The Power of Being Divisive
Understanding Negative Social Evaluations
Thomas J. Roulet

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PREFACE

The Relevance of Negative Social Evaluations

There is no better example to start this book than Donald Trump, one of the most incredibly divisive leaders we have experienced in the modern era. As these lines were being written, Donald Trump was visiting the United Kingdom for the first time since he became president of the United States of America in 2016. After fearing a chilled welcome, he had already postponed the trip once. He was welcomed in London by tens of thousands of protestors displaying “World’s Number One Racist” and “Dump Trump” placards. Above the British parliament in Westminster, an inflatable “Trump Baby” in nappies was floating as a sign of defiance and an attack against the immaturity of the most influential person on the planet. This demonstration was arguably the biggest one in the U.K. since the opposition to the Iraq war in 2003. In short, Trump was exposed to “negative social evaluations”; that is, he was the target of demeaning and critical judgments.

Trump was beyond deaf to the critics, and he discarded all of it. When asked about it on the following day aboard Air Force One, he had this incredible answer: “Some of them are protesting in my favor, you know that? There are many, many protests in my favor.” Needless to say, those protests in favor of Donald did not exist outside of his fertile imagination.

Whether Trump was delusional to that point, living in his little bubble, or whether he rightly saw himself as a profoundly polarizing character, is in fact hard to say. He was right on one point: despite the intense hostility, with many opponents at home and abroad, he also maintained tremendous support, with 43 percent favorable opinion among U.S. voters. Forty-three percent! One would have expected that with his multiple controversial positions, his numerous tweets “stirring the pot,” and his deeply divisive political choices, he would have garnered a much stronger antipathy. In fact, he has garnered significant enmity, but paradoxically won the election against all odds and has been able to maintain a high rating.

This puzzle, of how a heavily criticized and in some cases vilified individual such as Donald Trump can still garner significant amounts of support, also applies to firms. One might think of Goldman Sachs or Bank of America (representing an industry that will be covered extensively in this book) as among the most hated firms. But surprisingly, the video game giant Electronic Arts is at the top of a list compiling employee reviews and customer satisfaction scores to rank the most reviled firms in the United States. Electronic Arts regularly antagonizes its hardcore gamers, who frequently accuse the firm of offering disappointing game features or misleading advertising. Hardcore gamers are passionate customers and most of the time do not hesitate to flood social media with complaints. On Reddit—the infamous online forum where a significant share of those complaints are published—a topic regarding the game dynamics of EA’s Battlefront game has 683,000 negative votes. This topic triggered by far the most negative reaction to a Reddit post. The second worst post was one that asked to receive adverse reaction, and it piteously reached 23,000 downvotes only.

The company set up a rehabilitating plan under new leadership in the spring of 2013, but Electronic Arts remained stuck among the worst-reputed companies. Despite all the fuss, this has not prevented the firm selling more video games and doing extraordinarily well, with a stock price continually rising to new highs. How is it even possible for a firm to trigger such hatred from customers and still be incredibly successful? Hate, love, as the famous saying goes, there might only be a thin frontier between the two. What if Electronic Arts is just one of those firms customers love to hate?

Other firms are familiar with public hostility: Uber, Monsanto (Bayer since 2018), AT&T. However, despite this hostility, those organizations have managed to survive, and even sometimes to capitalize on outsiders’ anger. For these firms, public disapproval has not been an obstacle for growth, and it has opened a world of new opportunities.

At an even more abstract level, entire sectors and practices can be simultaneously stigmatized and booming. Among them, pornography is a classic example of an entire field and nexus of practices shaped by stigma (Voss 2015). Despite the taboo and the ethical concerns with the way it is produced, pornography has remained an intensely consumed product (Tarrant 2016). In 2013, three hundred thousand attempts to access porn websites were traced back to . . . the British Houses of Parliament.1 How, precisely, did the controversial and shady nature of the practice and its products make it so successful to the point that members of parliaments and peers cannot resist the urge?

A bad reputation, media bashing, and the intense lobbying of hostile social movements have for a long time been seen as a significant corporate risk, more commonly known as the “reputation risk.” A negative corporate image deters customers, business partners, and potential job applicants. Equally hostile social movements can be just as damaging, by convincing vital stakeholders to withdraw their support of the targeted firms. Governments could potentially cut funding and stop supporting the attacked firms’ activities. Employees become too afraid to talk about whom they work for. And for those individuals who face negative social evaluations themselves, coaching sessions are offered to improve their work relationships.

