Houston Voices

Navigating corporate challenge of genuinely supporting social causes, per Rice research

When it comes to promoting social causes, corporations have to find a way to appear genuine over posturing. Photo via Getty Images

It is becoming more and more common for companies to promote social causes such as human rights, LGBTQ+ rights, racial justice, and environmental sustainability. But organizations face a tricky dilemma when expressing commitments to helping address social issues: Stakeholders may interpret their words and deeds as shallow rhetoric or insincere posturing.

Terms like “greenwashing” (regarding environmentalism) or “pinkwashing” (regarding LGBTQ+ rights) are on the rise, and they signal heightened suspicions around companies doing something with ostensible objectives of bringing in positive social change.

It's critical for researchers and business leaders to investigate this duality of audience perception: actual virtue versus virtue-signaling. In an age of social media and polarization, consumers are increasingly likely to wonder: Does this company have ulterior motives? Are they trying to cover for their own wrongdoing? Are they actually walking the walk, or are they merely talking the talk?

When can companies avoid such suspicion of being pro-social imposters?

Minjae Kim of Rice Business and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan of MIT Sloan School of Management have taken a close look at the conditions under which upholding social norms will make firms appear to be “model citizens” and when it will make them seem like imposters.

Their theory is two-fold: First, those who follow through and do social good in response to an explicit “social mandate” are viewed as “model citizens.” Second, those who go out of their way to do social good without any prompts or social mandates are less likely to be trusted and will be widely viewed as imposters.

Think about the following situation. A “social mandate” is given to a politician when they are asked in an interview what they think about a particular cause. In that context, if they express support, audiences are less likely to suspect the politician of having ulterior motives or pandering to constituents. After all, if the politician does not express support in that situation, that is tantamount to expressing disapproval. Here, the interview question (i.e., “social mandate”) provides a cover of plausible deniability to any suspicions of ulterior motives. Law enforcement (e.g., police, prosecutors) often have this social mandate built into their professions.

But if the politician takes initiative — unprompted — to support the same cause, they will more likely be viewed with suspicion. They may instead appear to seek out social rewards associated with supporting the cause (e.g., good reputation), without the cover of plausible deniability.

To test their theory, Kim and Zuckerman launched a series of experiments involving 509 online participants based in the United States. The experiments sought to determine how respondents perceive individuals who encourage others to abide by social norms. Participants were specifically asked to identify which of two individuals they think are “model citizens” committed to the norm, or “imposters” who are uncommitted but trying to hide their own deviance.

The researchers found that people who encourage others to abide by social norms when prompted (“social mandate”) are perceived as “model citizens,” while those who do the same but without such prompts are more likely to appear as “imposters.” This duality provides a clear guideline for managers engaging in corporate social responsibility: When suspicions are rampant, launching pro-social campaigns without a plausible mandate may heighten suspicion regarding motives.

The larger question is how to build firms and societies where people can safely support norms (that we all support) without being suspected as imposters. After all, we want our own norms and moral principles to govern our lives. But in some situations, we may mistakenly vilify those who are trying to do good, based on the absence of some contextual “social mandate.”


This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Minjae Kim, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business, and Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, the Alvin J. Siteman (1948) Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Trending News