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Reputation Repair for Leaders: Dr. Jo-Ellen Pozner

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Dr. Jo-Ellen Pozner joined Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business in the fall of 2016. Before that, she was on faculty at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. Pozner’s research focuses on questions of organizational ethics, corporate governance, social movements, and institutional change. She has a particular interest in organizational misconduct, specifically the ways in which misconduct at the organizational level impacts top management and boards of directors at the companies involved. She is also interested in impression management, organizational and individual reputation and legitimacy, and study ways in which people and organizations attempt to appear to conform to established institutional norms.


ExecEd: I'd like to talk to you about your work on individual reputation repair after scandals. What can you tell us about who can recover from a scandal and who cannot. Some examples perhaps?

Jo-Ellen Pozner: Sure. One of the orienting examples that we had when we started off this body of research was the contrast between Hillary Clinton and Brian Williams. Both of them, if you remember, were found to have fabricated stories about being caught in enemy fire and active war zones, and the truth about that kind of untruth was revealed in both cases twelve years after the fact, and what's the result? Brian Williams is out of a job and Hillary Clinton is running for president, and I don't want to impugn Hillary Clinton, but what we realized was that there's a difference in both the way people judge how scandalous any given scandal is, and the way individuals affected by scandal are able to recover. That was our starting point for engaging in this research.

What we found was that there is a difference in the way that we adjudicate how bad a scandal is that's based on what we would call role congruence. If you're somebody who is in a position of fiduciary responsibility or where trustworthiness is really important to serving the function of your job, like a newscaster, like a lawyer, like a board member, like a CEO, we find that scandals that are related to trustworthiness are more damaging for those people's reputations, and we find that based on media coverage, so the tone of the media coverage for years following those kinds of scandals is really, really negative, and the consequences for people's careers can be really negative as well.

In contrast, when we think about politicians, we know that they all lie, so it's not surprising when we find out that one of them has told a story that's less than true, and so the consequences of that kind of scandal are much less severe.

That accounts for part of the difference in individuals' ability to repair their reputations after a scandal. It's just a matter of how bad we think the scandal is for that person based on the role that they occupied.

I guess a lot of what we know and what we can say about the ability of individuals and organizations to repair their reputations after they've been damaged from some sort of scandal is about the violation of expectations. If you've got an identity that's already off the hook, not towing the party line, somebody like Donald Trump, who we know is willing to just say anything, and we're not even sure that he believes half the things that he's saying, our expectations of his honesty, of the propriety of his conduct are really, really low, so what's going to stick to him, what kind of scandal would stick to him and really damage his reputation? It would have to be a really egregious business mistake, and, frankly, he's already filed bankruptcy several times, and that hasn't stuck. It's hard to see because he's known as a wild card, and positioned himself as an outspoken guy, it's difficult to see what could really damage his reputation.

ExecEd: I'm wondering if that relates to this overarching theme of authenticity, because he's authentically Donald Trump. He is what he is, right? If he goes rogue that's him. How does that relate to what we've been talking about today?

Jo-Ellen Pozner: Yeah. Authenticity isn't my favorite word, but it's a good shorthand for this kind of concept. It sounds kind of academic, but I think about it as a consistency between your image and your identity. You're image is this outwardly facing what you present to people, and your identity is your inwardly facing who you are, what you know about yourself, what you value inside, and if we really want folks and companies to be authentic, we need some consistency between those two. That's very rarely the case. In fact, what we see is that "authenticity" which means an image that's consistent with certain standards of, for example, localism, or production purity, or outspokenness, or whatever it is, depending on the domain, is what's rewarded, and we very seldom scratch the surface to see what's lurking underneath.

The takeaway for individuals is that you want to be your authentic self in domains where it's important, with your family, with your friends, in meaningful personal interactions. What you want to be in public is your best self that reflects the local norms and mores of the environment in which you're operating. I'm not saying to be phony. I'm saying to be intentional about the way you conduct yourself, so that you appear to adhere to the local norms around you, and that's what will make you be perceived as authentic, and even better if that's consistent with what you actually believe and value personally, but striving for that complete consistency might be a fool's errand for many of us.

For organizations, we want to be good. We want to do good. We don't want to be evil, right? That's the mantra of the area in which we live. There are compromises that need to be made every day in any kind of decision making process, and so what we want to do is be consistent with ... We want our actions to be consistent with the image that we're putting out there. We want what we state publicly to be consistent with what we do privately, but does that necessarily need to be the way we make every single decision? It doesn't. We just need to create a consistent narrative that's projecting this sense of a pure image.