By Lars Thøger Christensen.
- Sustainability and responsibility standards entail a danger of organizational actors stopping to reflect about what these values could or should entail in each particular situation and setting.
- Rather than passive compliance, standards should produce participation, involvement and contestation.
- Several communication principles need to be respected for a license to critique approach to have its desired effects.
Approximate reading time: 3-4 minutes.
Fixed, clear and authoritative standards able to discipline and regulate organizational behavior are often called for on the sustainability and responsibility arenas. This makes perfect sense. Standards that are loose, vague or open-ended allow organizations to subscribe to the values of sustainability and responsibility without changing their behaviors significantly. In such cases, standards may be criticized for being simply “lofty pronouncements” disconnected from other organizational practices. Yet, if standards become too strict and rigid they may end up working against their original purposes.
Standards are voluntary and predefined norms and procedures that specify desirable organizational behavior in particular social or environmental contexts.
Most standards in sustainability and responsibility are developed, designed and assessed by international organizations, governments, or multi-stakeholder initiatives outside the adopting organization, often with the intent of prescribing and shaping the dos and don’ts in a particular context. Their ability to generate compliance is usually considered an important success criterion. Passive compliance, however, may not serve the social and environmental interests at play. Strict standards tend to produce mechanical and unreflective “ticking the box” exercises where the main concern is to appear good and be let “off the hook” by critical stakeholders.
Compliance is not necessarily the best measure for responsibility and sustainability.
When responsibility and sustainability are prespecified in detail, there is a great danger that organizational actors stop reflecting about what these values could or should entail in each particular situation and setting. Such “closure” is detrimental to both the environment and to society. Under conditions of closure, curiosity and argument about values are replaced by attempts to manage the standards, to transform their ideals into technical measures, and to document their impacts on organizational practices. By naturalizing the standard as the “normal thing to do”, closure transfers responsibility from the organization to the standard itself in a way that allows the organization to demonstrate responsiveness without responsibility: “It is not our fault. We are complying with the standard”.
Strict and closed standards produce organizational responsiveness without responsibility.
Rather than passive compliance, standards should produce participation, involvement and contestation. Involvement, critique and contestation are vital dimensions in processes of testing, fine-tuning and improving standards to fit changing social and environmental problems. To facilitate such processes, organizations would be better off embracing – rather than repudiating – critical voices. Such attitude may be described as a “license to critique”. License to critique is a managerial philosophy designed to involve managers and employees, draw on their insights and stimulate their critical thinking while avoiding a premature closing down of discussions along with a potential to improve organizational practices. Critique in the shape of criticisms, appraisals, examinations, opinions, argumentations, or the suggestion of alternatives is recognized as an important and necessary dimension of organizational development and learning.
A license to critique approach welcomes and encourages constructive input from all corners of the organization.
Several communication principles need to be respected for a license to critique approach to have its desired effects. The most important are these:
- Confronting alternatives. The licence to critique approach invites alternatives by regarding the standard as a “lens” through which managers as well as employees are expected to observe and challenge existing ideals, assumptions and practices.
- Authorizing participation. The license to critique approach invites participation with a focus on openness, mutuality, and trust, as well as a tolerance for difference and variety. This invitation calls on organizational members to act constructively in shaping organisational ideas and practices. Simultaneously, they call on managers to allow for intensive boundary spanning and to draw actively and systematically on the day-to-day experiences, ideas and enactments of standard users.
- Talking to learn. Since sustainability and responsibility are complex issues without finite answers and solutions, the role of communication is not simply to convey prepackaged ideals and explain necessary practices. Rather, participants, including managers, need to hear themselves talk about sustainability in order to understand what the ideal means to their particular organizations and to discover the possibilities and limitations of the ideal in specific contexts.
In sum, contestation of values and assumptions and their implied practices in contested contexts such as sustainability and responsibility is necessary to cultivate a variety of perspectives, ensure commitment among involved parties and stimulate creative solutions.
See further: Christensen, L.T., Morsing, M., & Thyssen, O. (2017). License to Critique: A Communication Perspective on Sustainability Standards. Business Ethics Quarterly, 27(2): 239-262.
Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor of Communication and Organization at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.
Pic by alphaspirit, Fotolia.