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Barry M. Mitnick

  • Professor of Business Administration
  • Professor of Public and International Affairs

My research interests center on agency in a variety of institutional settings. I was one of the originators of the theory of agency (1973), including its name and its institutional stream, and am responsible for one of its key logics: Perfect agency is rarely obtained because principals find that the marginal benefits of assuring perfect agency do not exceed the marginal costs of doing so; it just does not pay to make agents be perfect. Thus, because the benefits from securing and assuring perfect agents often fail to exceed the perceived costs of obtaining such agents, social and organizational institutions are structured to manage the resulting dilemmas. In other words, agency is often about the management of imperfection.

The institutional theory of agency then focuses on such major questions as the means by which social and organizational performance failures persist and are managed, the relational dynamics of agent and principal, the strategies used by agents and principals to assess the qualities of their exchange partners, including the credibility of the testaments provided about those qualities, the normative governance of agent-principal relations, the external presentation of and/or reputational manipulation of agency relationships, and many other related questions.

My work first identified the fiduciary norm as a true social norm featured in agency relationships (not only in the context of the fiduciary principle in law), similar to such other social norms as reciprocity, giving, helping, promise-keeping, and so on.

Beginning with the original proposal of a general theory of agency by Mitnick (1973) and by Ross (1973), the theory of agency has now spread across the social sciences and has had applications in virtually every business school discipline. For an account of the origin of the theory of agency and copies of some of the original papers on agency, see my SSRN author page:  In a recent article in the “Guidepost” series in the Academy of Management Discoveries (Mitnick, 2019) I present a case for additional research on the institutional theory of agency.

Organizations and Entrepreneurship