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Research diaries: Casualties of the word count - purpose, taboos and dilemmas

Another deadline met, and paper submitted! And this one was significant, as it was the proposal for my MSc research project, which I will then be working on to bring to life over the next 12 months, and gives me a chance to cover topics I feel particularly passionate about. And a very insightful process full of reading, thinking, and critiquing, to build this proposal. And one major obstacle... the 3,000 word limit! Friend and foe, it helps our writing and argument remain focus, but it also means that certain ideas, points and concepts have to stay out, when we might have felt at some point that they were so impactful. But this additional reading and thinking isn't in vain, as we come out of it personally enriched. Still, there is a sense of frustration not to have been able to share these insights with "the world" (or, in reality, our two assessors), so to help mitigate this feeling, here are a few of the points which didn't make the cut, yet, I feel, deserve to be shared.

Purpose and sustainability in organisations

The core of my research ideas to start with, and in fact one of the topics that got me thinking about studying organisational psychology in the first place, was the concept of purpose in organisations, and how it resonates with employees. In other words, how do organisations articulate the contribution they make to the world, how honest is it, and how does it align with what employees see as their own individual sense of purpose. While I ended up focusing on morality in organisations, the idea of purpose remains very close to what I do.

In the early days of my research readings, I came across a number of articles dealing with the idea of purpose in organisations. An interesting recent development which I hadn't fully appreciated, despite the rise of purpose in the corporate discourse, was the development of new legal forms for organisations, "profit-for-purpose" companies, as described by Levillain et al. (2021). This new legal status which has emerged in a number of countries cements a commitment by these organisations to have a positive impact on society and / or the environment beyond profit generation, into a legal structure which requires them to report on these commitments, and balance their priorities between profit and purpose outcomes. More broadly (as this remains a bourgeoning phenomenon), it was interesting to read in an article by Bainbridge (2021) that the Business Roundtable, a trade association bringing together CEOs of 200 organisations in the US, updated in 2019 their view on the purpose of organisations, which up to that point and for decades had been almost exclusively to serve the shareholders. In their statement, they incorporated other commitments to support communities and protect the environment by employing sustainable practices, in what seems to be a very positive step forward.

But is it really? In researching the literature, much of the discussions on purpose, and more generally on business doing good in society, as well as Corporate Social Responsibility practices emphasise external pressures from different groups of stakeholders. A lot of the literature also focuses on systems of corporate governance. With all of this, I can't help feeling that in some cases, organisations doing good for society and the environment follows a logic of compliance to rules and standards, or response to pressure from shareholders, investors, or expectations from customers. Of course, one might argue that if the outcome is positive, the process and pressures leading to it don't matter too much. However, for long lasting and sustainable progress, I can't help believing that a more genuine and widespread realisation and consciousness of the need to generate positive impact, not just because "it is good for business", but because it simply is the right - and essential - thing to do, is what we should come to expect.

My final observation from the literature is that the stakeholders putting pressure on organisations do not tend to include their actual employees, and that it seems taken for granted that everyone signing up to work for an organisation automatically internalises the organisation's views on the world. I would challenge this, and hope to cover some of this in my research, so more on this later..

Taboos in corporate discourse

Continuing on the topic of Corporate Social Responsibility and impact of corporations, my research supervisor, in a discussion where I mentioned how certain topics aren't being spoken about in organisations and were effectively taboo, encouraged me to look into the concept of taboos in organisations. I happily went on to search for papers, and came across a few, including one by Kallio (2007), which has quickly made it onto my top 10 of preferred research papers (we all have one, right?). This paper focuses on taboos in organisations connected to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices.

Before going into actual taboos, it offers to define what a taboo is and to cover the reasons why they are important. A few things stood out for me there. First, with my growing interest (obsession?) with social constructionism, the idea that taboos are socially constructed. They are facts or information that everybody knows about yet for various reasons everyone decides that they are best not spoken about, for fear of triggering more damaging consequences, including simply embarrassment at an individual level. What makes something a taboo in an organisation includes a wide range of factors to do with power dynamics, ambitions, psychological safety, company culture and many other things. The second aspect of interest is the consequence of taboos. Very often, things we do not talk about for fear of consequences are things with negative connotations, things which, should they be tackled, might actually lead to progress. In addition, things left unsaid will mean that people may develop feelings which cannot be shared or addressed. All in all, taboos can therefore hamper progress, innovation, and simply the development of a healthy working environment.

