Stakeholder Theory

Stakeholder Theory is a management concept related to organizational management and business ethics that addresses morals and values in managing an organization. It was originally detailed by R. Edward Freeman in the book Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach, and identifies and models the groups which are stakeholders of a corporation, and both describes and recommends methods by which management can give due regard to the interests of those groups. In short, it attempts play to address the “Principle of Who or What Really Counts.”

In the traditional view of the firm, the shareholder view, the shareholders or stockholders are the owners of the company, and the firm has a binding fiduciary duty to put their needs first, to increase value for them. However, stakeholder theory argues that there are other parties involved, including governmental bodies, political groups, trade associations, trade unions, communities, financiers, suppliers, employees, and customers. Sometimes even competitors are counted as stakeholders – their status being derived from their capacity to affect the firm and its other morally legitimate stakeholders. The nature of what is a stakeholder is highly contested, with hundreds of definitions existing in the academic literature.

The stakeholder view of strategy is an instrumental theory of the corporation, integrating both the resource-based view as well as the market-based view, and adding a socio-political level. This view of the firm is used to define the specific stakeholders of a corporation (the normative theory (Donaldson) of stakeholder identification) as well as examine the conditions under which these parties should be treated as stakeholders (the descriptive theory of stakeholder salience). These two questions make up the modern treatment of Stakeholder Theory.

The political philosopher Charles Blattberg has criticized stakeholder theory for assuming that the interests of the various stakeholders can be, at best, compromised or balanced against each other. Blattberg argues that this is a product of its emphasis on negotiation as the chief mode of dialogue for dealing with conflicts between stakeholder interests. He recommends conversation instead and this leads him to defend what he calls a ‘patriotic’ conception of the corporation as an alternative to that associated with stakeholder theory. Stakeholder theory is defined by Rossouw et al. in Ethics for Accountants and Auditors and by Mintz et al. in Ethical Obligations and Decision Making in Accounting.

According to Mansell (2013), by applying the political concept of a ‘social contract’ to the corporation, stakeholder theory undermines the principles on which a market economy is based.

Business frameworks like Stakeholder Theory are invaluable to evaluating and analyzing various business problems. You can download business frameworks developed by management consultants and other business professionals at Flevy here.

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