Organizational behavior and reputation

Issues of trust in our society certainly concern individuals, but are especially intractable in the case of groups, organizations, institutions. The double reputational dynamic organizations face, with their own members and with external stakeholders at all levels, calls for a close management of trustworthiness, which is often entrusted to dedicated professionals within or outside the organization. Traumatic events such as leaks and whistleblowing on one hand, industrial espionage and sabotage on the other, mark the most visible form of crisis these relationships can take. However, in the long run the gradual sedimentation of institutional reputation and its knock-on effects on institutional legitimacy may well be of more lasting concern, as they jointly shape the overall possibilities for growth and effectiveness of any group.

There are two fundamental issues pertaining to trust in this arena. The first is static, structural: how are collective bodies trusted? In other words, at what level of the structure are decisions made that impact trustworthiness? Can the role be distinguished from the officeholder? Is there an immanent conflict over trust between different types of stakeholders? How best may crises of trust be mitigated, before and after the fact? The second issue is dynamic. One of the key trends of our time is the low and falling reputation for trustworthiness of most consolidated institutions, public or private, micro or macro. Indeed, one may talk of a secular erosion of trust now reaching dangerous, endemic levels. In the face of these developments, is there a need (or even the possibility) for sustained innovation in trust-making mechanisms? Or should the bulk of resources be placed into navigating an environment of ever-shrinking trust?

Discussions of trust and legitimacy deficits often present a vague, generic nature: the general problem and its inherent worst-case risks are clear, but the assessment of individual situations tends to be extremely uncertain until a full-blown crisis erupts. Luckily, many organizations attempt to hedge for reputational damage, and in studying these outlays we can begin to quantify the space of the trust problem. Data such as the incidence of leaked materials, or expenses budgeted for security and PR, allow us to gain a sense of the reputational problem organizations face today. The project will complement this line of inquiry by seeking input from experts such as PR professionals and security industry practitioners, but also from sources such as whistleblower protection NGOs, to assess the overall social impact of contemporary loss-of-trust dynamics.

Basic references:

  • Scott, C.R., 2013. Anonymous agencies, backstreet businesses, and covert collectives: rethinking organizations in the 21st century. Stanford Business Books, an imprint of Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
  • Sagar, R., 2013. Secrets and leaks: the dilemma of state secrecy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • Coleman, E.G., 2014. Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: the many faces of Anonymous. Verso, London ; New York.

Research on politics