In the context of CSR covered by Kallio, two out of the three taboos listed in the article particularly resonated with me:

  1. "The taboo of continued economic growth". This is something I have often wondered and reflected about. The fact that business measures and targets not only focus on growth, but of rate of growth, which in itself should be increasing. This feels like being on a treadmill where the speed increases, and the rate at which it increases also accelerates. Very quickly, even the best of runners won't be able to keep up. In the context of CSR, this also relates to the relentless increase in good production for an increasing world population, and the need to acknowledge that fundamental changes are required if we are to achieve meaningful sustainability ambitions

  2. "The taboo of amoral business". This relates to the belief that business can remain neutral in terms of responsibility and impact, and suggest that their only responsibility is towards their investors. It goes back to the idea of purpose covered earlier - which has somewhat developed since Kallio wrote this article. Still, it also made me think about neutrality in organisations in a different way, which is the belief that organisations can choose to ignore or not to take a position on some of our greatest challenges, be it environmental with climate change, or societal with racism for example. Other examples in the literature argue that there can be no neutral position on such matters, and that organisations can no longer afford to stay silent, and should not only take a stance, but also take tangible action.

Moral judgement and moral dilemma in organisations

This final point follows on from the first two, exploring some of the consequences of ambiguity on purpose, as well as taboos which affect individuals in terms of moral judgement. It wasn't exactly left out of my research proposal, as it is based on morality in organisations. However, there were a couple of aspects of the literature which I had to omit in relation to moral judgement, and moral dilemma.

A book by Kvalnes (2015), called Moral reasoning at work, covers quite a lot of ground in that respect, with the interesting statement that a moral dilemma is "a choice between wrong and wrong". In other words the two opposing paths that make up the dilemma both have claims to morality in different ways. Typically, deciding what action is morally right would follow two principles: either "utilitarianism" which considers the best possible outcome for all concerned, or "duty ethics" which sets boundaries on how much harm we can cause to others, regardless of the overall outcome. To illustrate this, Kvalnes, as well as other research papers use the "trolley problem" initially set by Philippa Foot in 1967: a runaway trolley is coming down a track; on its path, there are five people tied onto the track, who will die if run over. You stand by a switch and have the power to move the train onto a separate track, where one person is tied down, who will die if you switch the tracks. Research shows that the majority of people will switch the track, which is the utilitarian view of the best outcome for all involved (one dead instead of five). The duty ethics view will however focus on the fact that by switching the track, you take an active step in causing one individual's death, which can be considered to be beyond what would be acceptable, whatever the circumstances.

In a separate study, Hofer et al. (2021) asked participants to evaluate the moral judgement of a fighter jet pilot who shot down a full passenger jet hijacked by terrorists, to save the lives of the crowd in a stadium where the plane was going to crash. What this research was focusing on was the importance of social distance, as it asked the participants to make their judgements from different perspectives, while also assessing their baseline intuitions in terms of morality. The result confirmed the importance of social distance in judging morality, in other words that the closer or more directly affected one is by a situation, the stricter and less tolerant their views on moral judgement will be.

In practice, in organisations, not many of us face runaway trains, plane hijacking, or other life and death situations. However, it is easy to see how these principles of utilitarianism vs. duty ethics on the one hand, or social distance on the other, could be applied to the workplace. We face dilemmas of various scales on a very regular basis in making work decisions. Getting an appreciation that someone may have boundaries in terms of how much negative impact they can cause to someone (duty ethics) can help us put into perspective why certain decisions are being made. Equally, remembering to consider the part social distance plays in moral judgement can help us re-evaluate people's reactions to an event, when they are affected by it much more directly and much closer than we stand.

All in all, I believe that there is a connection between the three topics I have covered above, between defining and understanding what it means for an organisation to do good in society, how that can lead to certain considerations being ignored and silenced, and how within this context individuals make sense of what, at their level, doing the right thing means.

And here we are, like the small bits of pastry that have been cut off the tart tin and used to form a couple more mini apple tarts, hopefully these bits of findings which haven't quite made the cut for my research proposal have still been put to good use, and formed some interesting reading. Plus, all is not lost, as I will have over three times more words to play with for my actual dissertation - although hopefully a good deal more substance too!

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