ArticlePDF Available

"My Company is Friendly," "Mine's a Rebel": Anthropomorphism and Shifting Organizational Identity from "What" to "Who"

Authors:

Figures

Content may be subject to copyright.
QAcademy of Management Review
2020, Vol. 45, No. 1, 2957.
https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2016.0496
MY COMPANY IS FRIENDLY,”“MINES A REBEL:
ANTHROPOMORPHISM AND SHIFTING ORGANIZATIONAL
IDENTITY FROM WHATTO WHO
BLAKE E. ASHFORTH
Arizona State University
BETH S. SCHINOFF
Boston College
SHELLEY L. BRICKSON
University of Illinois at Chicago
Why dont we blink when our organizations are described as friendly or aggressive?
Why do we expect our organizations to care about our well-being? We argue that
anthropomorphisman attribution of human qualities or behavior to nonhuman entities,
objects, and eventsis both pervasive and surprisingly important in organizational life.
Anthropomorphism helps satisfy the motives for sensemaking and social connection, even
if the veracity of the results is in the eye of the beholder. Although anthropomorphism has
broad relevance to various domains, we primarily focus on organizational identity. We
contend that anthropomorphism enables organizational members to conceive of their
organization in terms of who it is/who we are as an organization(e.g., personality, at-
titudes, affect), rather than what it is/what we are(e.g., industry, structure, age). This
shift facilitates a more visceral, memorable, and energizing organizational identity, with
major implications. We discuss how anthropomorphism results from both top-down
(i.e., This is who we are) and bottom-up (i.e., You appear human to me) dynamics. We
also discuss how treating an organization as if it were a person primes interpersonal
emotions, behaviors, and accountability and facilitates social, relational, and personal
identificationas well as a psychological contractwith the organization.
If [this firm] were a person, it would be a very wise
and kind individual who was generous but not a
spendthrift and who managed money wisely. The
individual would be relaxed but reliable and
would never be offensive (a member of a major
U.S.-based law firm, in Brickson, 2002).
Why is it that individuals, like the organiza-
tional member quoted above, seem to have little
problem describing organizations in humanized
terms? How do employees of Amazon come to
perceive their company not only as the whatof
an online retailerbut as the whoof ruthless
(Kantor & Streitfeld, 2015)? How do employees of
Southwest Airlines conceive of the airline not only
as historically low costbut as friendly(Gittell,
2002)? Why do we expect our companies to show
us compassion (Dutton, Workman, & Hardin, 2014)
and care about our well-being (Eisenberger,
Huntington, Hutchison, & Sowa, 1986)?
These questions are all related to anthropo-
morphism, an attribution of human qualities
or behavior to nonhuman entities, objects, and
events (Epley, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2007; Guthrie,
1993).
1
Anthropomorphism is how we regard our
pets as if they had human characteristics and
implore our cars and phones to cooperate when
they act up.It is how we bequeath human names
such as Katrina and Irma to hurricanes and in-
clude dancing coffee beans, lovelorn mobile
phones, amorous chocolate bars, [and] grumpy
We deeply appreciate the very helpful comments of Kai
Lamertz, Kristin Smith-Crowe, Adam Waytz, former associate
editor Sherry Thatcher, three anonymous reviewers, and au-
dience members at presentations at Boston University, Brock
University, Lancaster University, London School of Economics,
Northeastern University, Oregon State University, University
at BuffaloState University of New York, University of Colorado
at Boulder, University of Manitoba, and University of Toronto.
Portions of the paper were also presented at the 2016 biannual
Israel Organizational Behavior Conference in Tel Aviv and
the 2017 biannual meeting of Positive Organizational Schol-
arship at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
1
For the sake of clarity, we use anthropomorphismas a
noun and anthropomorphizingas a verb.
29
Copyright of the Academy of M anagement, all rights reserved. Contents may not be c opied, emailed, posted to a listserv, or otherwise tr ansmitted without thecopyright holders
express written permission. Users may print, download, or email articles for individual use only.
vacuum cleanersin our advertising (Brown, 2011:
3; Reeves & Nass, 1996). Typically, it is incredibly
easyit takes few social cuesfor individuals to
spontaneously and nonconsciously anthropomor-
phize (Miesler, Landwehr, Herrmann, & McGill,
2010; Reeves & Nass, 1996). For example, merely
hearing a male or female voice on a computer
application elicits gender stereotypes, such as
a female-voiced computer knowing more about
femininesubjects (i.e., love and relationships)
than a male-voiced computer (Nass, Moon, & Green,
1997). We argue that, in organizational contexts,
anthropomorphism offers novel and important in-
sights into how members come to see their organi-
zations and subsequently think, feel, and behave.
Although any nonhuman referent in or related to
an organization can be anthropomorphized, such
as a department, idea, product, or tradition, our
primary focus is on the organization itself (we
broaden this somewhat in the discussion section).
As described below, organizations are particularly
likely, relatively unique, and highly impactful tar-
gets of anthropomorphism. Accordingly, anthropo-
morphism has broad relevance to a wide range
of management literatures. However, we see the
phenomenon of organizational identity (OI) as par-
ticularly apt to include human-like characteristics.
OI is defined as those characteristics deemed to be
central, distinctive, and reasonably enduring about
the organization (Albert & Whetten, 1985; Kreiner,
Hollensbe, Sheep, Smith, & Kataria, 2015). The allure
and power of the OI construct stems from the very
fact that it situates the organization by offering an
answer to the question, Who are we?This situated
sense of collective self is vital for members and
other stakeholders to interact and engage co-
herently with the organization and to perceive it as
acting with purpose (Pratt, Schultz, Ashforth, &
Ravasi, 2016). As Gioia, Patvardhan, Hamilton, and
Corley stated, Identity, at all levels, taps into the
apparently fundamental need for all social actors to
see themselves as having a sense of self,to artic-
ulate core values, and to act according to deeply
rooted assumptions about whoweareandcanbe’”
(2013: 127). Consequently, we primarily situate our
theorizing in the OI literature.
Since Albert and Whettens (1985) seminal paper
on OI, scholars from an array of disciplines, in-
cluding organizational behavior, organizational
theory, strategy, marketing, public relations, social
and organizational psychology, and human re-
sources, have examined and leveraged the con-
cept of OI. Practitioners have also latched onto the
concept in a more colloquial sense, promising
leaders enhanced organizational performance if
they articulate a clear identity (e.g., Gallup, 2017).
We contend that it is largely anthropomorphism
that enables organizational members to conceive
of OI in whorather than whatcharacteristics,
and that this shift has profound consequences
for members and, thus, their organization. What
characteristics could include any organizational
features that meet the criteria of being central, dis-
tinctive, and reasonably enduring, including age
(such as established), structural features (such as
bureaucratic), and industry membership (such as
a bank). These same conceptions, however, be-
come far more poignant and animating for organi-
zational members when translated into who
termswhen the organization is portrayed, for ex-
ample, as old,”“slow,and stodgy,respectively.
It is this visceral, profound sense of a collective self
that the construct of OI was intended to capture.
David Whetten invoked the image of peeling away
the outer layers of an onion in search of its pungent
core to make the point that if the people youre ob-
serving arent crying, then whatever theyre dis-
cussing, it isntidentity(in Albert et al., 1998: 281).
Indeed, as an anonymous reviewer wrote, anthro-
pomorphizing OI may even be intrinsic to how we
organize(see also Robichaud, Giroux, & Taylor,
2004), providing, as we argue below, a ready basis
for sensemaking about the organization and social
connection with the organization.
Given the centrality of identity to how we con-
ceive of organizations, the fact that we do not yet
understand the process that translates what
into whois particularly surprising. Our goal in
this article is to build on prior work in social psy-
chology and various organizational literatures
to examine how we come to see our organiza-
tions as human-like. While we focus on organi-
zational members for the sake of parsimony,
any stakeholderboth inside and outside the
organizationcan engage in anthropomorphiz-
ing. In the pages that follow, we consider the
questions of why, when, how, and to what effect
members anthropomorphize their organizations.
ANTHROPOMORPHISM IN HISTORY AND IN
ORGANIZATIONAL SCHOLARSHIP
A Brief History
Mithen (1996) argued that anthropomorphic
thinking emerged about 40,000 years ago.
30 JanuaryAcademy of Management Review
Anthropomorphism helped humans become better
predators through using knowledge of themselves
to anticipate their preys actions. Given the obvi-
ous survival value of such thinking, skill at an-
thropomorphizing evolved and spread. As Guthrie
noted, anthropomorphizing persists to this day
and is universal, involuntary, and largely non-
conscious because it enables humans to inter-
pret ambiguities vis- `
a-vis what matters most to
themthemselves and other living things: We
see shadows in alleys as persons and hear sounds
as signals because if these interpretations are
right they are invaluable, and if not, they are rel-
atively harmless(1993: vii; see also Brown, 1991).
And because we tend to think we know what
makes people tick, anthropomorphism becomes a
default schema’” for making sense of objects, al-
beit one that is abandoned or modified in the face
of contradictory information(Caporael, 1986: 226).
Individualsbelief in a given anthropomorphic
image exists on a continuum from metaphor (as
if)toliteral(it is; Epley et al., 2007; Guthrie, 1993),
where metaphors are ways of seeing things as if
they were something else(Manning, 1979: 661).
Much anthropomorphism through the ages was
literal, since societies often viewed elements of
nature and inexplicable events as the will or
manifestation of deities or human-like forces. With
the dawn of modernity, anthropomorphism be-
came less literal and more metaphorical as sci-
ence and secularism partially eroded individuals
belief in deities and human-like forces controlling
the otherwise inexplicable. If individuals are
questioned about everyday instances of anthro-
pomorphizing, such as viewing the weather as
angry or their car as cranky, they are likely to
quickly backpedal (e.g., Oh, itsjustafigureof
speech). And yet, as we argue later, our reflexive
tendency is often to treat organizations as if they
are human-like.
