The Impression Management Strategies of Leaders in the Nonprofit Sector
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Leadership represents a diverse and dynamic area of study, occupying a vast area in sociological literature. However, the nonprofit sector is somewhat neglected in literature that examines leadership as a performance. Heightened demand for accountability, funding shortages and other challenges in the nonprofit sector have spurred recent trends such as coalition-building and business-like practices. Nonprofit leaders must satisfy multiple internal and external stakeholders with opposing values and expectations. This creates a rich and yet incomplete area in which to study impression management. This thesis employs an interpretivist perspective, specifically utilizing symbolic interactionism to understand how the participants create and maintain impressions. By employing Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphors, this thesis addresses how the participants use symbolic representations of leadership in order to create desired impressions. It also explores the strategies used by the participants in order to present a front of competent leadership during the interviews. Lastly, the research asks the participants to reflect on their impression management activities. To address these questions, 19 leaders were interviewed at 11 different nonprofits in Canada and in Egypt for approximately one hour each, using face-to-face semi-structured interviews. Simple observation was also applied. A combination of purposive, snowball and convenience sampling was used to select the organizations. iv The research offers a number of significant findings. First, the manner and appearances of the leaders and the design of their office space provides avenues in which to convey leadership, financial and organizational messages, as well as information about the leaders’ roles and statuses. For example, visual cues may be used to express their participative approach to leadership, convey organizational frugality or success and create a corporate culture. Second, the participants commonly self-identified as benevolent and humble “servant leaders” by attempting to appear as mentors. They downplayed their authority and claimed to integrate staff feedback into the organization. They also claimed to employ a benevolent form of discipline that focuses on learning. When discussing mistakes, the participants claimed to respond in an ideal way, by apologizing and learning from their errors. However, they claimed to, at times, act authoritatively and convey “professionalism.” The leaders displayed their authority during the course of the interview and laid claim to qualifications that made them especially suited for the job. These kinds of inconsistencies suggest that impression management is not static or flawless, but rather a series of performances fraught with contradiction and tension. Third, about half of the participants admitted to consciously changing their behaviour, language and appearances in situations in order to build trust with stakeholders. This involves at times appearing “professional” while at other times self-humbling in order to build a shared-identity with others. The participants struggle to appear sincere, but recognize that their impressions are sometimes met with suspicion. There are limitations to the sampling technique and research design. A larger sample that interviewed a group of leaders from one region would be preferable to this small, cross-national one. In this thesis it is impossible to know whether the participants’ claims are warranted. Longitudinal participant observation would enable the researcher to see inconsistencies and also to understand how others interpret the leaders’ impression management attempts. However, the research has many benefits; in addition to contributing to the literature and providing examples of Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphors in the context of nonprofit leadership, this thesis may assist leaders in their goals. This thesis could lead to increased self-reflexivity or sharing of impression management techniques and could potentially assist nonprofit leaders with their tenuous missions.