More than ever, the practices, individuals, and organizations in the fields of politics and business, but also beyond, are familiarly exposed to “negative social evaluations” when they are adversely perceived and presented by key audiences. As the examples of Trump and Electronic Arts—and the many others we will look at in this book—suggest, those “negative” social evaluations are not always that bad, and this book is aimed at uncovering the mechanisms through which they can yield benefits for their bearers.

In this Preface, justifying the modern relevance of the concept of negative social evaluations will be central. Negative social evaluations were especially interesting to me, and in the following section I will discuss my own journey as a researcher in this area and what got me hooked.

Why Study Negative Social Evaluations Today?

There has been no better time to examine and understand negative social evaluations. Why? First, the nature of audiences has experienced a profound change with the move toward digitalization. The rise of social media has created low-cost access for any individual to use his or her voice to participate in public debate (Roulet and Clemente 2018). Anybody with an internet connection and a mobile phone can express his or her rage in a tweet or more if they feel inspired. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of Americans are Facebook users.2 Like David versus Goliath, scandalized, upset, or just bored individuals can take their emotions onto social media to attack public figures, companies, and organizations or entire nations. In an era when information flows at the speed of light via social media and on twenty-four-hour news channels, no organization can hope to protect itself from this onslaught of public anger. A spark can trigger a destructive fire in the blink of an eye. However, what if things were not as simple and straightforward as we may think?

Trump and other modern political phenomena remind us that we live in a “post-truth” society that relies more on appealing to emotions and rejects the use of factual evidence. When emotions matter, social evaluations are more about gut feelings than elaborate demonstrations and arguments—going back to the Reddit and other social messages against Electronic Arts’ Battlefront game, it does not seem that outrage and hostility always go hand in hand with compelling reasoning!

Second, in a related phenomenon, this “post-truth” society is also hosting a turn toward the inflation of social evaluations. From AirBnB to Uber and other such services in the new platform economy we are almost addicted to, we are evaluated and we evaluate everything. Indeed, the role of platforms linking service or products providers with customers has exclusively relied on the idea of mutual reviewing. If we are addicted to those services, we are also addicted to the mechanism of evaluating as a way to reward or punish those with whom we engage in market interactions.

When we feel wronged by our AirBnB host because they forgot to empty the ashtray, or by our Uber driver because they cut through Trafalgar Square, sucking up thirty more minutes of our life stuck in London traffic, what better way to take it back to them than complaining online, when we cannot be exposed to the consequences of our bitter rhetoric (it’s very likely that the disgruntled AirBnB host or Uber driver will want to punch in the face many of their negative evaluators). I personally have to confess that I am the first one to go immediately on TripAdvisor when, for example, I have liked or disliked the last restaurant I have experienced. In fact, I use my TripAdvisor profile to provide only five- or one-star reviews, thinking I will have no impact on the restaurant I evaluate if I offer neutral, apathetic, or lukewarm evaluations. Writing negative evaluations is arguably more fun and distracting than writing good ones—positive evaluations of a service are more likely to stick to the facts and the reality of the experience. In comparison, providing negative social evaluations will act as a catharsis, an opportunity to express bitter emotions—and it feels good to be mean sometimes!

In this new evaluation-obsessed society, we are not only judgmental producers of social evaluations, we are also avid consumers: we can hardly spend a day without thinking about what others think of us. As Vidaillet (2016, 20) puts it, we “are under the permanent gaze of the other,” and from a Lacanian perspective, this is what shapes our identity and gives us a sense of existence. We exist beyond our mom’s gaze! Service providers are also addicted to reading their evaluations, mostly because they seek positive gratification, though in fact they often end up being exposed to disgraceful criticism that they perceive as a critical identity threat (Wang, Wezel, and Forgues 2016). My favorite barber around the corner obsessed for more than two years over a single negative review he got on Google Maps—telling me about it pretty much every time I would go for my monthly haircut. He would never need to worry about such negative evaluations considering his steady flow of loyal customers—yet he did. He spent hours discussing which competitors might have left such a nasty review and he asked his customers, including myself, to defend him online—which I did. However, since then it looks like many other disgruntled customers’ reviews have been added to the list!

