Organizational management for social justice: how to lead by example and use paradoxes for advantage
Organizations often face tensions in reconciling their social and ethical values with daily practice. Drawing from broader literature across sectors, it emerges that social justice management is an approach with useful practices for all organizations. Learning to balance moral value with material interest can help organizations stay on top of change, remain flexible, and gain more commitment from employees. Through social justice-based strategies for management organizations can learn to ‘practice what they preach’, reconcile tensions, and stay true to their values.
Reconciling efficiency, growth and survival with social and ethical goals is not easy.
Many organizations face tensions when reconciling mission and values with internal and external practices. While practicing what you preach is crucial for any organization, it is particularly vital for those with explicit goals and principles revolving around social justice. From firms that want to uphold ethical principles, to “social businesses” that want to do good through business, to civil society organizations that seek to make a long-lasting impact for social good: an increasing number of organizations seek to combine “the efficiency, innovation, and resources of a traditional for-profit firm with the passion, values, and mission of a not-for-profit organization” (Battilana et al., 2012).
However, the realities faced by organizations of all kinds often lead them to make decisions in the interest of efficiency and survival. Particularly for social businesses and NGOs, sustaining and successfully running an organization can mean cutting down on ambitions and ideals. In the case of firms that seek to thrive, the quest for growth and success can easily stand in opposition with organizational values and social responsibility. One common arena for this tension to manifest is in the realm of management, affecting both internal and external stakeholders. Considering the increasing importance of equality, diversity, and inclusion for organizations more generally, the question of how to align such principles with reality becomes vital for social justice organizations and others alike.
'Social justice management' can help extend conventional organizational and management theories.
Research has slowly begun to recognise these very tensions between values and reality in the realm of ‘social businesses,’ which stand somewhat between classical firms and non-profit organizations. Gonin et al (2012) highlight that such businesses offer valuable insight into how organizational tensions can be managed generally, and how social and economic demands can play together. Despite differences in organizational types, fundamental concerns about (social) mission, profit, efficiency, and survival are likely shared across the social sector and beyond. With an increasing trend towards social responsibility in businesses, also classical for-profit organizations face the issue of how to ‘practice what they preach’.
There is very little literature on how such tensions can be mitigated. This is largely due to the fact that management literature is kept separate from literature on for-profit organizations. However, considering the importance of philanthropic goals and their relevance to business today, it makes sense to take a broader approach to understanding what makes good management. One somewhat under-represented agglomeration of management research sheds valuable light on useful practices for organizations with an eye for the social good: these are theories on justice-based management or organizational justice, which seek to combine the needs of management with social and economic justice goals, often resulting in what can be referred to as ‘social justice management.’
Social justice management means applying the goals of social justice to daily management principles by balancing moral values with material value. This approach to management deviates from prescriptive management approaches that focus on what should be. Cropanzano, Bowen & Gilliland (2007) rather see social justice management as ‘descriptive,’ seeking to understand why a decision is perceived as just, and adjusting managerial decisions to the evaluation of such situations. It follows that such an approach is flexible and requires putting oneself into the shoes of other stakeholders to understand different (subjective) viewpoints and the (strategic) consequences thereof. When combined with typical social justice goals, such as focusing on root causes of inequality, seeking sustainable systemic change, and the empowerment of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, it means giving a voice to alternative viewpoints that challenge the very basics of management strategy.
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Evidence-based strategies for social justice management can help adjust internal practices to fit broader goals.
Social justice management literature largely focuses on the importance of relationships, subjectivity, and an evaluative approach as key to reaching successful outcomes. These insights are valid for structures, processes, and people alike. Of course, such practices cannot be viewed as isolated from other, broader dynamics that constrain organizations’ ability to ‘practice what you preach.’ However, research shows that already small (and cheap) changes to instil a ‘culture of justice’ have the ability to have long-lasting, positive effects on people and business alike.
Follow your own advice.
The overarching principle of social justice management is to follow your own advice and stay true to your values. This seems intuitive but is far from common practice: despite pledging adherence to diversity and inclusion, many organizations still face gender and racial imbalance in their organizational structure. While this is a great first step to achieve, research shows that mainstreaming justice and diversity within organizations touches on far more than racial and gender diversity – although this is undoubtedly beneficial. Inclusion and diversity also mean fostering a culture of diverse backgrounds, mindsets, and ideas. This can mean intentionally seeking those who are not like us, leading with empathy, and being open for change.
Acknowledge conflicting identities.
