Organizational identification is the cognitive and emotional connection between an organization and the individual, which results from perceived congruence between the identity of the organization and that of the individual. Thus, one’s perceptions about an organization (including organizational reputation) are affected by the level of one’s organizational identification. This could also include one’s disidentification from or indifference toward the organization. When people identify with or disidentify from an organization, they perceive that their personal identities are affected by the actions of the organization. Indifference, on the other hand, is associated with the absence of identification and neutrality toward the organization.
The perception of connectedness, detachment, or the lack of connection between people and the organization affects how much attention they pay to the information about the organization and how they interpret this information. This entry examines organizational identification, disidentification, and indifference and the implications of organizational identification for corporate reputation and its management.
Organizational Identification, Disidentification, and Indifference
As Blake Ashforth and Fred Mael, renowned for their work on organizational identification, argued, organizational identification results from congruence between the identity of the organization and that of a stakeholder. Organizational identification reflects a strong perceptual and emotional connection between an individual stakeholder and an organization. People who identify with an organization feel that the characteristics and values that they ascribe to the organization are congruent with their personal self-image. In this sense, the organization’s identity becomes an extension of their personal identities. For instance, Harley-Davidson fans incorporate elements of the organization’s identity into their self-definitions by ascribing to their personal identities the characteristics they associate with the company, such as being adventurous and free-spirited.
Organizational disidentification, on the other hand, results from incongruence between the identity of the organization and that of a stakeholder. Jane Dutton and her colleagues explain that when stakeholders disidentify from the organization, they define themselves as not having the characteristics they ascribe to it. Organizational disidentification is a perceptual disconnect between the identity of the organization and that of a stakeholder. Disidentification is not about indifference or passivity toward an organization; rather, it is about active condemnation of the organization and what it stands for. For example, Chick-fil-A’s chief operating officer’s stance on same-sex marriage resulted in boycotts of the chain by stakeholders who may define themselves as not having the same values as those expressed by the organization’s management.
Indifferent stakeholders, according to Glen Kreiner and Blake Ashforth, are stakeholders with neutral identification, who do not define themselves through the characteristics of the organization. They are explicit about not having particularly strong feelings about the organization. They may describe themselves as being their own person. Indifference represents the absence of identification or disidentification.
Identification, disidentification, or indifference toward the organization affects how much attention stakeholders pay to the information about the organization as well as their subsequent evaluation of the organization. For instance, stakeholders who identify with or disidentify from an organization may pay close attention to the company’s press releases, “like” it on Facebook, and follow it on Twitter. Ultimately, organizational identification is consequential for an organization’s reputation.
Implications for Reputation Management
When stakeholders identify with an organization, the actions of the organization reflect on their personal identities, and organizational outcomes become personally important. Outcome dependence, in turn, affects how stakeholders interpret and react to organizational actions. When an organization takes a new strategic action (e.g., introduces a new product or announces its initiative to become more green), stakeholders’ level of organizational identification may affect how they interpret these actions. Specifically, stakeholders who closely identify with the organization pay close attention to the information about the organization. When they find out about the new actions, they may view them in a positive light and may be more likely to have a positive assessment of the organization than other stakeholders. Thus, following announcements of new strategic actions, organizational reputation among high-identification stakeholders may become even more positive. For instance, supporters of Walmart may interpret its striving for environmental sustainability and more responsible sourcing standards for suppliers in a positive way, thus further improving Walmart’s reputation among its supporters.
Stakeholders who disidentify from the organization also pay close attention to the information about it. However, because they view its characteristics and values as incongruent with theirs and perceive the organization in a negative light, they may reinterpret positive announcements in a negative way and evaluate the new actions as an impression management attempt or a publicity stunt. For instance, disidentifying stakeholders may interpret Walmart’s efforts to go green with cynicism and skepticism, thus reinforcing their negative perceptions about the company. This contributes to the formation of a more negative reputation among disidentifying stakeholders.
Unlike identifying and disidentifying stakeholders, indifferent stakeholders may pay little attention to the company’s strategic initiatives. Identities of indifferent stakeholders do not depend on the outcomes of the organization. Thus, many organizational reputation management efforts may go unnoticed by these stakeholders. As a result, the level of reputation among these stakeholders following a new strategic action may remain unchanged.
While announcements of actions that do not violate stakeholders’ expectations about proper organizational conduct may not alter organizational reputation in significant ways, negative actions and actions that deviate from stakeholders’ expectations may have larger consequences. The role of organizational identification becomes particularly salient when organizational actions are condemned by society (e.g., involvement in sexual harassment lawsuits or management’s engagement in fraudulent activities).
When identifying stakeholders learn about a negative event in the organization with which they identify, they interpret it as a threat to their personal identities. They are likely to exert cognitive efforts to make sense of the event. If the reputational damage caused by the event is mild, this may help identifying stakeholders emphasize the positive aspects of the organization and justify the event, coming up with excuses for the misconduct. If, however, the event causes substantial damage to the reputation of the organization, identifying stakeholders may feel betrayed and turn away from the organization. As a result, an organization may lose its most loyal supporters after an extremely negative scandal.
When disidentifying stakeholders learn about a negative event in the organization, this information may serve as additional support for their disassociation from the organization. It would help these stakeholders reassure themselves about the reasons for their disidentification. As a result, the level of organizational reputation among these stakeholders may plummet.
When indifferent stakeholders learn about a negative event in an organization, they are unlikely to search for any additional information about the organization or the event as their identities are not affected by the negative news. As a result, these stakeholders are likely to use this most recent information to evaluate the organization and may rely solely on the new negative information that violated their expectations about the organization’s conduct. Thus, organizational reputation even among indifferent stakeholders may be damaged.
Overall, stakeholders’ level of organizational identification, disidentification, and indifference affect how they interpret organizational actions. In light of positive strategic actions, the level of organizational reputation among all the three stakeholder categories may remain substantively unchanged. In light of negative events, however, disidentifying and indifferent stakeholders may form negative perceptions about the organization. Identifying stakeholders, however, may support the organization if the event is mildly negative. Yet even these dedicated stakeholders may abandon the organization if the event is extremely negative.
Ashforth, B. E., & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of Management Review, 14, 20–39.
Dutton, J. E., Dukerich, J. M., & Harquail, C. V. (1994). Organizational images and member identification. Administrative Science Quarterly, 39(2), 239–263.
Kreiner, G. E., & Ashforth, B. E. (2004). Evidence toward an expanded model of organizational identification. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25(1), 1–27.