As academics, we get evaluated continuously by our peers, but also by our students, mostly anonymously. How many times have we heard about colleagues losing sleep over or being intensely depressed by the one demeaning comment received from one of their disgruntled students? We tend to only see the negative evaluations. We obsess about them because they stand out, and they stick. When I taught for the first time my Theories of the Firm elective at SciencesPo in Paris, though I received a very positive assessment overall, I remember going mad about the one student who thought I was reading too much off of my slides and was atrociously dull. It was one of my first teaching experiences—maybe I was! I accumulated clues to track down the student and confront him. In retrospect, there was no rationale for such behavior: only more evidence that we are hypersensitive to negative social evaluations.

A third factor makes negative social evaluations particularly relevant. Corporate scandals seem increasingly more common, singling out misbehaving organizations, individuals, and sometimes entire industries (Daudigeos, Roulet, and Valiorgue 2020). But are controversies and scandals more common nowadays, or is it that we are simply more aware of them? It is hard to believe firms were more virtuous in the past (although we would love to believe so, so that we could repeat the standard litany, “Things are not what they used to be”). They are just more likely to be caught, more likely to be exposed, and more likely to have their tales told all over town via individual and collective media voices, in print, and on screens. However, this sometimes plays in favor of those who want to be noticed. Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who was voted prime minister of the United Kingdom in 2019 and led his party to a parliamentary victory in the wake of it, is a good example. To make it that far he went on to say something outrageous each time he was on the verge of being forgotten. Also, even his staunchest supporters would not disagree with it, or object to him doing that!

The practical relevance of negative social evaluations as a conceptual tool is thus becoming increasingly apparent. It does not mean that researchers, public relations and communications specialists, and political and industry leaders have all the answers we need to decipher this new brave world. In fact, questions accumulate as the conditions under which we produce and consume social evaluations evolve. In this book, before I try to identify the positive aspects of negative social evaluations, those fundamental questions will be dealt with. What is the social purpose of negative social evaluations? Why do they even exist? Why are some individuals and organizations negatively evaluated? How? Why do some individuals, organizations, and fields survive, despite hostility, media bashing, and public pressures—even managing to capitalize on those forces? And empirically this book will engage with such questions as, How did Trump win the U.S. election while bashing U.S. citizens, firms, and neighboring nations indiscriminately? How do Electronic Arts and companies like them thrive amid the multiple controversies their products trigger? How can porn be at the same time one of the most controversial and the most consumed products across the globe?

While public relations and communication professionals have often focused on how to repair a damaged reputation (see, for example, Earl and Waddingon 2013; Baer 2016; Dietrich 2014), this book offers to look beyond defensive perspectives: there may be no point in repairing a lousy reputation if it is an asset to an organization and/or a driver of change. The work of organizational sociologists and management scholars can complement the existing communication research to better understand the different ways in which being negatively perceived can yield surprisingly positive outcomes for organizations and individuals.

How I Got Caught Up in Researching Negative Social Evaluations

Negative social evaluations were not just a topical subject of enquiry. They were of specific interest to me as a researcher, and I have seen the subject as a fruitful path for my own work. Before adequately introducing and reviewing the academic and scientific work on negative social evaluations in the Introduction, it is appropriate to give credit to the fundamental works at the basis of this literature. As our dear Google Scholar reminds us every day, we only “stand on the shoulder of giants.”

It all started when, as a first-year PhD student in 2010, I read a paper by Bryant Hudson on organizational stigma published in 2008 in the Academy of Management Review and edited by Kim Elsbach. The idea that organizations could be stigmatized was a revelation for me, who had come to my PhD from the investment bank industry as it was facing a global backlash during the financial crisis. I immediately thought I wanted to work on this. In fact, this paper did not have this effect just on me, it also accelerated the development of an emerging stream of work in organization theory on negative social evaluations in general. At the same time that I was starting my PhD, another negative social evaluation scholar was finishing his: Jean-Philippe Vergne was about to publish his dissertation on the arms industry and the ways industry members had been able to reduce the disapproval they were facing as members of a vilified line of business (Vergne 2012). I was also deeply inspired by the work of other colleagues in the field of social evaluations emerging from my PhD program at that time: Deborah Philippe and her work at the intersection of reputation, status, and legitimacy, and Julien Jourdan and his rising interest in corporate scandals and institutional logics. I did not need more signs of destiny: this is what I wanted to do with my dissertation!

From this, I went on to Goffman’s original work on stigma at the individual level (1963), which is actually at the origins of it all (yes, that is where I should have started!). Building on examples and illustrations, Goffman established the foundational conceptualization of negative social evaluations by linking deviance, norms, identity, and the dynamics of discredit. While coming from the field of organization theory, I quickly discovered that sociologists shared my interest in negative social evaluation (Vaughan 1999; Link and Phelan 2001; Pescosolido and Martin 2015) and mass communication scholars (Wolfe and Blithe 2015; Noelle-Neumann 1974).

