Anthropomorphism occurs when people apply human emotions and traits to animals or objects, for example, by calling a pet “happy” or “rebellious” based on its mannerisms. In this study, researchers (Ashforth, Schinoff, & Brickson, 2020) were curious about how anthropomorphism is currently being applied to organizations. For example, organizations may claim, “We are all about family” or “We care about the environment.” These humanizing claims no longer seem strange to us, even though organizations are technically just structures or entities. Why are organizations adopting anthropomorphism?
ANTHROPOMORPHISM IN BUSINESS ORGANIZATIONS
Drawing on a bevy of research from previous studies, the researchers created a process model to define exactly how organizations become anthropomorphized. It starts at the top, with leaders of the organization speaking about the organization as its agents. Because members of an organization represent it, their messages are seen as legitimate. This also contributes to the bottom-up part of the process model where an organization takes on the human qualities of its members. This is done by saying (or speaking) humanness, showing (or modeling) humanness, and staging (or creating ways to interact with an organization socially).
HUMANIZING THROUGH LEADERS AND EMPLOYEES
Through writing and speaking about an organization as if it were human, or saying, this allows organizations to take on human traits. An organization might “create change,” “be heroic,” or “provide opportunities for adventure.” By using human language in interviews and press briefings, human traits become associated with the organization.
Showing allows the human members of an organization to act on its behalf. The researchers point out how Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple, has become synonymous with the values of the organization. From how they dress to how they use symbols in décor and stationery, employees can make their identities interchangeable with the organization.
When staging, agents of an organization interact with it as if it were human. The research describes members of an organization eating dinner with one another in the cafeteria as “eating with family,” and a move by KFC to have employees interact with its mascot, Colonel Sanders, to show that KFC “is the Colonel.” Another way for organizations to interact with its fans or customers is through clever social media usage, for example, by maintaining a humorous Twitter account.
Why are organizations anthropomorphizing themselves? Researchers hypothesize that people are eager to anthropomorphize organizations due to two psychological motives: sensemaking and social connection.
Humans are raised from infants to rely on their humanness to make sense of the world. We understand things much better when we can place them into our point of reference, which is simply being a human in the world. Therefore, by thinking of an organization as a “who” instead of a “what,” it clears up our cognitive resources and we can reason much more clearly.
This ease of thought and reasoning also leads to social connection. It is comforting for us to think of organizations as people because it allows us to connect and relate with them. After all, humans are social beings.
Organizational leaders should be aware of the tendency of consumers and fans to anthropomorphize. Branding an organization in a personal way and allowing agents of the organization to “speak, show, and stage it” with human characteristics, makes it likely that people will more easily relate to the organization. This can be a powerful tool in the leadership toolbox.
Ashforth, B.E., Schinoff, B. S., Brickson, S. L. (2020). “My Company is Friendly,” “Mine’s a Rebel”: Anthropomorphism and Shifting Organizational Identity from “What” to “Who”. Academy of Management Review, 45(1), 29-57.