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


224 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503608207
Ebook ISBN: 9781503613904

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Silver Medal in the 2021 Axiom Business Book Awards - Networking category

Finalist in the 2021 George R. Terry Book Award, sponsored by the Academy of Management.

In the last decade, research on negative social evaluations, from adverse reputation to extreme stigmatization, has burgeoned both at the individual and organizational level. Thus far, this research has largely focused on major corporate risks. Corporate public relations and business executives intuitively know that a negative image deters important relationships—from customers and partners, to applicants, stakeholders, and potential funding. At the same time, business is conducted in an age of heightened connection, including digital platforms for criticism and a 24-hour news cycle. Executives know that some degree of public disapproval is increasingly unavoidable. Negative social evaluations can also put social actors on the map. In the era of identity politics, many political leaders express controversial views to appeal to specific audiences and gain in popularity. Through network and signaling effects, being controversial can potentially pay off.

Thomas J. Roulet offers a framework for understanding not only how individuals and organizations can survive in an age of increasing scrutiny, but how negative social evaluations can surprisingly yield positive results. A growing body of work has begun to show that being "up against the rest" is an active driver of corporate identity, and that firms that face strong public hostility can benefit from internal bonding. Synthesizing this work with his original research, and drawing comparisons to work on misconduct and scandals, Roulet addresses an important gap by providing a broader perspective to link the antecedents and consequences of negative social evaluations. Moreover, he reveals the key role that audiences play in assessing these consequences, whether positive or negative, and the crucial function of media in establishing conditions in which public disapproval can bring positive results. Examples and cases cover Uber and Google, Monsanto, Electronic Arts, and the investment banking industry during the financial crisis.

About the author

Thomas J. Roulet is an organizational theorist and the Deputy Director of the MBA at the Judge Business School and Fellow in Sociology and Management at Girton College, both at the University of Cambridge.

"Thomas Roulet has very compellingly articulated the power of divisiveness in channeling negative social evaluations and perceived stigma to empower us into action and success, something that I have experienced personally in my professional life. Highly relevant and a must-read for professionals as well as researchers grappling with the velocity and impact of social perceptions in the increasingly digital world."

—Navdeep Arora, former Senior Partner, McKinsey & Company

"A careful and forensic analysis of why and how attacks by others on your capability or your character can in fact be positive and productive forces. The book takes us through a journey of in-groups, echo chambers, social trolls, post-truth narratives, and permanent peer evaluation to bring us fresh insights into the addictive practice of picking each other apart."

—Rupert Younger, Director, Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation

"This is a must-read for organization and management theory scholars. It provides a comprehensive analysis of the overlapping literatures that address how organizations are influenced by negative social evaluations. Roulet puts forward—convincingly—the strikingly counterintuitive idea that under certain conditions negative evaluations are beneficial—and, in contrast, that positive evaluations can have negative consequences for the targeted actors. How this happens, and the potential implications for society, are thought-provoking and often worrying. This is a timely and important book."

—Royston Greenwood, Professor Emeritus, Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta, and Professorial Fellow, University of Edinburgh Business School

"While not explicitly a management book, this is a fascinating study of the social-media fuelled and fast-changing landscape of public opinion, and the possible ways in which that might be beneficial."

Financial Times

"Roulet's framework provides an important starting point for understanding how organizations and their members might survive in a world where everyone's a critic with easy access to a social platform."

—Kimberly D. Elsbach, Administrative Science Quarterly