Anthropomorphism in Organizational
Scholarship
References to anthropomorphism abound through-
out various bodies of organization-related litera-
ture. Such examples are perhaps most prevalent
in marketing and public relations scholarship
and practices. Marketers who craft brands often
capitalize on our tendency to anthropomorphize
by using animated spokespersons (e.g., Tony
the Tiger), celebrity endorsements (e.g., LeBron
James), and real or fictional figureheads from the
past (e.g., Uncle Ben) and present (e.g., State
Farmsgood neighbor) to make us believe that
these brands are tantamount to the individuals
who represent them. Research confirms that con-
sumers have little difficulty thinking of brands as
having human characteristics (e.g., personality
traits, values, attitudes, demographic character-
istics). Indeed, marketing scholars define brand
personalityas the set of human characteristics
associated with a brand(Aaker, 1997: 347), such
as the perception of many consumers that Apple
is cool, creative, and young. Consumers may also
think of brands as relational partners, such as
a trusted friend, business partner, or servant
(Aggarwal, 2004; Fournier, 1998). For example,
they might see Nike as athletic, strong, and fast,
just like celebrity endorser LeBron James, and
think of the brand as a trusted teammate.
Yet while most extant work has focused on
the implications of organizational anthropomor-
phism by external stakeholders (e.g., consumers
[Fournier, 1998], journalists [Zavyalova, Pfarrer, &
Reger, 2017]), research also hints at its importance
for organizational members. First, discourse
scholars have noted that organizational members
do anthropomorphizethey create and sustain
anthropomorphic portrayals of organizations
through interacting with one another via talk and
text (Czarniawska, 1997; Taylor, 2014). Second, or-
ganizational scholars suggest that anthropomor-
phism enables members to have a relationship
with their organization (Coyle-Shapiro & Shore,
2007; Levinson, 1965), hold a psychological contract
with their organization (Conway & Briner, 2009),
feel supported by their organization (Eisenberger
et al., 1986), and identify with their organization
(Rousseau, 1998; Sluss & Ashforth, 2008).
Moreover, organizational scholars themselves
often describe organizations in anthropomorphic
terms. Some have explicitly endorsed anthropo-
morphic conceptions of the organization (Andersen,
2008), including organizational personality (Staw,
1991), organizational character (Birnholtz, Cohen,
& Hoch, 2007), the neurotic organization (Kets de
Vries & Miller, 1984), organizational virtue (Park
& Peterson, 2003), and the gendered organization
(Britton, 2000). Venerable organizational constructs,
including organizational culture, organizational
climate, andmost relevant to our analysisOI,
have also occasionally been described in anthro-
pomorphic terms (e.g., Cornelissen, Haslam, and
Werner portrayed the social actorperspective
on OI as attributing a human-like personality or
2020 31Ashforth, Schinoff, and Brickson
character to an organization[2016: 204]; see also
Shepherd & Sutcliffe, 2015).
Relevant though anthropomorphism is to mem-
bers and organizations, these various treatments
are quite fragmented and often overlook just how
we attribute humanness to our organizations.
Given that this perception of humanness may
change how we construe and interact with our or-
ganizations, our goal is to offer an overarching
model of the process of anthropomorphism in or-
ganizations, using OI as our focus.
ANTHROPOMORPHISM AND THE
ORGANIZATION AS WHO
As noted, some suggest that the concept of OI
itself is anthropomorphic. Whether this is true is
complex, debatable, and potentially a matter of
epistemological perspective. A first question is
whether identity is an inherently human attribute.
Identity is concerned with the essence of a self-
concept. Although humans tend to assume that
the self-concept is a property uniquely their own,
one that separates them from other animals and
machines, this assumption is philosophically
(e.g., What does it mean to have a self?) and sci-
entifically (e.g., Do animals and even robots show
evidence of selfhood?) debated (e.g., Cazzolla
Gatti, 2016; Couchman, Coutinho, Beran, & Smith,
2010; Mitchell, 2012). Even if the self-concept is
unique to humans, a second question arises: Can
collectives of humans, such as organizations,
meaningfully possess a unitary sense of identity?
This, too, has been debated. Some organizational
scholars (e.g., Cornelissen, 2002) contend that it is
problematic to confer what they see as an in-
herently individual-level construct on an organi-
zation, whereas others (e.g., Haslam, Postmes, &
Ellemers, 2003) argue that OI is more than an an-
thropomorphic metaphorthat collective identi-
ties are literal and real (see Corley et al., 2006).
Given that scholars hail from many different do-
mains, each employing unique disciplinary inter-
pretations of identityand organization(e.g., see
Cornelissen, 2006), perhaps epistemological differ-
ences will preclude agreement. For example, from a
discursive social constructionist perspective, one
might question the veracity not only of OI but of
individual identity as well, viewing both as in-
stitutionalized fictions dramaturgically narrated to
serve the need for perceived control (Czarniawska,
1997). While organizational scholars may disagree
about whether social scientists and people in general
should ascribe identitiesor anthropomorphic qua-
lities at allto organizations (e.g., Albrow, 1997;
Davies, Chun, da Silva, & Roper, 2001; Schoeneborn,
Blaschke, & Kaufmann, 2012; Shepherd & Sutcliffe,
2015), there is little disagreement that organiza-
tional members and other stakeholders often
do (e.g., Ashforth & Mael, 1996; Brickson, 2013;
Czarniawska, 1997; King, Felin, & Whetten, 2010).
Our aim here is therefore phenomenological rather
than philosophical or epistemological.
We noted that people are universally primed to
see humanness in the nonhuman world around
them. Organizations are particularly likely targets
of anthropomorphism because they are created and
maintained by people and, thus, are rather easily
and even reflexively construed as individuals writ
large. For example, given the human minds that
shape organizational decision making and action,
it is a small cognitive step from the representatives
of the organization are behaving generously on
behalf of the organizationto the organization is
behaving generously(cf. social actor perspective;
King et al., 2010; Whetten & Mackey, 2002). This
suggests that organizations, perhaps more so than
other collectives that lack perceived intentionality
and agency, are apt to be seen as human-like. Thus,
organizations are often described as behaving
bravely or coldly, as being motivated by the pursuit
of profit or social responsibility, as displaying high-
minded ethical principles or few at all, and so on.
Indeed, we grant organizations legal rights, hold
them responsible for their actions, and even entrust
them with our physical well-being (Levinson, 1965;
Whetten, Felin, & King, 2009).
Interestingly, although scholars have, at least
to some extent, debated the conceptual link be-
tween OI and anthropomorphism, there has been
little discussion outside the discourse literature
(Czarniawska, 1997) on the phenomenological link
between the two. In the OI literature, occurrences
of anthropomorphism—“who the organization is
(e.g., organization as an entrepreneur)are often
interspersed with nonanthropomorphic character-
izations of identity—“what the organization is
(e.g., organization as a church). This distinction,
despite its importance, has received little attention.
WhatVersus Whoin Three Distinct
Conceptualizations of the Organization
We noted that OI reflects the central, distinc-
tive, and more or less enduring attributes of an
organization. This definition forms a very broad
32 JanuaryAcademy of Management Review
tent. We believe it is illuminating to decouple
potential types of identity content, defined as
the characteristics that instantiate the central,
distinctive, and more or less enduring attributes
of an organization (along with any associ-
ated valence; cf. Albert & Whetten, 1985; Tajfel,
1978), to illustrate which types are and are
not anthropomorphic. As Table 1 indicates, in-
dividuals can describe their organization in
whatterms (a category-based understanding)
and/or in whoterms (a person-based under-
standing). They can also adopt three different
conceptualizations of the organization, each of
which crosscuts the whatand whoperspec-
tives: as a unitary entity or social actor, as a
conjoint entity(cf. Lasky, 2002),
2
or as an aggre-
gation of members.
Specifically, whatterms characterize the or-
ganization as a unitary entity or social actor that
stands apart from itsmembers (e.g., Its a large,
urban trauma center), as a conjoint entity that
reflects the members as a recognizable group
(e.g., Were a large, urban trauma center), or as
simply an aggregation of members who share
a common social identity (e.g., Were trauma
specialists). None of these definitions involve
anthropomorphism. Correspondingly, whoterms
characterize the organization as a unitary entity
or social actor (e.g., Its welcoming and caring),
as a conjoint entity that reflects the members as a
recognizable group (e.g., Were a welcoming and
caring family), or as an aggregation of members
(e.g., Were welcoming and caring individuals).
The first two definitions necessarily involve an-
thropomorphism. Perceiving the organization as
awhounitary entity means perceiving it as if
3
it were a singular person; perceiving the organi-
zation as a whoconjoint entity means perceiv-
ing it as ifit reflected a collective persona
greater than the sum of its parts (members).
Both are anthropomorphic because they attribute
human qualities to the organization. Meanwhile,
the third who”—perceiving the organization as
an aggregation of membersdoes not involve
anthropomorphism. The organization is not seen
as a human-like entity but, rather, as a boundary
around its human parts, allowing individuals
to discern their similarities to one another and
their differences from the human parts of other
organizations.
What does this shift from whatto whoac-
tually change? A more or less enduring self-
definition of whoprovides a visceral and even
TABLE 1
Understanding Ones Organization as WhatVersus Who
Conceptions of Organizations Category-Based Understanding Person-Based Understanding
Organization as a unitary entity or
social actor
What is it? Who is it?
For example, Its a large, urban
trauma center
For example, Its welcoming and
caring
No anthropomorphism Anthropomorphism: perceive
organization as ifit were a singular
person
Organization as a conjoint entity What are we (as an organization)? Who are we (as an organization)?
For example, Were a large, urban
trauma center
For example, Were a welcoming and
caring family
No anthropomorphism Anthropomorphism: perceive
organization as ifit reflected a
collective persona
Organization as an aggregation of
members
What are we (as individuals)? Who are we (as individuals)?
For example, Were trauma
specialists
For example, Were welcoming and
caring individuals
No anthropomorphism No anthropomorphism
2
Conjoint entity has been used in the clinical psychology
literature to broadly describe countertransference, an analyz-
ing instrument in which the therapists and patients minds
fuse into an entity shared by patient and analyst in roughly
equal parts(Lasky, 2002: 74). In the practice of marriage
counseling, the term denotes the entity created through mutual
projection in a close relationship (e.g., Zeitner, 2012).
3
We put as ifin quotation marks to signal that, as we argue
later, the as-if metaphor often morphs over time into a more
literal it-is perception.
2020 33Ashforth, Schinoff, and Brickson
existential sense of OI beyond a description of
what.Although anthropomorphic ascriptions to
the organization may not necessarily apply to
identity (i.e., they may not meet the criteria of
central, distinctive, and more or less enduring),
its often when individuals define the organiza-
tion in terms of who it isor who we are (as an
organization)”—whether positively (e.g., Were
creative and fun-loving) or negatively (e.g., We
dont value our customers)that they be-
come most animated. Moreover, given our
person-centric view of the world (Guthrie, 1993),
whodescriptions tend to be more resonant
and memorable. Resonant and memorable de-
scriptions enhance the strength of OI, where a
strongidentity is one that is widely shared
and deeply held by organizational members
(Kreiner & Ashforth, 2004: 8; see also Cole &
Bruch, 2006).