As I was developing my dissertation, I became interested in giving a positive spin to negative social evaluations. Remembering my days on the trading floor of BNP Paribas in London, during the most significant financial turmoil of the century, I was intrigued by the way investment bankers dealt with the rising hostility faced by their industry. How were they reacting? Did they mind at all? If they did not, why? I certainly struggled at dinner parties to explain I had worked in that industry, as people were losing their jobs and the public and the media were blaming it on the industry I was working for. So what made them different? How could they still experience pride to work for such companies, and how were those companies at the same time still seen as prestigious by young graduates? I started asking those questions and listening to the answers of my former investment banker colleagues, then expanded my work to stigma and negative social evaluations at the individual level.

That is how I became part of a group of scholars working on how organizations can deal with negative social evaluations but also trying to show that being disapproved of can also surprisingly yield positive outcomes (Helms and Patterson 2014; Tracey and Phillips 2016; Roulet 2017; 2019a).

Despite the fact that I had found such an exciting and growing body of work, toward the end of my PhD I started thinking about a broader perspective linking the various forms of negative social evaluations—their antecedents and consequences (especially the positive ones). Thus in 2015 I started accumulating notes for a book project to develop a comprehensive social theory explaining the benefits of negative evaluations, taking this as an excuse to dig more systematically for inspiration from a broader range of disciplinary fields. One paper would not have been enough to cope with this ambition! Giving way to some severe sense of megalomania, I felt like I needed an entire book to develop the idea but also clarify some key definitions and conceptual arguments. I only realized I should have curbed my obsessionalism when I actually had to write the book—but at last, here it is.

Purpose and Structure of the Book

This book takes a radical and provocative view by arguing that organizations and individuals facing negative social evaluations can be ultimately better off because of it. This book is primarily targeted at the advanced PhD student as well as both junior and senior management, and sociology, communication, or ethics faculty who are interested in gaining a more profound understanding of negative social evaluations to use in class or in their research. Reading this book it is hoped will aid them in developing potentially new ways of thinking about the antecedents and consequences of social evaluations and how a negative taint can result in positive outcomes.

The argument is that facing disapproval has actually helped the most hated companies to foster a stronger corporate culture, attract the right set of customers or employees, radically change themselves, and in turn generate growth opportunities. Stigmatized actors can also thrive on the frustration of being marginalized. The book will explore how individuals in contested occupations maintain their self-esteem and what we can learn from such mechanisms.

To make this argument compelling, the Introduction will bring together the existing literature on negative social evaluations and provide a multilevel conceptual framework to explain why, when, and how negative social evaluations can be beneficial for individuals and organizations. This conceptual framework will build on the existing empirical and theoretical work and some illustrative examples. This interdisciplinary dialogue will build bridges between concepts in different kinds of literature, but also show how various levels of analysis can inform each other (for example, how the research on dirty work can inform the identity dynamics of stigmatized organizations). Ultimately, the book is aimed at comprehensively covering the negative social evaluations literature at multiple levels, including their antecedents and consequences, in a coherent manner.

The Introduction is the cornerstone of the book, as it will first define the range of adverse social evaluations and touch upon the role of audiences and media. The Introduction presents an overarching framework connecting the different kinds of literature on negative social evaluations. It introduces a model of three steps: looking first at the antecedents of negative evaluations, then at the resistance and reaction to negative evaluations, and finally at how individuals and organizations capitalize on negative evaluations and use them strategically. Each of the following chapters will flesh out the different parts of the model. Chapter 1 covers the antecedents of negative social evaluations by identifying different forms of deviance. Chapter 2 focuses on resilience: How do organizations and individuals endure, confront, and deal with negative social evaluations? Chapter 3 will flesh out the core argument of the book by explaining how organizations and individuals can go beyond resilience and capitalize on those negative social evaluations. Chapter 4 will discuss the practical implications. What can individuals who experience stigma or hostility, leaders, stigmatized organizations, and industries learn from this extensive body of research? Finally, the Conclusion will explore the contribution of this work and pave the way for future research on the topic.

NOTES

1. “Parliamentary porn consumption laid bare in official figures,” BBC, accessed November 10, 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23954447.

2. Aaron Smith and Monica Anderson, “Social media use in 2018,” Pew Research Center, accessed November 10, 2019, http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018.