Authors of study: Jay Joseph, Helen Borland, Marc Orlitzky, and Adam Lindgreen
Research into corporate sustainability strategies, and tactics that business can implement to achieve more equitable social and environmental outcomes, has been an ongoing area of study for decades.
More recently, theoretical developments on sustainable business practice have highlighted the importance when it comes to the management of priority tensions within organisations.
Managers who are better equipped to identify tensions between economic, social, and environmental priorities within their organizations, sets the company up to achieve better sustainability outcomes.
While a theoretical basis for such tension acknowledgment exists, there has, to date, been a scarcity of practical studies on the subject.
Existing theories and individual-level complexity
Fortunately, the outcomes of research conducted last year, as published in the Journal of Business Ethics, has shed some light on how existing theoretical constructs of tension management may not adequately capture the individual-level complexity involved with managing tensions in practice.
Researchers from selected international Business Management Institutes, including contributions from Adam Lindgreen, a GIBS Research Associate, interviewed 32 corporate sustainability managers across 25 forestry and wood-products organizations in Australia.
Study participants were divided into two groups, namely those considered effective at corporate sustainability and those categorised as a status-quo group.
Acknowledgement versus action
Contrary to current theory, the study findings showed that acknowledgment of organizational tensions was widespread in the Australian forestry and wood-products industry and not limited to those managers who are effective at managing corporate sustainability. What differed was the degree to which managers did something about the perceived tensions, with the effective group more consistently acting to manage and resolve this conflict.
Participants cited different tension management strategies implemented, with synthesis being the most common strategy used. 18 participants were found to be using synthesis strategies, six used acceptance strategies, and three used to separation strategies.
A common theme that emerged from study participants using synthesis strategies, is that the approaches they were describing included all-inclusive measures that resolved situational-based tensions. This included measures such as reforms to organizational structures, certification, buying strategies, and general operations that would perpetuate sustainability.
The snowball effect
These measures were a form of resolution in that a single strategy was taken to resolve a salient tension. Following this, participants would describe subsequent steps taken that demonstrated a cycle of consistent improvement – each measure taken to fix a structural or core business issue would then lead to the emergence of subsequent challenges, which would then require new actions.
This resulted in the need to develop a series of policies and procedures around contract acceptance, remuneration, and output expectations in the following years to protect the organization’s original intentions.
The cycle of new tensions emerging after prior tensions were addressed, was a process consistently underlined by the general tension between economic, social, and environmental factors, and illustrated a constant underpinning of the process.
From the perspective of the participants, this process involved resolving key tensions, which they perceived would then result in the emergence of new tensions that were created in the post-implementation business reality. The emergence of these newly perceived tensions would then evoke the formulation and deployment of, more often than not, another synthesis-based strategy.
The effective group within this study showed strong theories, but little interest in the maintenance of real-world scenarios within their organizational processes. Once tensions became salient, the effective group took measures to resolve the tensions that were present within the scenario.
This process was repeated, consistently, over the history of the business, with the continual resolving of tensions beginning a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement.
Study findings suggest that for individuals a paradox exists within their abstract ideals, personal values, motivation, and cognition, but that they view the management of context-dependent tensions as an ongoing process of resolution.
The view of continuous improvement is an alternative path to tension management, a view that is lodged in the perspective of managers implementing tension management strategies.
In operationalizing the integrative framework of corporate sustainability, the synthesis strategy seemed to resonate most with managers. Based on this finding, the study recommends the synthesis strategy option when introducing tension management in new business settings, although the implementation of any sustainability strategy into business practice boils down to executives’ ethical value choices.
Beyond a win–win capitalist paradigm
Whenever commitments to sustainable development harm, for example the poor, it is time to initiate an ethical debate about the values inherent in this sustainability movement with a strong affinity to socialist notions of justice and equity, a focus beyond the win–win capitalist paradigm of corporate sustainability.
The phenomenon of high performers being separated by tension management action rather than acknowledgment, highlights different levels of individual motivation and ethical outlook, which, additional to the organization-level enablers, encourage prosocial and pro environmental responsibility, values, and behaviours. This suggests that, although the integrative and instrumental framework, which underscores tension management theory, is useful for organization-level generalizations, the individual-level distinction still needs to be addressed to aid future theoretical development.
Translation for South African perspective
In theory and practice
From a strategic perspective, these findings indicate that at the individual-level managers’ preference for how to manage tension differs from that prescribed in current theory.
The applicability and usefulness of tension management strategies need to be mitigated against the psychological and behavioral preferences of managers. This study examined practices naturally occurring within organizations. Further research within different industries is necessary to provide further support for the refinement of existing tension management theories and to provide the potential to develop more suitable and advanced theories.
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