In rendering the organization person-like, ad-
jectives that would also describe a person be-
come more cognitively accessible when defining
the organization. As a result, anthropomor-
phism often distills a great deal of equivocal in-
formation into a persona that individuals can
more readily grasp. Compare the publicly es-
poused identity of Southwest Airlines as the
somebody else up there who loves you(New
York Times, 1971)awhoconceptionwith the
publicly espoused identity of American Airlines
as something special in the air(Elliot, 2014)a
whatconception. Further, an anthropomor-
phized OIdefining the organization as an entity
(whether unitary or conjoint) in whorather than
whattermsprovides the foundation for fur-
ther anthropomorphic elaborations or modifica-
tions over time (see also Sillince & Barker, 2012).
An aggressive upstartmay come to be seen in
more nuanced terms as supportive of its em-
ployees, dismissive of competitors, and coy with
the media.
In short, anthropomorphism is the mechanism
for ascribing a who it is/who we are (as an
organization)identity to an organization. That
said, whatlikely precedes and serves as
a foundation for whobecause whatsituates
an organization in its relevant social cate-
gory (e.g., a trauma center versus a fire station),
providing the context for individuals to inter-
pret and ascribe humanness to the organization.
Ultimately, then, OI tends to become a blend
of whatand who(e.g., a trauma center that
cares).
Three Levels of Anthropomorphized Identity
in One
Regardless of whether an organization is per-
ceived as a unitary entity or conjoint entity, we
also argue that anthropomorphism enables in-
dividuals to readily recognize three levels of a
human-like OI analogous to the three levels of a
persons identity. Following Brewer and Gardner
(1996; see also Brickson, 2000; Brickson & Brewer,
2001; Cooper & Thatcher, 2010), the latter includes
a social, relational, and individual level. The so-
cial level captures the person as a prototypical
member of a group (e.g., Im a member of Nike),
the relational (or interpersonal) level captures the
persons role-related relationships (e.g., Ima
coworker of Helen), and the individual (or per-
sonal) level captures the person as unique (e.g.,
Imstubborn).
Brickson (2005, 2007, 2013) subsequently estab-
lished that members can indeed understand
their organization according to these three levels.
We argue that anthropomorphism, in trans-
forming OI from an abstract whatentity into
a more visceral, human-like whoentity, likely
enriches each level. First, anthropomorphism
may provide a more psychologically accessible
basis for conceiving of the organization as a
member of a social group and, therefore, as hav-
ing a social identity (e.g., Whole Foods is an
environmentally conscientious organic grocer).
4
Second, it enables a seemingly interpersonal
relationship between the individual and the or-
ganization (e.g., Whole Foods is a good partner
to its employees), thereby facilitating a re-
lational identity. Third, anthropomorphism pro-
vides human-like attributes for the organization,
which may serve as psychological hooks for
4
This usage of social identity differs somewhat from that
in social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Tajfel defined
social identity as that part of an individuals self-concept
which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a so-
cial group (or groups) together with the value and emotional
significance attached to that membership(1978: 63). The
meaning of a social identity is derived from the core features
that differentiate a focal group (in this case an organization)
from a comparison group(s). Think of Whole Foods defining
itself relative to Trader Joes. The focus is on the group/
organization itself. In Bricksons (2005, 2007, 2013) formulation,
a social identity is that which defines the larger group of which
the focal organization is a member. Think of Whole Foods de-
fining itself as an organic grocery store rather than a non-
organic one. In both cases, however, the social identity is
derived at least in part by contrasts with a comparison
group(s), albeit at different levels of analysis.
34 JanuaryAcademy of Management Review
perceiving a personalidentity apart from any
interpersonalrelationship per se (e.g., Whole
Foods is healthy). Note that personal identity in
this case refers not to a members own individual-
level identity but to the identity of the organization
as a person(see Ashforth, Schinoff, & Rogers,
2016).
What Might an Anthropomorphized OI Include?
Given the importance of anthropomorphism in
organizational life, then, what are the human-like
characteristics that individuals tend to conjure
about OI? Although researchers have yet to delve
into the specific nature of membersanthropo-
morphism of OI, we suggest that virtually any
characteristic that can be ascribed to a person
(positive and negative) could also be ascribed to
an organization, including personality traits
(e.g., supportive, paranoid), values (e.g., fair, ex-
ploitive), motives/intent (e.g., to be number 1, to
help the environment), beliefs (e.g., long-term
employee development is too expensive), affect
(e.g., positive mood, angry), and even physical/
demographic (e.g., youthful, female) and bio-
graphical (e.g., underdog, orphan)as long as
these characteristics are seen as central, distinc-
tive, and more or less enduring. This list may im-
ply a somewhat fragmented anthropomorphism
(e.g., isolated traits rather than a holistic person-
ality), but our discussion in the next section of the
top-down and bottom-up mechanisms through
which anthropomorphism of OI emerges suggests
that a reasonably coherent persona may emerge
(e.g., seeing the organization much as one sees
ones manager). In fact, the characteristics listed
previously may implicitly suggest certain life-
style and life-stage images (a stodgybank may
be imagined as an older, portly male).
TOP-DOWN ANTHROPOMORPHIZING: THIS IS
HOW WERE HUMAN
In this section and the next, we discuss our
process model of anthropomorphizing OI. Here we
examine the top-down, sensegiving processes
through which organizational agents—“members
speaking and acting on behalf of the organiza-
tion(King et al., 2010: 293)present the organi-
zation as human-like (Schinoff, Rogers, & Corley,
2016). We focus on agents because their messages
are likely seen as relatively legitimate by mem-
bers since agents represent and are responsible
for the organization, have firsthand experience
with the organization, and share the broader
social identity with members (King et al., 2010;
Schinoff et al., 2016). Anthropomorphism of OI
emerges from the blending of this top-down pro-
cess with the bottom-up one examined in the next
section (the sensemaking process by which mem-
bers extrapolate from cues to interpret the col-
lective in human-like ways).
As noted, organizations are relatively unique in
that they can be seen as sovereign social actors,
capable of behaving in a purposeful, intentional
manner(King et al., 2010: 291). This entitativity
provides the latitude for organizations, through
agents, to communicate a sense of humanness to
members (Cheney & Christensen, 2001; Schinoff
et al., 2016). But how do agents convey the orga-
nization as a person to others? To answer this
question, we turn to Schinoff and colleagues
(2016) framework for how OI is communicated. We
suggest that agents convey human-like thoughts,
feelings, and actions of the organization through
three primary mechanisms: (1) saying (i.e., telling
of humanness), (2) showing (i.e., modeling hu-
manness), and (3) staging (i.e., creating opportu-
nities to socially interact with the organization
as if it were a human). These three mechanisms
facilitate perceptions of who the organization
isor who we are (as an organization).We
also draw on the work of discourse scholars
who suggest that the institutionalized metaphor
of organization-as-human emerges through lan-
guage in everyday conversation (e.g., Czarniawska,
1997; Prasad, 1995). Both top-down and bottom-up
anthropomorphism reflect the importance of dis-
course as a key resource, whether it be through
conveying humanness via language, as in top-
down anthropomorphism, or through making
sense of discursive stimuli, as in bottom-up an-
thropomorphism (Czarniawska, 1997; Phillips &
Oswick, 2012). Figure 1 summarizes our resulting
propositions.
Saying
Saying involves verbal or written messages from
organizational agents that communicate to mem-
bers a sense of humanness about the organization.
Conversations, narratives, stories, and mass com-
munications such as emails or internal newsletters
exemplify saying (Pratt, 2003; Schinoff et al., 2016). For
example, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon described
in a memo to employees (see https://corporate.
2020 35Ashforth, Schinoff, and Brickson
FIGURE 1
The Process of Anthropomorphizing Organizational Identity
Anthropomorphism
of the
organizational identity
(“who it is”/ “who we are
[as an organization]”)
-
Outcomes of
credible anthropomorphism
of the organizational identity
Feeling social emotions toward the
organization (P9a)
Enacting interpersonal norms and
relational schemas/scripts vis-à-vis
the organization (P9b)
Holding the organization
accountable to human-like
standards (P9c)
Organizational identification via
social, relational, and personal
identification (P10a,b,c)
The development of psychological
contracts and their content (P11a,b)
Enhancement of the positive impact
of psychological contract fulfillment
and negative impact of
psychological contract breach (P11c)
Motive for
social
connection
(P2a,b)
Motive for
sensemaking
(P2a,b)
Top-down anthropomorphizing:
Sensegiving by organizational agents (P1)
Bottom-up
anthropomorphizing:
Sensemaking by
organizational members (P4)
(P12a)
(P12b)
(P12b)
Pattern
recognition
Generalization
Egocentrism/
projection
Saying the
organization
is human
Showing the
organization
as human
Staging the
organization
as human
Anthropo-
centrism
(P3)
walmart.com/newsroom/community/20150219/in-
letter-to-associates-walmart-ceo-doug-mcmillon-
announces-higher-pay) the many opportunities
that Walmart has giventhem and the changes
that SamsClubis...making.Beyond internal
communications, external outlets such as news
media, websites, and social media serve as
important public venues for agents to express
the humanity of the organization (Kjaergaard,
Morsing, & Ravasi, 2011; Morsing, 1999), such as
when the cereal brand Cheerios ostensibly post-
ed a Tweet regarding its sadness upon learning
that the music legend Prince had passed away
(Morrow, 2016). As members come into contact
with these externally crafted messages, or per-
haps even craft the messages themselves, say-
ing shapes their anthropomorphized sense of
who the organization isor whoweare(asan
organization)(cf. Zavyalova et al., 2017). That
said, even if the various forms of saying do not
explicitly communicate the organization as hu-
man, internal and external communications are
often conveyed as though they were created and
distributed by the organization itself, thus in-
viting the attribution of agency and intention-
ality to the organization per se. Illustratively, all
new hires at Apple receive a motivational memo
from the company on their first day, portraying
the company as inspiring, thoughtful, and caring
about their arrival (Kruse, 2012).
