The role of executive symbolism in advancing new strategic themes in organizations: A social influence perspective

Donald C. Hambrick, Jeffrey B. Lovelace

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

15 Scopus citations


Contributing to the sensegiving literature and organizational change literature, we set forth a theory for predicting the relative effectiveness, or ineffectiveness, of executive symbolism in advancing new strategic themes (specific new priorities) in organizations. Unpacking the concept of executive symbolism and describing why executive actions carry symbolic significance, we primarily assess the "theme-aligned symbolic action"-an executive action undertaken with the intention of sending a message in support of some new theme. We draw from social influence theory to develop an integrated set of propositions for predicting members' reactions, or affective responses, to such actions. The predictive factors include attributes of the action itself, the reputation of the executive, and predispositions of respective members to the theme. As an outgrowth of this analysis, we conclude that theme-aligned symbols, no matter how artful, will almost always be ineffective in eliciting positive reactions from members who are antagonistic toward the theme. In turn, we introduce the concept of the "theme-muting symbol"-a symbolic action intended to minimize the prominence or apparent implications of a new theme-and we place this concept in the social influence framework as well. We discuss practical implications and present an agenda for future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)110-131
Number of pages22
JournalAcademy of Management Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Business, Management and Accounting(all)
  • Strategy and Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation

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