Westphal, Park, McDonald, & Hayward (2012). Helping Other CEOs Avoid Bad Press: Social Exchange and Impression Management Support among CEOs in Communications with Journalists

James D. Westphal – University of Michigan
Sun Hyun Park – Seoul National University
Michael L. McDonald – University of Texas San Antonio
Mathew L. A. Hayward- University of Colorado Boulder

Cassandra Aceves – University of Michigan
Laura D’Oria – University of Tennessee

Article link: http://asq.sagepub.com/content/57/2/217.full.pdf+html

Question 1. Based in social exchange theory, you propose a novel explanation for how CEOs can successfully engage in impression management after a negative event without being perceived as self-serving or questionable—other CEOs do it for them. You find that CEOs are likely to reciprocate (both directly and indirectly) positive impression management acts (e.g. statements to journalists that manage impressions surrounding negative earnings events) and that these statements positively impact the way firms are presented in media coverage. This is a fascinating example of a system of cooperative behavior taking place in what is inherently a competitive landscape. Could you share the story of how you arrived at this research question / what motivated this study?

We were struck by how little research had examined the potential for different forms of generalized exchange among corporate leaders. There was also a need for theory development on how and why leaders from different firms cooperate with each other, even though their firms may be competing. Norms of reciprocity seemed like a possible answer. And the potential for impression management support emerged from interviews with top executives.

Question 2.This study focuses on positive reciprocity (e.g. positive statements about other firms that help positively manage impressions) and in the discussion section you note that “a social exchange perspective also suggests the potential for negative reciprocity or retaliation in response to harmful acts”. We would imagine that CEOs also engage in negative statements about other CEOs’ leadership capabilities and strategies. Why did you decide to focus solely on positive support? Did you see evidence of negative statements and/ or negative reciprocity?

Negative statements about the leadership of other firms definitely occur, but negative reciprocity in this context is likely to be indirect in nature, because the source of negative statements about firm leadership or strategy is not typically known to leader(s) who are the subject of negative commentary. Social undermining in firm leadership is nevertheless common and consequential, and has received very little theoretical or empirical attention. The determinants of negative commentary about leaders of other firms are likely to be different in kind from the determinants of positive commentary.

Question 3.You argue that CEOs are more likely to provide impression management support to CEOs that have provided support for other similar corporate leaders in the past (e.g. in the same industry). This occurs because people are more likely to engage in fairness-based helping toward peers with whom they socially identify with. Extending your findings and this theoretical thread further, would you anticipate that other forms of identification would enhance fairness-based helping toward peers (e.g. similar demographic characteristics, functional background, educational background, etc.)?

This would be interesting to explore. It may be that only a minimal level of social identification is required to facilitate generalized reciprocity among CEOs or other top executives, because the unique role demands of their positions already provide a significant basis for social identification between them (i.e., it’s lonely at the top, so CEOs are motivated to identify with each other).

Question 4.What question did we miss? Please ask yourselves a good question, and answer it.

Generalized exchange is under-researched in the management literature. Researchers could examine different forms of reciprocity between top managers or directors and various external constituents, and they could examine the potential for “vertical” generalized exchange within organizations. Do managers who have received help from colleagues at a higher level of the organization dispatch their perceived social obligation to reciprocate by providing help to colleagues at a lower levels? Is there generalized retaliation or negative reciprocity across levels of organizations, or does negative treatment by (or the absence of help from) colleagues at higher levels sensitize managers to the importance of helping subordinates and treating them with respect? There is much work to be done on generalized exchange in organizations.

One comment

  1. Tony Xiao · · Reply

    Very interesting research. Thanks!

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