Showing
Showing occurs when organizational agents
portray the organization in human terms. Often,
showing involves agents visibly thinking, act-
ing, or feeling in human ways on behalf of the
organization. In so doing, they essentially serve
as human embodiments of OI, offering a literal
face (cf. Staw, 1991). For instance, Steve Jobs, the
late CEO of Apple, embodied the companys
values, goals, and accomplishmentsso much so
that employees might ask themselves, What
would Steve Jobs do?(one even printed WWSJD
on a car vanity plate; Kane, 2014). Showing can
also be achieved through the use of artifacts. As
examples, the ways organizational agents dress
(Pratt & Rafaeli, 1997) and decorate their offices
(Elsbach, 2003) offer readily observable re-
minders of the organizations humanity and
convey meaning to insiders about who the or-
ganization isor whoweare(asanorganiza-
tion).Even more abstract, organizational logos,
business cards, and other symbols can portray
human characteristics, such as the winged foot
of Goodyear or the seductive Siren of Starbucks,
showing an anthropomorphized OI (Baruch,
2006).
Staging
Staging involves organizational agentscrea-
tion of opportunities for members to interact with
the organization as if it were a person. Unlike
when agents embody or portray the organiza-
tions humanity through showing, in staging, in-
dividuals are able to directly interact with the
organization as cast in human-like terms. For
example, a member of ZenPayroll described how
employees sat around a dining room table each
day for lunch, solidifying the company as a
family(Leong, 2014). Staging is a particularly
important way of conveying humanness, since it
is through perceived interaction that individuals
actually experience a sense of social connection
with the organization (Epley, Waytz, Akalis, &
Cacioppo, 2008; Schinoff et al., 2016). For instance,
the restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken an-
nounced a re-colonelization”—an effort to once
again enact its founders image (and the com-
panys public symbol), the iconic Colonel Sanders
(Novellino, 2016). The initiative entailed 100,000
retraining hours, over 40 rallies, and management-
only sessions, each of which represented a stage
for organizational members to interact with the re-
colonelized KFC. As evidence of how the three top-
down mechanisms can interrelate, the leadership
of KFC was hoping that, through these staging
tactics, members would be better prepared to say
and show how KFC is Colonel Sanders (Novellino,
2016).
Social media such as Facebook, Instagram,
and Twitter enable immediate opportunities for
members and others to interact directly with
or asthe organization, providing additional
mechanisms for staging. Hackworth and Kunz
(2011) described how the Mayo Clinic created a
Facebook page so that fanscould interact with
the clinic, posting health-related questions and
eliciting responses from organizational agents
under the guise of Mayo Clinic.Similarly, online
retailer Zappos has a strong presence on Twitter,
leading one blogger to note, The reason why
Zappos stands out on Twitter is because of their
ability to bring the company to life . . . Talking to
2020 37Ashforth, Schinoff, and Brickson
Zappos is like talking to a friend that happens to
sell shoes(Balwani, 2009).
While organizational agents may convey the
organization as embodying any attribute that one
could apply to a person, it is highly likely that
agents will feel pressure to espouse positive and
even idealized attributes precisely because the
agents represent the organization (Jackall, 1988).
This is a particularly important caveat because
organizational members are not under the same
pressure as agents to espouse a positive anthro-
pomorphized OI, suggesting that top-down an-
thropomorphizing may result in a more positive
human-like identity than the bottom-up process
we turn to next. In sum, we offer the following
proposition.
Proposition 1: Organizational agents con-
vey an anthropomorphized OI through
a blend of saying, showing, and staging
the organization as human.
Although we have focused on organizational
agents as the primary source of top-down an-
thropomorphizing, organizational members may
also receive whoclues from sources external
to the organization and its agents. For example,
Zavyalova and colleagues (2017) discussed how
journalists anthropomorphize organizations and
cast them as main characters in dramatic narra-
tives. That said, even when information is derived
from external sources, we suggest that saying,
showing, and staging nonetheless function as the
main vehicles through which this anthropomor-
phic identity content is communicated to mem-
bers (cf. Pfeffer, 1981).
BOTTOM-UP ANTHROPOMORPHIZING: YOU
APPEAR HUMAN TO ME
Before discussing how organizational members
engage in sensemaking regarding an anthropo-
morphized OI, we first need to understand why
they do so.
Why Do Organizational Members
Anthropomorphize? Psychological Motives
We argued earlier that organizations are
likely targets of anthropomorphism. At the same
time, members appear to be eager anthro-
pomorphizers. Why? Just as individuals are
motivated to understand and locate themselves
in relation to others (Alexander & Wiley, 1981),
so, too, are they motivated to understand and
locate their organization in relation to other en-
tities as well as in relation to themselves. Simi-
lar to the work of Epley, Waytz, Akalis, and
Cacioppo (2008; see also Waytz, 2013, and Waytz,
Morewedge, Epley, et al., 2010), we suggest that
seeing organizations in human-like terms helps
fulfill two important psychological motives that,
like other motives, vary in their strength across
individuals: (1) sensemaking and (2) social
connection.
Sensemaking. Even if only metaphorical, an-
thropomorphism provides a seemingly compel-
ling frame for making sense of the organization.
Sensemaking is the process through which in-
dividuals work to understand novel, unexpected,
or confusing events ...toclarify what is going on
by extracting and interpreting cues(Maitlis &
Christianson, 2014: 58; Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2015;
Weick, 1995). It appears that individuals are
primed from infancy to rely on humanness as a
sensemaking tool. Infants are highly dependent
on their parents or other caregivers for survival.
Thus, they tend to become adept at readingand
interacting with others to have their needs met, a
social skill that serves them well throughout life
(Bremner & Fogel, 2001). Further, individuals have
direct experience with their own phenomenology,
providing richly nuanced schemas of what it
means to be human. Together, these schemas of
others-as-humans and self-as-human provide a
ready intuitive anchor or starting point(Epley
et al., 2007: 869) when making sense of a non-
human target that is at least superficially human-
like. For example, Waytz, Morewedge, Epley, et al.
(2010) found that participants who were encour-
aged to anthropomorphize a dog, robot, alarm
clock, and even geometric shapes were more
likely to then rate them as understandable and
predictable (see also Prasad, 1993). Norenzayan,
Hansen, and Cady went so far as to state that it
seems nearly impossible to make sense of the
world without using an anthropomorphic frame-
work(2008: 191; cf. Boyer, 1996).
By distilling the otherwise overwhelming ca-
cophony that is the typical organization into a
seemingly knowable human-like identitya
who”—anthropomorphism frees up cognitive re-
sources. It also facilitates interpretation of and
communication about the organizationsactions.
Perhaps most important, anthropomorphism pro-
vides a frame for predicting the behavior of the or-
ganization (i.e., Because the organization is like a
38 JanuaryAcademy of Management Review
person, it should act like a person)andforinter-
acting more effectively with the organization (i.e.,
Because the organization is like a person, and I
know people, I know how to act vis- `
a-vis the orga-
nization; Caporael, 1986; Epley et al., 2007; cf. Kim
& McGill, 2011). As an analogy, Morris, Sheldon,
Ames, and Young discovered that when stock
market movement was described in anthropomor-
phic rather than mechanistic terms (e.g., Today the
Nasdaq leaped and bounded higherversus After
ricocheting back and forth all morning, the Nasdaq
bounced higher; 2007: Appendix A, online supple-
ment), subjects were more likely to predict that the
trends would continue because anthropomorphized
objects are expected to be agentic and behave more
or less consistently (see also Waytz, Morewedge,
Epley, et al., 2010). As this example illustrates,
however, the utility of a given prediction will be
strongly affected by how the anthropomorphic
sensemaking compares with reality.
Social connection. If sensemaking were the
only motive behind anthropomorphizing OI, any
theory of organization that plausibly decoded the
organization would be attractive. However, there
is a second important motive behind anthropo-
morphizing: it is socially comforting to do so. An
organization of any complexity can be quite im-
posing to its members, running the risk of being
perceived as a faceless bureaucracy or impassive
institution. Anthropomorphism helps counter this
risk by facilitating social presence”—that is, the
sense of being with another(Turkle, 1995, as
quoted in Qiu & Benbasat, 2009: 146). Although
research on social presence has focused largely
on technology that either links human beings
(e.g., Biocca, Harms, & Burgoon, 2003) or sub-
stitutes for them (e.g., van Doorn et al., 2017), the
concept seems highly relevant to any referent that
is anthropomorphized, including an organization.
For example, fictitious company faces,such as
Sara Lee and Ronald McDonald, connect one vis-
cerally to the organization. In rendering the or-
ganization more human-like, one is no longer
simply an employee for a food company or fast-
food chain; rather, one is a partner in an in-
terpersonalrelationship (cf. Coyle-Shapiro &
Shore, 2007). In short, anthropomorphism enables
individuals to breathe life(Dutton, 2003: 5) into
an organization, turning the inanimate and
amorphous collective into a seemingly relatable
human.
Further, because individuals tend to anthropo-
morphize in a way that addresses their salient
motives, we suggest that there is not a necessary
one-to-one correspondence between objective
reality and subjective perceptions of anthropo-
morphic attributes. Returning to the sensemaking
motive discussed above, an individual experi-
encing deep uncertainty is likely to emphasize
organizational attributes that suggest clarity
and predictability (e.g., goal oriented, proactive).
In contrast, an individual seeking social connec-
tion is more likely to emphasize attributes that
suggest closeness and caring (e.g., warm, support-
ive). As indirect support, Epley, Waytz, Akalis,
and Cacioppo (2008) found that individuals who
feel chronic loneliness are more likely to anthro-
pomorphize pets on socially supportive traits
(e.g., thoughtful, sympathetic) but not on other
traits (e.g., creative, devious). More generally, we
suggest that those seeking social connection will
emphasize organizational characteristics that
positively resonate with their own attributes,
whether via complementary or supplementary
fit (cf. person-organization fit; Kristof-Brown &
Guay, 2011).
Proposition 2a: The stronger organiza-
tional membersmotives for sensemak-
ing and social connection, the more likely
they are to anthropomorphize OI.
Proposition 2b: Organizational mem-
bersmotives inform the specific an-
thropomorphic identity content that
members ascribe such that (a) the mo-
tive for sensemaking increases the
likelihood that members will cast OI in
terms that emphasize clarity and pre-
dictability, and (b) the motive for social
connection increases the likelihood
that members will cast OI in terms that
emphasize closeness and caring and
that positively complement or supple-
ment the perceivers own attributes.