When aligning an internal business structure with social justice goals, it is vital to simply acknowledge, understand the nature of, and embrace the multiple demands arising from conflicting identities and organizational goals. Studies show that identity conflicts often manifest in hindering effective management (Young, 2001; Kreutzer & Jager, 2011). It is difficult to draw the line between what constitutes a strict business, a “social business,” a non-profit, or a for-profit organization. It is even more difficult to assess which strategic goal matters most. This can be done by installing value reflections, informal meetings, and allocating identity hierarchies to different situations that help show what matters most and when (Chenhall, Hall & Smith, 2015). One size must not fit all and acknowledging this helps organizations stay on top of change.
Embrace tensions and paradoxes.
Needs-based and situational management might seem disadvantageous at first glance but, recent research on corporate sustainability shows that internal and external strategic decisions cannot and must not always be win-win or trade-offs (van der Byl & Slawinski, 2015). Instead of polarising contradictory goals, complex reality can be made sense of through creative solutions and responses. When situations and demands are truly paradoxical, they require acceptance and continuous needs-based efforts to be managed. Smith and Lewis (2011) for example propose an approach of dynamic equilibrium in which cyclical responses allow actors to balance short-term with long-term goals whilst maintaining peak performance. Although somewhat counter-intuitive, embracing paradoxes in strategy can help organizations better balance and align long-term social ideals with short-term economic needs.
From a managerial and leadership perspective, embracing tensions also means acknowledging that leadership must not necessarily be top-down. There is considerable evidence that leadership approaches that involve and empower employees are superior to the traditional “great man theory” of leadership. Authentic leadership with its four components self-awareness (1), relational transparency (2), balanced processing (3), and internalized moral perspective (4) goes even one step further by explicitly adding an ethical and moral perspective to leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005). Practically, this can mean switching between autocratic and democratic roles, making decisions based on feedback loops and evaluation, and making sure that leadership runs deep and includes all members and their perspectives are included and represented fairly. Benefits are vast and include better trust and increased commitment from employees (Cropanzano, Bowen & Gilliland, 2007).
The many positive effects of social justice management reflect on growth, efficiency and strategy.
The management strategies outlined above constitute changes in mindset, openness, and approach. These strategies can help infuse organizational practice with flexibility and creativity. From collaborative managerial-employee relations to creative approaches, and the allocation of value to various identities, organizations can employ broad principles in several ways to suit their needs. For example, creative thinking must not only apply to marketing, but can also underpin strategic choices about funding. Management does not only have to mean authority, but can also mean openness and flexibility. Conflicting goals do not have to mean choosing between them, but seeing which priorities matter at what time.
Taking steps to ‘practicing what you preach’ in the realm of social justice has positive effects on structure, process, and people. With this, authentic and meaningful innovation and growth can occur (Tirmizi, 2016) also beyond organizations with philanthropic goals. Managing tensions between values and reality helps organizations to keep an open mind to alternative practices, and thus opens the door for constant adaptation, improvement, and innovation. Taking a social justice management perspective can help enshrine good and needs-based organizational practices and lead to positive outcomes in internal and external strategy. Hence, it becomes a valuable approach to consider for management.
References and further reading
Battilana, J., Lee, M., Walker, J., & Dorsey, C. (2012). In search of the hybrid ideal. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2012: 51-55
Chenhall, R.H., Hall, M, and Smith, D. (2015). Managing Identity Conflicts in Organizations: A Case Study of One Welfare Nonprofit Organization. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.
Cropanzano, R., Bowern, D. and Gilliland, W. (2007). The Management of Organizational Justice”. Academy of management Perspectives.
Avolio, B. J., & Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 315-338.
Gonin, M., Besharov, M., Smith, W., & Gachet, N. (2012). Managing social-business tensions: A review and research agenda for social enterprise [Electronic version]. Retrieved from Cornell University.
Kreutzer, K., & Jager, U. (2011). Volunteering versus managerialism: conflict over organizational identity in voluntary associations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 40(4), 634-661.
Smith, W. K., Lewis M. (2011). Toward a theory of paradox: A dynamic equilibrium model of organizing. Academy of Management Review, 36, 381-403.
Tirmizi, S.A. (2017) Leading Innovation in the Social Sector. In: Tirmizi S., Vogelsang J. (eds) Leading and Managing in the Social Sector. Management for Professionals. Springer, Cham.
van der Byl, C. & Slawinski, N. (2015). Embracing Tensions in Corporate Sustainability: A Review of Research From Win-Wins and Trade-Offs to Paradoxes and Beyond. Organization and Environment (28) 1, 54-79.
Young, D.R. (2001). Organizational identity in nonprofit organizations: strategic and structural implications. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 12(2), 139-157.
Wanda works as a researcher at a human rights institute in Austria. She holds an MSc in Political Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and is currently finishing an MSc in Social Justice and Community Action at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests revolve around political behaviour, civil society, and organisational sociology. Wanda describes herself as a wanderluster, curious mind and revolutionary at heart!