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Workers think of companies as people and behave accordingly, ASU expert finds

Professor delves into anthropomorphism in organizations — a double-edged sword

July 10, 2018

Most employees know that relationships with their co-workers are important, but it’s likely not many realize that they also think of their company as a person.

But they do.

A new research paper by a professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University shows that not only do people "anthropomorphize" organizations — by attributing human qualities to nonhuman entities — but it affects the way they behave.

"The more we explored, the more we found that yes, indeed, people not only talk about the organization that way, they actually think about it that way and that affects the way they see the organization," said Blake Ashforth, a professor of management.

"We were surprised to find that it has pretty major effects."

Blake Ashforth, who studies organizations and identity, is a professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

The paper, "'My company is friendly,' 'Mine’s a rebel': Anthropomorphism and shifting organizational identity from 'what' to 'who'," will be published in the Academy of Management Review. Ashforth and his colleaguesAshforth’s co-authors on the paper were Beth S. Schinoff, an assistant professor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, and Shelley L. Brickson, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. examined more than 150 research papers to track whether anthropomorphism really existed among employees. Because this topic has not been widely researched in the business management field, they extrapolated from a lot of psychology and marketing papers on the topic, according to Ashforth, who holds the Horace Steele Arizona Heritage Chair. His research focuses on organizations and identity.

"In marketing, this is old news. They’ve had brand personality for many years. To them, it was an article of faith that we think of coffee beans and cars as people. That’s how they tried to sell things.

"But to people who manage organizations, this is simply not talked about."

The team found that this kind of interpersonal identification with a company leads to stronger identification.

"If you think of an organization, say your employer, as if it were a person, you then treat them that way," Ashforth said. "You use interpersonal norms, like being polite, being fair, reciprocity.

"The good part is because we think better of them, we’re more inclined to do good things for the organization, like be a good citizen."

The process happens with customers, too, and the team used the example of Whole Foods.

"You can think of it as an environmentally-conscious grocer but also just as a friend. It gives you more hooks as a customer, and lots of ways to say 'That really is me. I see myself reflected in the way they behave.'"

But because people see a company’s actions as something a person would do, there’s a moral contract, and breaking that contract can be seen as a betrayal rather than a business decision.

The article uses an example of a company that touts its image as "we’re one big family" and then lays off employees.

"If you think of your employer as a mean-spirited person, that makes you far less likely to do well on behalf of the company," he said. Besides poor work, it could lead to revenge behaviors.

"If you ask people why they quit, very often it’s because their company let them down. And when you dig deeper into that, it’s because the employee expected A and actually got B," he said. "Anthropomorphism is a huge part of that. 'I thought you were my friend but it turns out you’re just another greedy corporation where it’s all about the money.'"

The team studied the process of how people change their perception of "what" — such as a technology company — into a "who" — the "cool kid." This can happen from the top down, such as when leaders convey an image through social media, and bottom up, when employees find ways to connect with their company by anthropomorphizing it.

"A lot of people use their own manager as a template for how the organization must be as a person," Ashforth said. "So if your manager is mean-spirited, you infer the company is mean-spirited. A lot of this stuff happens in offices and hallways and meeting rooms."

The message for companies is to realize that people do this "universally, unconsciously and almost automatically" and to be aware of the image that’s conveyed.

"You can’t fake this stuff. If you say, 'Our company is one big happy family,' and managers hear that intellectually but don’t actually feel it to be true, they’re not going to act as if it’s true.

"And employees are very adept at seeing hypocrisy."

Top photo by Pixabay

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