Anthropocentrism. Although organizational
members who are motivated to make sense and
forge a social connection may be eager anthro-
pomorphizers, we argue that a third individual-
difference variable makes seeing OI in who
terms more likely. We noted earlier that, as
humans, we tend to have a person-centric view of
the world. This is even truer for some people. An-
thropocentrism, or the tendency of individuals to
perceive the world from a human-centered per-
spective(Nass, Lombard, Henriksen, & Steuer,
2020 39Ashforth, Schinoff, and Brickson
1995: 229),
5
increases the cognitive accessibility of
ones knowledge of humans. The more accessible
that knowledge is, the more reflexive the ten-
dency to associate stimuli with humanness (Epley
et al., 2007).
6
Thus, when the motives for sense-
making and social connection are activated, one
who is anthropocentric is more apt to meet these
needs by drawing on this highly accessible
knowledge.
Proposition 3: Anthropocentrism mod-
erates the relationships between the
motives for sensemaking and social
connection and the likelihood of an-
thropomorphizing OI. Specifically, the
stronger an organizational members
anthropocentrism, the stronger the re-
lationships between the motives and
anthropomorphizing.
How Do Organizational Members
Anthropomorphize?
We propose that organizational members
make sense of top-down anthropomorphic cues,
along with other stimuli they confront in every-
day organizational life, through three major in-
ductive mechanisms: (1) pattern recognition, the
assembly of cues from multiple human and/or
nonhuman stimuli; (2) generalization, the extra-
polation of cues from a specific person, group, or
prototype; and (3) egocentrism and projection,
the extrapolation of cues from the self. These mech-
anisms involve conscious and/or nonconscious in-
ferences, from one or more data points, about the
organizations persona.
Pattern recognition. Pattern recognition refers
to perceiving underlying meaning or regularities
in a set of data points (Fiore, Jentsch, Oser, &
Cannon-Bowers, 2000; Linhares & Chada, 2013),
much like in a Pointillist painting, where a
recognizable image emerges from otherwise
meaninglessdabs of paint. Thus, positive ex-
periences with the companys recruiters, wel-
coming words from ones supervisor, comfortable
and inviting physical spaces, and family-friendly
HR policies may, together, suggest that the com-
pany is warm and deeply concerned about its
employees. Slaughter, Zickar, Highhouse, and
Mohr (2004) found that experimental participants
inferred an organizationspersonalityfrom
clues embedded in a mere newspaper article.
Generally, realizing that an organization is cre-
ated and maintained by people may encourage
recognition of human-like patterns from seem-
ingly disconnected cues.
Generalization. Generalization refers to the
degree to which a response conditioned to a par-
ticular stimulus is also evoked by similar stimuli
(Till & Priluck, 2000: 56). Because individuals have
a great deal of experience interacting with others,
they are predisposed to generalize from human
to nonhuman targets (Guthrie, 1993). In the case
of organizations, the original stimulus may be
a specific person (e.g., ones manager, ones
mother), a specific group (e.g., ones workgroup,
ones family),
7
or a more abstract group prototype
(e.g., engineers, athletes). The more individuals
perceive the organization as mirroring any of
these stimuli, the more likely generalization will
occur (This organization is like a mother to me).
Various scholars have argued that an individual
who represents the organization, such as ones
immediate manager or the CEO, is particularly
likely to be seen as a template for perceptions of
theorganization (e.g., Coyle-Shapiro & Shore,
2007; Eisenberger et al., 2010). This is especially
true when such individuals are seen as pro-
totypical (i.e., an exemplary representative) of
the organization. Stimuli with similar perceived
meanings tend to be simultaneously activated,
thus making it but a short cognitive leap to gen-
eralize attributes from a prototypical stimulus to
the organization itself (e.g., Sluss, Ployhart, Cobb,
& Ashforth, 2012).
5
Anthropocentrism has typically been cast as pejorative be-
cause scholars often include an outcome of anthropocentrism
ones belief that humans are superior to nonhuman
entitiesin its definition (e.g., Purser, Park, & Montuori, 1995;
Shrivastava, 1995). However, consistent with other scholars
of anthropomorphism, we see anthropocentrism as simply
a human-centric framework for perception (Epley, Waytz,
Akalis, & Cacioppo, 2008; Epley et al., 2007; Morewedge,
Preston, & Wegner, 2007).
6
Epley and colleagues (Epley, Waytz, Akalis, & Cacioppo,
2008; Epley et al., 2007) similarly suggested that the accessi-
bility of knowledge of humans is important for anthropomor-
phism. However, they cast it as a necessary condition for
anthropomorphism, while we contend that organizational
agents may provide, and members may infer, human-like cues
regardless of their baseline level of anthropocentrism.
7
Just as individuals may anthropomorphize the organiza-
tion, so, too, may they anthropomorphize their workgroup, de-
partment, and so on. Because such groups are nested within
the organization, they may provide a ready basis for bottom-up
anthropomorphizing (cf. Ashforth & Rogers, 2012).
40 JanuaryAcademy of Management Review
Egocentrism and projection. In addition to ex-
trapolating from a person, group, or prototype,
organizational members can also extrapolate
from themselves. Individuals tend to know more
about themselves than they do about other in-
dividuals, and tend to view themselves as nor-
mative or representative of others (Marks & Miller,
1987). Thus, to better understand what others
are thinking or feeling in a given situation, in-
dividuals imagine what they themselves would
think or feel. Indeed, this egocentrism”—
imputing knowledge of oneself to othersis typ-
ically the starting point or defaulttactic for
understanding others (Nickerson, 1999: 745; see
also Epley, Keysar, Van Boven, & Gilovich, 2004).
Similarly, when coupled with the proclivity to see
various nonhuman targets in human-like terms,
the self often serves as the default concept
for reasoning about unfamiliar agents(Waytz,
Morewedge, Epley, et al., 2010: 412; see also Guthrie,
1993). Thus, one may draw on knowledge of oneself to
understand an OI.
Closely related to egocentrism is the notion of
projection”—that individuals may defensively
and typically nonconsciously rid themselves of
characteristics they dislike by denying these
characteristics while emphasizing them in others
(Ashforth & Reingen, 2014; Baumeister, Dale, &
Sommer, 1998). Petriglieri and Stein (2012) con-
cluded that the leader of the Gucci family-run firm,
Aldo, projected his sense of being immoral and a
nobody onto others. In so doing, he reinforced his
sense of being a moral and aristocratic leader.
Given that an organization may also seem human-
like, it may similarly serve as a viable target for
projection. Various socially undesirable attri-
butes, from being immoral to being racist, may be
projected onto the organization. The organiza-
tion thus becomes a foil for individualsare-
pository of what individuals (nonconsciously)
dislike in themselves. For example, an individual
may engage in unethical behavior yet defensively
project this onto the organization by saying, Im
ethical, but my company sure isnt.Projection dif-
fers from egocentrism in that it involves psycho-
logically divesting oneself of negative attributes,
whereas in egocentrism one retains the extrapo-
lated attributes, whether positive or negative.
Multiple paths to an anthropomorphized OI. Be-
cause even small organizations typically house
much complexity, ones perception of an anthropo-
morphizedOIneednotand likely will not
rely solely on a single process (or a single
cue). Just as saying, showing, and staging
are likely complementary, so, too, are pattern
recognition, generalization, and egocentrism/
projection, since each provides a different but not
mutually exclusive avenue for making sense of
OI. For example, a specific stimulus that triggers
generalization might prompt one to search for af-
filiated cues such that the process morphs into
pattern recognition. And individuals may read how
their organization is human (saying) while partici-
pating in a training session that requires inter-
action with the organization as human (staging).
Further, organizations often have multiple identi-
ties that may or may not be integrated (Pratt, 2016),
suggesting that an individual may also distill
multiple anthropomorphic personas from the vari-
ous processes that may or may not be integrated
(cf. bricolage; Duymedjian & R ¨
uling, 2010). For in-
stance, employees may think of their organization
as an aggressive athlete when reflecting on its
ambitious financial goals but may think of it as a
supportive family member when reflecting on its
high-performance management practices. Indeed,
individuals may sequentially or even simulta-
neously adduce multiple, loosely coupled anthro-
pomorphized identities over the course of their
employment.
Proposition 4: Organizational mem-
bers perceive an anthropomorphized
OI through a blend of pattern recogni-
tion, generalization, and egocentrism/
projection.
THE CREDIBILITY OF TOP-DOWN AND
BOTTOM-UP ANTHROPOMORPHIZING
Like any social construction, anthropomor-
phized OIs vary in their credibilitythe extent to
which they are perceived to be trustworthy or
plausible (for a related discussion of corporate
credibility, see Newell & Goldsmith, 2001). Credi-
bility matters because an anthropomorphized OI
seen as trustworthy or plausible is more likely to
guide the actions and decisions of organizational
members (not just those of organizational agents)
such that the whoidentity is accepted and
reinforced over time. Given the diverse inputs to
an anthropomorphized OI, when is it most likely
to be seen as credible? We argue that credibility
is largely a function of consistency among the or-
ganizational sensegivers (agents), sensemakers
(members), and broader organizational context
2020 41Ashforth, Schinoff, and Brickson
(Schinoff et al., 2016). Specifically, the more an
espoused top-down anthropomorphized OI is con-
sistent with managerial actions and the organiza-
tions extant design, including structure, culture,
climate, strategy, and so on, the more likely mem-
bers are to view that identity as credible. Further,
consensus among agents on the top-down anthro-
pomorphism and consensus among members
on the bottom-up anthropomorphism are likely to
enhance the credibility of the anthropomorphism
processes. Finally, consistency between the top-
down and bottom-up processes is likely to further
enhance the credibility of each process and foster
a unified anthropomorphism.
Focusing on the interplay of top-down and
bottom-up anthropomorphizing in particular,
what happens if the top-down attempts to convey
certain attributes conflict with the attributes that
emerge via bottom-up processes? This appears
quite likely given our earlier point that organi-
zational agents are often intent on conveying a
positive and even idealized OI, which may be out
of sync with the reality experienced by organi-
zational members (e.g., Kunda, 1992). In such
cases, we suggest that members will put more
stock in their own experience of realityin this
case, bottom-up perceptionsthan in what
agents would like members to believe about that
realitythat is, top-down perceptions (cf. Kolb,
Boyatzis, & Mainemelis, 2001). For example,
Hatch, Schultz, and Skov (2015) found that OI
claims made by executives during organiza-
tional change at Carlsberg prompted a process
of identity activation when members reflected
on, questioned, and debated the companys
identity. It was this identity activation, rather
than the formal claims by management, that
better explained who Carlsberg ultimately came
to be. The culture literature also supports this
view. Howell, Kirk-Brown, and Cooper (2012)
found that the cultural values that individuals
perceive an organization as enacting have a
greater influence on their affective commitment
than those they perceive the organization as es-
pousing. Without alignment between espoused
and enacted values, the authors surmised, in-
dividuals may perceive espoused values as in-
sincere or instrumental.
