Seeing Versus Doing: How Businesses Manage Tensions in Pursuit of Sustainability

Abstract

Management of organizational tensions can facilitate the simultaneous advancement of economic, social, and environmental priorities. The approach is based on managers identifying and managing tensions between the three priorities, by employing one of the three strategic responses. Although recent work has provided a theoretical basis for such tension acknowledgment and management, there is a dearth of empirical studies. We interviewed 32 corporate sustainability managers across 25 forestry and wood-products organizations in Australia. Study participants were divided into two groups: (1) those considered effective at corporate sustainability and (2) a status-quo group. Contrary to current theory, our 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 paradoxical scenarios. Our findings suggest that existing theoretical constructs of tension management may not adequately capture the individual-level complexity involved with managing tensions in practice.

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Fig. 1

Reproduced from Hahn et al. (2015, p. 300)

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Correspondence to Adam Lindgreen.

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Joseph, J., Borland, H., Orlitzky, M. et al. Seeing Versus Doing: How Businesses Manage Tensions in Pursuit of Sustainability. J Bus Ethics 164, 349–370 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-4065-1

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Keywords

  • Corporate sustainability
  • Integrative view
  • Paradox
  • Resolution
  • Separation strategy
  • Synthesis strategy
  • Tension management