Sarah von Billerbeck | 2023

Organizational Narratives and Self-Legitimation in International Organizations

In: International Affairs, Volume 99, Issue 3

A growing literature has examined how international organizations (IOs) use narratives for self-legitimation—legitimation aimed not at external audiences but at IO staff themselves. However, little work examines why some self-legitimation narratives ‘stick’ and others fade away or are challenged by counter-narratives. I address this question by focusing on the content of self-legitimation narratives. First, I describe the lifecycle of self-legitimation narratives in IOs, showing how they can be endorsed, rejected or challenged by legitimacy audiences. Next, I posit a three-part typology of narrative content: purpose, performance and politics. Drawing on 87 interviews with IO staff, I argue that narratives of purpose, which focus on organizational values and norms, are more likely to be endorsed and become dominant, while those that focus on performance or politics are more likely to be rejected or challenged. Where this happens, legitimacy agents must adjust narrative content in line with audience demands. I illustrate this with two case-studies from the United Nations. I conclude with the policy implications of these findings, in particular the importance for IO leaders to align internal messaging with the values and normative expectations of staff or risk staff demotivation and cynicism, ultimately imperiling organizational effectiveness.

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