By the same token, of the top-down processes,
staging is more likely to be persuasive than
showing, and showing is more likely to be
persuasive than saying. This is because stag-
ing provides an immersive experience where
individuals enact the anthropomorphism, es-
sentially colluding with organizational agents
in its construction. In contrast, showing involves
witnessing agents enact the attributes, which,
while still collusive, is less immersive. Finally,
saying is the least persuasive because it in-
volves simple pronouncementswords that
may or may not be supported by deeds (i.e., showing
and staging; Schinoff et al., 2016).
Are the anthropomorphized perceptions that
arise from certain bottom-up processes more likely
to be consistent with the top-down processes? We
speculate that pattern recognition and general-
ization (at least from a stimulus nested within the
organization) are more likely than egocentrism/
projection to be consistent with top-down anthro-
pomorphism. Pattern recognition and generaliza-
tion are based on perceived similarities between
stimuli and the organization, whereas egocentrism
and projection are based on the typically non-
conscious tendency to see the world as a more or
less blank canvas that reflects oneself. As a result,
pattern recognition and generalization are partic-
ularly likely to be derived from the anthropomor-
phic cues that agents impart through top-down
anthropomorphism, whereas egocentrism and proje-
ction are not.
Proposition 5: The credibility of an
anthropomorphized OI is a positive
function of (a) its consistency with
managerial actions and the organiza-
tions design (e.g., structure, culture,
climate), (b) the level of consensus
among organizational agents on the
anthropomorphized identity, (c) the
level of consensus among organiza-
tional members on the anthropomor-
phized identity, and (d) the consistency
between the top-down and bottom-up
anthropomorphism.
Proposition 6: If top-down anthropomor-
phizing of OI conflicts with bottom-up
anthropomorphizing, organizational mem-
bers are more likely to believe the latter.
Proposition 7: Of the top-down pro-
cesses, staging is more likely to foster a
credible anthropomorphized OI than
showing, and showing is more likely
to foster a credible anthropomorphized
OI than saying.
42 JanuaryAcademy of Management Review
Proposition 8: The bottom-up processes of
pattern recognition and generalization
aremorelikelytobeconsistentwithtop-
down anthropomorphizing than are the
bottom-up processes of egocentrism and
projection.
WHAT OUTCOMES FOLLOW FROM
CREDIBLE ANTHROPOMORPHISM?
Even if individuals are fully aware that
their anthropomorphized understanding of OI is
based on metaphorical as-ifthinking, that un-
derstanding is nonetheless likely to shape how
they relate to their organization (Lakoff & Johnson,
1980; Marshak, 1996). The psychology literature in-
dicates that the greater ones anthropomorphizing
of a given target, the more one tends to treat it, even
if nonconsciously, as if it actually were a person (cf.
social agency theory; Mayer, Sobko, & Mautone,
2003). For example, Kiesler, Powers, Fussell, and
Torrey (2008) found that when subjects were inter-
viewed by a robot regarding their health, the more
humanized they perceived the robot to be, the more
often they responded as they would to a person
(e.g., using slang, expressing sympathy). More-
over, individuals may regard the very idea of
anthropomorphizing as silly or absurd and yet
nonconsciously anthropomorphize all the same.
Kim and Sundar (2012) found that experimental
subjects denied perceiving a website hosted by
a cartoon doctor in human-like terms and yet
appeared to do just that (i.e., perceiving the website
as more likeable, sociable, friendly, and personal;
see also Barrett & Keil, 1996, and Nass & Moon,
2000). Kim and Sundar concluded that anthropo-
morphizing is a mindless tendency(2012: 249).
Further, the more credible an anthropomor-
phized OI, the more likely metaphorical as-if
thinking (e.g., People in this company behave
as if the company doesnt care about its cus-
tomers) will morph into it-is thinking (This
company doesnt care about its customers) such
that the anthropomorphism becomes more literal.
As the discourse literature indicates, a metaphor
induces individuals to perceive a target in a new
light, potentially reframing the meaning that is
constructed (Marshak, 1996; Sillince & Barker,
2012). As individuals react to that meaning as
members of the organization and possibly enact
that meaning, it comes to seem more real
and rootedmore institutionalized. The more
institutionalized an anthropomorphized OI is,
the more unreflective the acceptance of the
organization-as-person becomes (Czarniawska,
1997; Sillince & Barker, 2012; cf. Ashforth, Rogers,
& Corley, 2011). This is important because the
greater the credibility and it-is thinking, the
greater the impact on the following important
outcomes (beyond addressing the motives for
sensemaking and social connection).
Priming InterpersonalEmotions, Behavior, and
Perceived Accountability
When an organization is viewed as if it were
an individual, the impersonal interaction between
member and organization is transformed into more
of an interpersonalinteraction between indi-
viduals.This humanization of the employee-
organization relationship has three profound
implications. First, it allows individuals to feel
social emotions for the organization (and allows
the organization to be seen as havingsocial
emotions; Tiedens & Leach, 2004), such as sympa-
thy, pride, guilt, and envy. An example regarding
sympathy is provided by Rai and Diermeier (2015).
Through a series of experiments, they demon-
strated that organizations are generally seen as
capable of having agency and intentions (cf. Gray,
Gray, & Wegner, 2007) but incapable of experi-
encing pain and suffering. The authors argued that
this is because organizations are more highly
associated with behaviors that require intention-
ality, such as planning and goal-setting, than be-
haviors that require phenomenal consciousness,
such as feeling joy or being hungry(2015: 19; see
also Knobe & Prinz, 2008, but, for a contrary view,
see Phelan, Arico, & Nichols, 2013). Thus, when
participants were told that Google had been the
victim of industrial espionage, those who were
encouraged to anthropomorphize Google by
imagining that it had come to life as a person
(2015: 22) saw the company as having a signifi-
cantly higher capacity for experiencing pain
and suffering. In short, anthropomorphizing en-
abled participants to feel sympathy for the
wronged organization, just as they would for a
wronged individual. We believe that analogous
arguments could be adduced for other social
emotions.
Second, anthropomorphizing OI likely affects
membersbehavior via norms and schemas/
scripts. Following Brewer and Gardner (1996), a
relational identity cues interpersonal norms such
2020 43Ashforth, Schinoff, and Brickson
that individuals are motivated to uphold the
norms. In general, construing the organization as
a person with whom one has a relationship is
likely to elicit interpersonal norms such as reci-
procity, politeness, and fairness, especially when
the anthropomorphized OI content is considered
positive. Consequently, when OI is anthropo-
morphized, members may be more inclined to
engage in organizational citizenship behaviors,
at least those relevant to the organization rather
than to specific individuals (e.g., Smith, Organ, &
Near, 1983), and may be less inclined to engage
in deviant behavior directed at the organization
(Robinson & Bennett, 1995). As an analogy,
Waytz, Cacioppo, and Epley (2010) found that
individuals who tended to anthropomorphize
(as indicated by self-report) were more likely
to evaluate harm committed to a computer, mo-
torcycle, and bed of flowers as morally repre-
hensible. However, if the anthropomorphized
OI content is perceived to be negative (e.g., The
company abuses the environment), then in-
terpersonal norms (particularly reciprocity) may
render members less inclined to engage in or-
ganizational citizenship behaviors and more in-
clined to engage in deviance.
The content of the anthropomorphized OI is also
apt to affect membersbehavior by priming spe-
cific relational schemas and associated behav-
ioral scripts (Baldwin, 1992). For example, when
anthropomorphizing occurs through bottom-up
generalization of a specific other (e.g., My em-
ployer is like my father), individuals are likely to
act toward the organization in ways that are
consistent with their relational schema of how I
act with X.Indirect support is provided by a
provocative experiment by Aggarwal and McGill
(2012). They primed subjects to either (1) anthro-
pomorphize Krispy Kreme (an unhealthy brand) or
Kelloggs (a healthier brand) by encouraging
them to imagine that the brand had come to life
as a person and to think of the sort of person the
brand would be(2012: 313) or (2) view Krispy
Kreme or Kelloggs as simply an object. In a
seemingly unrelated experiment, subjects were
then asked to imagine a scenario where there is a
line for the elevator but the stairs are close. Sub-
jects were more inclined to take the elevator in the
anthropomorphized Krispy Kreme condition
than in the object condition. Conversely, the
opposite effect was found for the Kelloggssce-
nario (e.g., the stairs were favored more in the
anthropomorphized condition). In short, priming
an anthropomorphized brand induced subjects
to espouse behavior consistent with the brand
(an unhealthy choice in the Krispy Kreme sce-
nario and a healthy choice in the Kelloggs
scenario; see also Hur, Koo, & Hofmann, 2015).
Third, seeing an organization in whoterms
likely shifts membersperceptions of how ac-
countable organizations per se should be for
their actions (Czarniawska, 1997; Hur, Hofmann,
& Koo, 2016). Anthropomorphism leads members
to hold organizations more accountable, because
seeing the organization as a whopaves the
way to also seeing it as a moral agent. This also
suggests that members might therefore hold
an anthropomorphized organization more re-
sponsible for reprehensible acts than an orga-
nization seen in whatterms (Levinson, 1965;
Schlossberger, 1992). Thus, corporations repre-
sented as single, personified [anthropomor-
phized] agents may be held more legally
responsible for moral violations than corpora-
tions that are represented as collectives of dis-
parate individuals (see French, 1986)(Waytz,
Cacioppo, & Epley, 2010: 225). When members
view the organization as more responsible for
itsactions, blame may be diffused such that
the organization (rather than or in addition to
its members) is viewed as responsible (Waytz,
Cacioppo, & Epley, 2010; cf. Waytz & Young, 2012).
Further, agents may construe that they have
some organizational coverto engage the or-
ganization in activities that serve the agents
self-interests (e.g., paying obscenely high sal-
aries) and that are less socially responsible
(e.g., exploiting the environment).
