts and references to organizational characteristics. Thus, this research INTRODUCTION

Organizational managers engage in many activities that may be viewed as symbolic, including organizational restructuring, succession ceremonies, language development, and the design of physical surroundings (Pfeffer, 1981). Managers commonly use these symbolic activities to affect the images of their organizations and its members by providing "explanations, rationalizations, and legitimation for activities undertaken in the organization" (Pfeffer, 1981: 4). In this paper, I am concerned with the symbolic management of a specific organizational image: organizational legitimacy. Two major theoretical perspectives have described the management of organizational legitimacy: impression management theories (Goffman, 1973; Schlenker, 1980; Tedeschi, 1981) and institutional theories (Meyer and Rowan, 1977; DiMaggio and Powell, 1983). Impression management theorists have focused on how people manage their personal legitimacy by actively taking on roles, displaying social affiliations, and providing verbal explanations of behavior following image-threatening events (Leary and Kowalski, 1990). More recently, theorists have proposed that organizational spokespersons may use these same tactics to manage organizational legitimacy (Staw, McKechnie, and Puffer, 1983; Elsbach and Sutton, 1992). In contrast, institutional theorists have focused on how organizations, or even whole industries, may project legitimacy by merely adopting and maintaining widely used and accepted practices (Powell and DiMaggio, 1991). In general, impression management theories have taken an active, individual-level view of the management of legitimacy, while institutional theories have taken a more passive, organization-level view. Impression management and institutional theory perspectives on managing organizational legitimacy are displayed in Table 1 and are discussed in detail below.

TABULAR DATA OMITTED

Impression management theories. Impression management researchers have focused on how individual spokespersons use verbal accounts or explanations to avoid blame or gain credit for controversial events that may affect organizational legitimacy (Giacalone and Rosenfeld, 1989, 1991). Further, these researchers have concentrated on describing the effectiveness of different forms of accounts for protecting organizational legitimacy. Effective forms include enhancing explanations of company practices following good news and excuses or justifications following bad news (Staw, McKechnie, and Puffer, 1983; Bettman and Weitz, 1983; Salancik and Meindl, 1984), accommodative signals following scandals and defensive signals following accidents (Marcus and Goodman, 1991), and admissions of responsibility following bankruptcies or failed negotiations (Sutton and Callahan, 1987; Sutton and Kramer, 1990). Impression management researchers have suggested that different forms of accounts affect legitimacy by attenuating personal or organizational responsibility for controversial events and by accentuating the positive aspects of such events (Schlenker, 1980).

Yet, impression management researchers have not discussed how spokespersons build and support these forms of accounts through the specific arguments and evidence they contain. …

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