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Impression management and retrospective sense-making in corporate narratives : a social psychology perspective

2011-04, Merkl-Davies, Doris M., Brennan, Niamh, McLeay, Stuart

Purpose – Prior accounting research views impression management predominantly though the lens of economics. Drawing on social psychology research, we provide a complementary perspective on corporate annual narrative reporting as characterised by conditions of ‘ex post accountability’ (Aerts, 2005, p. 497). These give rise to (i) impression management resulting from the managerial anticipation of the feedback effects of information and/or to (ii) managerial sense-making by means of the retrospective framing of organisational outcomes. Design/methodology/approach – We use a content analysis approach pioneered by psychology research (Newman et al., 2003) which is based on the psychological dimension of word use to investigate the chairmen’s statements of 93 UK listed companies. Findings – Results suggest that firms do not use chairmen’s statements to create an impression at variance with an overall reading of the annual report. We find that negative organisational outcomes prompt managers to engage in retrospective sense-making, rather than to present a public image of organisational performance inconsistent with the view internally held by management (self-presentational dissimulation). Further, managers of large firms use chairmen’s statements to portray an accurate (i.e., consistent with an overall reading of the annual report), albeit favourable, image of the firm and of organisational outcomes (i.e., impression management by means of enhancement). Research limitations – The content analysis approach adopted in the study analyses words out of context. Practical implications – Corporate annual reporting may not only be understood from a behavioural perspective involving managers responding to objectively determined stimuli inherent in the accountability framework, but also from a symbolic interaction perspective which involves managers retrospectively making sense of organisational outcomes and events. Originality/value – Our approach allows us to investigate three complementary scenarios of managerial corporate annual reporting behaviour: (i) self-presentational dissimulation, (ii) impression management by means of enhancement, and (iii) retrospective sense-making.