Finding the right pond; key to surviving identity threats

"But they just didn't look at the right measures," complained one Berkeley administrator. A Carnegie-Mellon respondent claimed that the innovativeness of its program was overlooked completely. Similarly, a Stanford admnistrator said, "What bothers me is the need to quantify all this down to one number. They end up measuring things that aren't important."

Kimberly D. Elsbach, a Goizueta Business School faculty member, heard these responses and more during a research project that looked at how people at business schools responded to the 1992 Business Week (BW) ranking of U.S. business schools.

"Most of the social identity research that has looked at how people deal with identity threats shows that they will affirm alternate aspects of their self concept when one aspect is threatened," said Elsbach. "If someone doesn't get an article accepted by an academic journal, the person will say, `Well, I'm still a good master's swimmer.' By contrast, we found that when people perceive a threat to the identity of their organization, in this case a BW ranking, if they are strongly connected to that organization they will try to reposition the organization, rather than themselves, as a way of dealing with the threat."

Elsbach and her co-author, Roderick M. Kramer of Stanford University, arrived at their findings by looking at how administrators, faculty and MBA students from eight "top 20" business schools responded to the 1992 BW rankings of U.S. business schools. Elsbach and Kramer interviewed 43 people from the eight schools: two faculty members from the management area; an MBA student editor; a dean or assistant dean highly involved with the MBA program; and a director of public relations for the school.

Elsbach found that the rankings threatened many peoples' perceptions of their schools' identities by calling into question their perceptions of highly valued, core identity attributes of their schools and by challenging their beliefs about their schools' standing relative to other schools.

"Before the BW survey, there was no one, widely recognized ranking of business schools," said Elsbach. "In addition, most rankings were based on reputational measures such as dean's perceptions of a school's research quality. But the BW rankings don't use any reputational measures; the rankings are based on surveys of recent MBA graduates and corporate recruiters. These variables reflect the quality of current teaching more than anything else. Schools with strong research reputations found that research capability had very little influence in determining their school's ranking.

"The BW rankings changed things," Elsbach continued, "because it became very clear that in terms of student recruitment, that was the list to be on. It really changed the definition of a good business school."

The BW rankings also challenged, and in some instances repudiated, schools' prior claims about where they ranked. People who work at schools that had always been considered elite institutions suddenly found them ranked out of the top five or the top 10 and categorized instead as "merely" a top-20 school.

Elsbach found that people at many schools responded to the rankings by emphasizing and focusing on their school's listing in selective organizational categories that highlighted favorable identity dimensions and comparisons between schools that were not recognized by the rankings. "In this case, the people who work at the schools that were threatened by their ranking focused on things the survey didn't focus on. People didn't attempt to place their schools in new categories, but said their school would be highly ranked in categories that the rankings did not recognize. The people we talked to did this to make sense of and explain why their school achieved a specific, disappointing ranking. We found that anyone can be number one if you come up with the right niche.

"According to social identity research, organizations have a vested interest in having employees identify with the organization; it promotes loyalty, cuts down on absenteeism and reduces turnover," said Elsbach. "In this project we were looking at how an organizational event affects the employees' perception of themselves via their identification with their school.

"The implications of our findings, that people in organizations will reposition the organization for themselves when its reputation is threatened, makes it clear that it is strongly advantageous to have a complex identity," Elsbach continued. "Organizations shouldn't put all their eggs in one basket. In a business school, it's not enough to be strong in teaching and research, but you should be good in international affairs, leadership issues, technology--all the hot areas. The psychological well-being of employees and outsiders can depend on having a complex identity that can withstand threats.

"Our findings countered the established thinking in impression management because we found that prevalent self-affirmation tactics are proactive, rather than defensive."

An article on the research by Elsbach, assistant professor of organization and management, and co-author Kramer titled "Members' Responses to Organizational Identity Threats: Encountering and Countering the Business Week Rankings," will appear in the September issue of Administrative Science Quarterly, a widely-read journal of issues related to management.

This research project was supported by funding from the Goizueta Business School, Stanford University's Graduate School of Business and a James and Doris McNamara Faculty Fellowship.

--Jan Gleason

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