Proposition 9: Anthropomorphizing OI
is positively associated with an indi-
vidual (a) feeling social emotions to-
ward the organization, (b) enacting
interpersonal norms and relational
schemas/scripts vis- `
a-vis the organi-
zation, and (c) holding the organization
accountable to human-like standards.
Social, Relational, and Personal Forms of
Organizational Identification
Organizational identification refers to mem-
bers internalizing the core, distinctive, and more
or less enduring characteristics of the organi-
zation as self-defining (Ashforth & Mael, 1989;
Dutton, Dukerich, & Harquail, 1994). Organizational
identification is considered a form of social
44 JanuaryAcademy of Management Review
identificationin that one (at least partly) defines
oneself in terms of the collective as a whole (Tajfel
& Turner, 1986). However, construing organizations
as anthropomorphized entities suggests that in-
dividuals may identify with organizations in two
additional waysthat is, relationally and
personally.
As noted earlier, anthropomorphism enables
members to understand organizations as having
not only a social identity (Whole Foods is an
environmentally conscientious organic grocer)
but also a relational identity (Whole Foods is a
good partner) and a personal identity (Whole
Foodsishealthy). While organizations vary as
to which level of identity is most prominent, all
three are often represented to some degree in a
given organization (Brickson, 2005). Following
Brickson (2013), assuming these identities are
desirable, each identity provides a distinct and
likely complementary path to organizational
identification. Members may identify with the
organizations humanized membership in a
broader social group via social identification,
with the organizations humanized relationships
via relational identification (Sluss & Ashforth,
2007), and with the organizations humanized and
individuating attribute(s) via personal identifi-
cation (Ashforth et al., 2016). Although empirical
work is limited (e.g., Sluss et al., 2012; Steffens,
Haslam, & Reicher, 2014), the complementarity of
the identities suggests that the resulting identi-
fications are likely to be mutually reinforcing
(cf. Ashforth et al., 2016).
Meta-analyses clearly indicate that identifica-
tion with the organization, whether in the form of
social, relational, and/or personal identification,
8
is associated with performance, organizational
citizenship behaviors, positive attitudes toward
the organization, and lower intentions to leave
(Lee, Park, & Koo, 2015; Riketta, 2005). This is not
surprising, because supporting an organization
that (partly) defines oneself is analogous to sup-
porting oneself.
Proposition 10: Anthropomorphizing OI
is positively associated with identifying
with the organization via (a) the orga-
nizations humanized membership in
a broader group (social identification),
(b) the organizations humanized re-
lationships (relational identification),
and (c) the organizations humanized
and individuating attributes (personal
identification).
Psychological Contracts
Psychological contract refers to the expecta-
tions that employees have regarding their per-
ceived reciprocal obligations and entitlements
vis- `
a-vis the organization (Rousseau, 1995). It is
important to note that the psychological contract
is not between members and organizational
agents but, rather, between members and their
sense of the organization as an actor—“who the
organization is/who we are (as an organization).
As Morrison and Robinson stated in connection
with the psychological contract, In a sense, the
organization assumes an anthropomorphic iden-
tity in the eyes of the employee(1997: 228). We
noted that as the organization takes on humanized
qualitiesin the eyes of employees,it becomes more
relatable, morphing the employee-organization
relationship into more of an interpersonalone.
We suggest that perceiving an organizations
identity in whorather than whatterms thus
facilitates the very existence of a psychological
contract between individual and organization (cf.
Levinson, 1965).
Further, it is likely that the content of an an-
thropomorphized OI determines the type of
psychological contract that members perceive
themselves to have (Brickson, 2013). In a trans-
actional psychological contract, the expected
exchange currency is instrumental; in a re-
lational psychological contract, it is socioemo-
tional; and in an ideological psychological
contract, it is cause based (Rousseau & McLean
Parks, 1993; Thompson & Bunderson, 2003). The
expected beneficiary of employee and organi-
zational investments also differs based on the
content of the psychological contract. Whereas
transactional contracts likely carry the ex-
pectation of self-enhancement for the member
and the organization (e.g., the employee works
hard to advance the organizations reputation
8
The historical focus in the organizational literature on so-
cial identification has likely obscured the roles that are also
played by relational and personal identification (via anthro-
pomorphism) in forming a bond with the organization. That is,
variance attributed to social identification may actually be
partly attributable to relational and personal identification
(Ashforth et al., 2016).
2020 45Ashforth, Schinoff, and Brickson
while the organization offers high salaries and
opportunities to excel), relational contracts
are associated with the expectation of other-
enhancement for the member and organization
(e.g., the employee demonstrates devotion
to customers to enable the organization to be
seen as a good relationship partner while the
organization demonstrates support and cus-
tomized development of employees), and ideo-
logical contracts carry the expectation of both
member and organization being devoted to
collective advancement (the employee acts as a
loyal servant of the organizationssocialmis-
sion while the organization affords a credible
platform for members to enact this ideological
work; Brickson, 2013). Given this, colder and
more self-focused anthropomorphized identi-
ties (e.g., ambitious genius) may be associ-
ated with transactional contracts, warmer and
other-oriented identities (e.g., nurturing coun-
selor) may be associated with relational con-
tracts, and identities emphasizing broader
principles and passions (e.g., devoted envi-
ronmentalist) may be associated with ideo-
logical contracts.
We suggest that as anthropomorphized OIs
become increasingly vivid or real”—as they
move from as iftoward it is”—a double-edged
sword arises for organizations. On the one hand,
when organizational members tangibly under-
stand, and value, the particular nature of their
psychological contract, and when they see the
organization as upholding itsend of the deal,
they are apt to feel more viscerally committed
to their organization and go the extra mile on its
behalf (Coyle-Shapiro & Kessler, 2000). On the
other hand, following our earlier accountability
argument, members may be less forgiving
of perceived psychological contract breaches
when they understand their organization as
more trulyhuman (cf. Mentovich, Huq, & Cerf,
2016; Waytz & Young, 2012). Research indicates
that a contract breach by an individual is likely
to be seen as a moral transgression, whereas a
breach by an organizationin the absence of
anthropomorphismis more likely to be seen as
a legitimate business decision (Haran, 2013).
However, it seems probable that, with anthro-
pomorphism, the organization is likely to be
held to the same moral standards as a person.
Thus, if the organization falls short of members
interpersonal standards, members might feel
betrayed, much as they would if betrayed by,
say, a friend or hero, which could fuel revenge-
based reprisals (cf. Brockner, Tyler, & Cooper-
Schneider, 1992; Prasad, 1993).
9
As an analogy,
when experimental subjects were led to believe
that a cash award was determined by another
person rather than a random number generator,
they were more likely to hold the person to
norms of fairness, even if they had to forgo their
award to do so (Blount, 1995). In short, more lit-
eral perceptions of an anthropomorphized OI
likely raise both the benefits of psychological
contract fulfillment and the costs of psycholog-
ical contract breach.
Proposition 11a: Anthropomorphizing
OI facilitates the development of mem-
berspsychological contracts with the
organization.
Proposition 11b: The content of an an-
thropomorphized OI facilitates the
development of a particular type of
psychological contract such that (a)
instrumentally oriented anthropomor-
phism is more associated with trans-
actional contracts, (b) socioemotionally
oriented anthropomorphism is more
associated with relational contracts,
and (c) cause-oriented anthropomor-
phism is more associated with ideo-
logical contracts.
Proposition 11c: Anthropomorphizing
OI creates a double-edged sword; it
enhances the positive impact of psy-
chological contract fulfillment but also
enhances the negative impact of psy-
chological contract breach.
9
At first blush, one might posit that members are more for-
giving of transactional psychological contract breaches than
relational and ideological ones. After all, members expect or-
ganizations to adhere to their own self-interest. However, this
may prove less true than anticipated because viewing the or-
ganization as a whorather than a whatraises the bar on all
psychological contracts. In any event, the perception of a
psychological contract breach tends to elicit strong emotions
(Conway & Briner, 2002), especially when the breach contra-
dicts the OI itself (e.g., a fair employerviolates a trans-
actional contract that implies fair exchange, a valued friend
violates a relational contract by exploiting the individual, an
environmentally friendly organizationviolates an ideologi-
cal contract by polluting a river; see Harrison, Ashforth, &
Corley, 2009).
46 JanuaryAcademy of Management Review
Reinforcing Anthropomorphism
We argued earlier that an as-if anthropomor-
phized OI is apt to morph into an it-is OI such that
whobecomes more or less institutionalized.
This is consistent with research suggesting that
OIs tend to become self-fulfilling (and thus more
credible) by generating outcomes that reflect
and reinforce the expectations of stakeholders
(e.g., Ashforth & Mael, 1996; Gioia, Price, Hamilton,
& Thomas, 2010). In the case of an anthropomor-
phized OI, priming interpersonalemotions,
behaviors, and accountability; fostering social,
relational, and personal identification; and forging
an interpersonallybased psychological con-
tract are likely to reinforce the sense that the
organization is indeed human-like. Importantly,
given individualsuniversal tendency to anthro-
pomorphize, even if the organizations subsequent
actions contradict an attributed identity, the result
is more likely to be a change in the identity content
of the anthropomorphism (e.g., My organization
cares about mebecomes My organization doesnt
care about me) than an outright retreat from an-
thropomorphism. In this way, anthropomorphism
also influences the top-down and bottom-up pro-
cesses of anthropomorphizing.
Proposition 12a: The proposed outcomes
of anthropomorphizing OI will tend to
reinforce the anthropomorphism.
Proposition 12b: Even if the organiza-
tions actions contradict an attributed
anthropomorphic OI, organizational
members will tend to change the
identity content of their attribution
through top-down and bottom-up an-
thropomorphizing rather than aban-
don anthropomorphism.
