Revisionist history is the tendency to reinterpret the events or meanings of the past in terms of current facts, views, or preferences. The revision of organizational history can be a positive or negative enterprise—that is, it can be done either for legitimate reasons (e.g., new factual evidence about historical events comes to light) or for illegitimate reasons (e.g., historical evidence is distorted or invented to serve current image and reputation desires). This entry focuses on the case of leaders altering organizational history to make it (appear to) fit with currently desired interpretations. Given that organizations are powerful contexts where performance, impressions, and reputations matter, there are always forces in play that influence people to interpret information—even putatively factual historical information—in particular ways. This entry discusses the role of memory, retrospective revisionist interpretations, and the art of “spinning” in how organizations are viewed. It then discusses what implications a concern with how the past is viewed have on managing the future.
Perhaps the most important initial recognition is simply that history, contrary to many beliefs and teachings, is actually quite malleable. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has been credited with saying that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” but the larger point in considering revisionist history is that even presumed facts are inevitably interpretable according to one’s own memory, worldview, and reputational motivations, which inevitably includes one’s previously formed opinions. If we can grant the obvious—that history depends on memory (whether individual or organizational)—it is instructive to consider Elizabeth Loftus’s observation that history is best understood as a current view of the past or, in a similar vein, Rosalind Cartwright’s assertion that memory is never a duplicate of the original event but rather an ongoing act of creation. Given these insightful, if perhaps discomfiting, takes on memory, it becomes apparent that historical events and views are constantly susceptible to reinterpretation as organization members (especially their leaders) work to develop desirable ways of seeing—and being seen—in the present and ways of wanting to see and be seen in the future.
Because past ways of seeing things are always open to reinterpretation, the important upshot of these observations is that history is never a given, but it needs to be treated by both scholars and practitioners alike as pliable and revisable.
By acknowledging the flexible interpretation of history, we see implications for organizations, and especially reputation management efforts. Even if we dive to the deepest levels of organizational culture, the level of “ground assumptions,” where the core notion of organizational identity resides, we will discover that even a putatively enduring identity is actually a malleable concept susceptible to the needs of current interpretations. In this way of seeing, even a strongly held identity becomes a flexible way for organization members to understand “who we are as an organization” because of the possible reinterpretation of “who we were as an organization.” Identity thus might have links and a discernable continuity with past ways of understanding one’s organization, but it is not firmly bound by those venerable conceptions if current needs or desires demand different interpretations than those of the past.
Identity therefore gives the appearance of stability over time when it actually is not. It only seems that way because members’ understanding of identity resides not only in the labels members use to understand who they are but in the (variable) meanings of those labels as well. As Denny Gioia and his colleagues pointed out, even where identity is concerned, labels are stable, but their meanings are mutable. As they also noted, all history arguably then becomes revisionist history. The facts of the past might not be in doubt, but the meanings of those facts always are.
Spinning Interpretations of History
Politicians have long had staff members and other associates who “spin” the facts to their advantage by providing an interpretation that will sway the public in their favor. The people who provide this spin, sometimes called “spin doctors” or “spinmeisters,” have a pragmatic awareness of the benefits of revising history. Political observers now take the spinning of events for granted. Even many lay observers now expect that any event or debate will be immediately accompanied by after-the-fact attempts by one side or the other to try to impose their preferred interpretation of the facts as given, the words as spoken, or the deeds as demonstrably done. These days, spinning has become an art form of its own. Of course, there needs to be a certain amount of ambiguity in the presentation of the facts, words, deeds, or prior reputation to allow enough latitude for interpretation.
It is also worth recognizing that political science is fast becoming a model for emulation by organizational science. Certainly, CEO behavior is looking a lot more like politician behavior in terms of efforts to manage news, so spin is now a constant companion in business news. The burgeoning role of spin calls our attention to the perhaps less obvious, but increasingly important, notion of “retrospective spin” as attempts to revise corporate history become more common in developing a strategic use of a fictional past. There are some informative examples of this process as more and more organizations (and not just business organizations) become attuned to managing projected images and manipulating reputations.
Consider the observation by a college executive that if universities can convince alumni to make huge donations, they can use the funding to enhance the currently perceived value of alumni degrees, therefore making it seem that the degrees alumni actually earned were worth more than when they graduated, thus altering others’ perception of who the alumni have become. This “thought experiment” was manifested in practice some years ago by a university that then became highly ranked for its academic standards and prestige compared with other universities. The story goes that the university’s leaders proposed to very wealthy alumni that if they made megadonations to what was then not an elite university, the leaders would spend the money to “buy” world-class faculty and physical resources. The donors would subsequently be seen as having graduated from a world-class university rather than the less prestigious one that they had actually attended.
George Santayana’s admonition that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” means something markedly different when remembering the past is problematic, especially in light of motivated attempts to alter the sense of that past. Once again, we are confronted not with a past of givens—that is, history as a collection of facts—but a past of active reconstructions, including reconstructions of prior reputation.
Revising History via Future Perfect Thinking
Revising past history can be useful even when leaders propose future organizational changes. Understanding this approach to change leadership revolves around understanding future perfect thinking (“this will have happened”). A small paradox is that although change is a future-oriented, prospective process, sensemaking is necessarily a past-oriented, retrospective process. How then can leaders retrospectively make sense of events that have not yet happened? Alfred Schutz and Karl Weick pose an interesting answer to this dilemma: Leaders imagine a desired future and then act as if the future had already come to pass, which then enables them to make a “retrospective” interpretation of the imagined future. This process, however, also opens the door to the creation of a future past that is subject to present alteration.
Understanding organizational change management from this point of view therefore means that the way organizations want to be seen in the future might benefit from subtle alterations of their reputational history. Executives engaging in this technique in effect employ an interesting heuristic: Only when the future arrives will it tell us the meaning of the past (a heuristic with which many historians would agree, because history itself can be viewed as a current view of the past). The projective implication is that by imagining themselves in the future, they can try to influence the events in the present to affect interpretations of (what will then be) the past when the future arrives. This suggests that for visionary leaders it is not future thinking that matters most but future perfect thinking.
Overall, then, what are the implications of seeing an organization’s past not as a collection of verifiable facts, events, and interpretations but rather as a collection of views continuously available for reinterpretation, renegotiation, and revision? As any imaginative leader might see, there are advantages to treating history as revisionist history. Being able to change the view of the past connotes flexibility with not only the present but also the future.
Cartwright, R. (2010). The twenty-four hour mind: The role of sleep and dreaming in our emotional lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gioia, D. A., Corley, K. G., & Fabbri, T. M. (2002). Revising the past (but thinking in the future perfect tense). Journal of Organizational Change Management, 16, 622–634.
Gioia, D. A., Schultz, M., & Corley, K. G. (2000). Organizational identity, image and adaptive instability. Academy of Management Review, 25, 63–81.
Loftus, E. (1980). Memory. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Schutz, A. (1967). The phenomenology of the social world. Chicago: Northwestern University Press.
Snyder, M., & Uranowitz, S. W. (1978). Reconstructing the past: Some cognitive consequences of person perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 941–950.
Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.