The rocky road to sustainability implementation
: exploring everyday tensions in organizational silos, hypocrisy, and stigma

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis explores everyday organizational dynamics to gain insights into sustainability implementation tensions and their persistence. Sustainability is one of the most pressing contemporary challenges and a complex task that many organizations still fail, even when they are willing and able to implement it. Despite a growing number of studies, tools and approaches to help organizations understand and implement sustainability, there is a paucity of contextualized research on the complications that can arise.
Adopting a problem-driven perspective, this study explores a particular organization and its sustainability journey. Globalcar (a pseudonym), the Latin American subsidiary of a multinational car manufacturer, has been intensifying its sustainability initiatives since 2015 in the wake of the diesel scandal that put pressure on the automotive sector. Albeit a technology leader in car production, Globalcar struggles to overcome the tensions associated with sustainability.
The study’s methodological approach is informed by an ethnography consisting of 480 hours of observations, 73 interviews, and company documents. Throughout the empirical chapters, I analyze three cases that emerged from Globalcar’s daily activities, focusing on different angles that contribute to sustainability implementation studies and specific streams of theory.
The first case investigates how sustainability implementation at Globalcar is impacted by silos, a metaphor used by organizational members to describe the distance between departments. My analysis suggests that silos lead to what I label “silofication”, a self-reinforcing, ongoing and acute lack of collaboration and knowledge exchange between working teams. Silofication emphasizes organizations as polities, meaning an agglomerate of groups with different interests and goals. In this highly political environment, solutions to dissolve boundaries between departments are concomitant to defensive responses from managers, which gradually undermine attempts to integrate sustainability into core management functions. The study contributes to sustainability implementation studies by showing that collaboration challenges in such implementations are as central as managerial support and consensus. It also contributes to organizational boundary studies by identifying micro-strategies that different teams and managers adopt to influence the shaping of boundaries between sustainability and other organizational functions.
The second case brings employees’ perspectives of hypocrisy from unresolved tensions in a specific project. The biannual graduate scheme is part of the social pillar of Globalcar’s sustainability strategy and aims at developing the organization’s future leaders. My analysis reveals how hypocrisy can be maintained over time, even when exposed and challenged by the trainees participating in this initiative. A compelling online selection process fosters the fantasy of rapid career progression in a modern and agile organization; however, promises are unmet and symptoms expose hypocrisy, while trainees’ complaints are used against them to reconstruct hypocrisy and maintain the project running. Scholars typically portray organizational hypocrisy as predominantly rational and ephemeral. This article questions these assumptions by drawing on the psychoanalytical concepts of fantasy and symptoms, as well as Sloterdijk’s concept of cynical reason, to suggest that hypocrisy can be a pervasive intersubjective process tied to contextual fantasies that are (re)created over time. Thus, this article contributes to corporate hypocrisy studies and to organization studies adopting psychoanalytical concepts, identifying cynical reason as a mechanism that allows fantasies to be replaced. The third case further develops the growing importance of online interactions to understand the persistence and emergence of tensions in sustainability. Globalcar is growingly interested in diversity as part of its sustainability strategy, but its actions are still embryonic and do not consider implications that the Internet might cause to specific employees. Here, I focus on the highly stigmatized gay men employees. I investigate the impacts of social network sites on the identity work that such employees perform at work, capturing the possible tensions emerging from the interplay between online and face-to-face interactions. The analysis reveals a dominant behavior I label “correspondent behavior”: attempts to match face-to-face and online identity work on a continuum from integration to segmentation of work and stigmatized identities. This behavior occurs in a cycle, as it rarely brings the expected outcomes for employees and reinforces new tensions provoked by the Internet. Stigma studies assume that social media has not changed the way employees manage their stigmas, whereas this study argues otherwise. I thus contribute to the scholarship on stigma management and identity work by investigating identity responses, tensions and ambiguous outcomes that these new online interactions create.
Overall, this thesis contributes to the theory and practice of sustainability implementation. The investigation of ordinary daily tasks sheds light on extraordinary patterns of behaviors. These are often taken for granted by organizational members and explain the persistence of tensions in sustainability implementation. Each case’s intricacies substantiate that embracing tensions might not necessarily lead to improvements in sustainability practices. Rather, understanding the behavioral nuances and mechanisms in each of these complex projects might be more useful. Therefore, the thesis demonstrates that resolving tensions involves not only relevant projects with high-level executive support but also knowledge about the organization’s everyday life.
Date of Award1 Sept 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJuliane Reinecke (Supervisor) & Michael Etter (Supervisor)

Cite this