DISCUSSION
Humans engaged in anthropomorphizingthe
process of attributing human qualities or behavior
to nonhuman entities, objects, and eventseons
before they constructed the first recognizable or-
ganizations. While modern humans are suffi-
ciently sophisticated to realize that organizations
are not literally people, the metaphor whereby
they see organizations as human-like tends to
morph into a de facto treatment of organizationsas
if they are, in fact, people (cf. Andersen, 2008). An-
thropomorphizing transforms a whatdefinition
of the organization as a unitary entity (Its a mid-
sized family law firm) or conjoint entity (Were a
mid-sized family law firm) into a more resonant
and memorable whodefinition (Were a laid-
back and caring family law firm). We focused our
theorizing on anthropomorphizing OI given its
centrality in individualsperceptions of who an
organization isor who we are (as an organiza-
tion).We argued that anthropomorphizing is gal-
vanized by the twin motives of sensemaking
and social connection, particularly when they in-
teract with anthropocentrism. In top-down anthro-
pomorphizing, organizational agents, typically
managers, cast organizations as human-like by
implicitly and explicitly espousing and enacting
an anthropomorphized OI via saying (i.e.,telling of
humanness), showing (i.e., modeling humanness),
and staging (i.e., creating opportunities to interact
with the organization as if it were a person). These
efforts are typically complemented by bottom-up
processes enacted by organizational members,
including pattern recognition (i.e., assembling
cues from multiple human and/or nonhuman
stimuli), generalization (i.e., extrapolating cues
from a specific person, group, or prototype), and
egocentrism and projection (i.e., extrapolating
cues from the self).
When members anthropomorphize OI, they are
inclined to then interact with the organization as
if it were a person, experiencing social emotions
such as empathy and hatred, enacting in-
terpersonal behavioral norms (e.g., reciprocity)
and scripts (e.g., how I act with my mother), and
holding the organization as more accountable for
itsactions. Anthropomorphism also fosters the
development of the psychological contract and
provides more psychological hooks for organiza-
tional identification. Anthropomorphism, in short,
is highly consequential for members and, thus,
their organization.
Implications for Theory
In unpacking the process of anthropomorphiz-
ing organizations, we contribute to burgeoning
literatures across disciplines like social psy-
chology (e.g., Epley et al., 2007), marketing (e.g.,
Aggarwal & McGill, 2012), and information sys-
tems (e.g., Qiu & Benbasat, 2009) that acknowl-
edge the importance of anthropomorphism and
individual cognition in driving key outcomes but
have yet to clearly articulate the process. Our
discussion of pattern recognition, generalization,
2020 47Ashforth, Schinoff, and Brickson
and egocentrism/projection helps flesh out the
specific inductive processes (cf. Epley, Akalis,
Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2008; Epley et al., 2007) that
facilitate anthropomorphism. Importantly, the
organizational context provides the opportunity
to shed light on how nonhuman entities them-
selves may, via agents, concurrently communi-
cate theirown human qualities (i.e., top-down
anthropomorphizing). We accordingly build on
scholarly work on organizational discourse,
which has recognized that the taken-for-granted
metaphor of organizations-as-people emerges
through interaction as individuals ascribe
meaning to events (e.g., Bencherki & Cooren,
2011; Czarniawska, 1997). We articulate a holistic
model of anthropomorphism that more explicitly
describes how this metaphor emerges and with
what effects.
Our analysis also contributes to the OI litera-
ture, particularly the conversation regarding the
processes associated with OI versus the content
of OI. While scholars have focused on the pro-
cesses through which OI forms, is legitimated,
and possibly changes (Gioia et al., 2013; Pratt
et al., 2016), they have been relatively reticent
about the content of OI, grounding empirical
studies in single organizations (e.g., Gioia et al.,
2010; for notable exceptions see Brickson, 2005,
and Dukerich, Golden, & Shortell, 2002). And de-
spite the commonplace definition of OI as who
we are(e.g., Gioia et al., 2013), scholars fre-
quently discuss identity in terms of both who
and whatwithout addressing or seemingly
recognizing the difference. We advance un-
derstanding here by distinguishing an array of
potential identity content types in terms of
whether they refer to what(category-based)
versus who(person-based) ascriptions and by
articulating three distinct conceptualizations of
the organization (unitary entity, conjoint entity,
and aggregation of members).
Beyond contributing to our understanding of OI
content, we have also aimed to advance our un-
derstanding of the processes through which or-
ganizations are cast in human-like terms. Our
model describes how the top-down and bottom-up
dynamics of anthropomorphizing identity foster
a sense of who.We also articulate the novel
identity-related outcomes that may flow from
perceiving the organization in whoterms. For
example, we argued that anthropomorphism
is associated with three levels of OIsocial,
relational (or interpersonal), and personal
providing additional paths for member identifi-
cation with the organization.
Anthropomorphism is a pervasive and powerful
human phenomenon with vast implications for a
variety of management domains, spanning levels
of analysis and types of stakeholders (internal
and external). We chose the OI lens because it is
central to whoindividuals perceive an organi-
zation to be or whothey are as an organization
and directly informs a wealth of other literatures.
Below we underscore some of the ways in which
our analysis may speak to several other organi-
zational literatures.
Employee-organization relationship. Anthro-
pomorphism has been an implicit assumption
underlying nearly all of the work on the employee-
organization relationship since the inception
of the concept (Coyle-Shapiro & Shore, 2007;
Levinson, 1965). Yet the literature has remained
largely silent on how organizations are perceived
as entities capable of holding a relationship with
stakeholders in the first place. In this article we
have shown how individuals ascribe human-like
characteristics to organizations, transforming
what-basedentities into who-basedentities
and thereby enabling them to see organizations
as interpersonalpartners. Indeed, one could
argue that anthropomorphism is necessary for
members to experience a meaningful employ-
ment relationship, because the transformation
from whatto whorenders the organization
interpersonally relatable. Similarly, we have also
articulated how anthropomorphism lies at the
heart of memberspsychological contracts with
the organization, even shaping the very form they
take. In short, anthropomorphism and the result-
ing humanized OI shed much light on the na-
ture and outcomes of the employee-organization
relationship.
Organizational strategy. Lundberg (2005) de-
scribed how leadersshared strategic mindset is
partially composed of a preferred metaphor of the
organization that drives managerial (and, by im-
plication, organizational) thoughts, feelings, and
actions. He provided the anthropomorphic exam-
ple of the organization as a king who plots oc-
casional plundering of neighboring kingdoms
with periodic retreats to his fortress(2005: 294).
Given that anthropomorphizing OI provides a
salient frame of reference for sensegiving and
sensemaking, we suggest that leaders often for-
mulate and implement strategy based on their
understanding of the organization as human-like.
48 JanuaryAcademy of Management Review
Anthropomorphism cues schemas and scripts
based on the anthropomorphic identity content (in
this case, the king plundering and retreating),
thus serving as a template that guides agents
decisions and actions (Kaplan, 2011; Walsh, 1995).
Illustratively, for external stakeholders, friendly
Southwest Airlines waives baggage fees and al-
lows for flexible ticket bookings when most other
airlines have strategically eliminated such prac-
tices. This friendlyunderstanding is also ap-
plied internally; Southwest is known for providing
its employees with a robust benefits package
and flexible working schedules that allow em-
ployees to take advantage of the companys flight
benefits.
Organizational reputation/image. Just as em-
ployees tend to evaluate their organization by the
interpersonal standards implied by an anthropo-
morphized OI, so, too, do other stakeholders. Two
evaluations in particularorganizational image
(the set of views on the organization held by those
who act as the organizationsothers’” [Hatch &
Schultz, 2002: 995])
10
and reputation (being known
for something (perceived predictability of orga-
nizational outcomes and behavior relevant to
specific audience interests)[Lange, Lee, & Dai,
2011: 155])are likely shaped, at least in part, by
anthropomorphism. As one example, Love and
Kraatz (2009) found that downsizing negatively af-
fected firmsreputations, as assessed by securities
analysts and executives, independently of perfor-
mance. The authors inferred that individuals
made negative attributions about the charac-
terof the downsizing firms, viewing them as
untrustworthy.
Relatedly, Serpell defined anthropomorphic
selection as selection in favor of physical and
behavioral traits that facilitate the attribution of
human mental states to nonhumans(2002: 446).
He argued that this phenomenon explains how
people have come to exaggerate the anthropo-
morphic appearance of pets (e.g., the flat face of
English bulldogs) through selective breeding. We
posit that anthropomorphic selection also occurs
in organizations. For example, the upshot of
Southwest Airlinesreputation as a friendly com-
pany is a more loyal customer base that supports
the organization as they would a valued friend
(e.g., Sisodia, Sheth, & Wolfe, 2014), which likely
reinforces Southwests tendency to extol the
anthropomorphized identity. Aaker, Vohs, and
Mogilner (2010) provided experimental evidence
that an organization can affect the likelihood of
being anthropomorphically selected. By manipu-
lating a dot.org versus a dot.com internet domain
name, they found that participants stereotyped
organizations perceived to be nonprofits as
warmer, whereas they stereotyped organizations
perceived to be for-profits as more competent.
Perceived competence, in turn, predicted will-
ingness to buy from the organization, with orga-
nizations perceived as both warm and competent
(via an additional manipulation) considered more
admirable, which further predicted willingness
to buy.
Business and society. In modern industrial soci-
ety, the primary actor has shifted from the individ-
ual or small group to the organization (Boulding,
1968; Gioia, 2003; Jacoby, 1973; Perrow, 1991). Indeed,
this shift of social actorsthis organizational
revolution(Boulding, 1968: 34)is arguably the
central phenomenon of our time, although the rev-
olution has been largely a silent one, beyond our
awareness (Boulding, 1968;Perrow,1991;Stern&
Barley, 1996). We contend that anthropomorphism
is central to predicting what effect organizations
have: in the course of enacting distinct kinds of
anthropomorphic OI content, agents are apt to
generate (or destroy) equally distinct kinds of value
for stakeholders (see Brickson, 2007, and Brickson &
Akinlade, 2015). Even more profoundly, anthropo-
morphism is likely how this organizational revolu-
tion began. According to economic historian
Warren Samuels (1987), anthropomorphizing cor-
porations in the U.S. legal framework and discourse
had a transformative influence on the socioeco-
nomic system. He argued that the adoption of the
Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in
the late 1800s, which granted organizations person-
based rights to equal protection under the law,
conferred additional power on organizations. This
adoption ironically contributed to the dramatic
evolutionfromanentrepreneur-based capitalism
(somewhat more phenomenologically fitting of
viewing organizations as people) to a capitalistic
system composed of ever-larger bureaucratized
entities. More recently, anthropomorphizing corpo-
rations in legal discourse has led to a public outcry
10
Organizational scholars often differentiate intended im-
age,or the mental association that leaders want stakeholders
to hold, from construed image,or the mental associations
that organizational members believe outside stakeholders
actually hold (Brown, Dacin, Pratt, & Whetten, 2006; Dutton &
Dukerich, 1991). Our treatment of image encompasses both