When organisational purposes conflict: leading with deliberate vagueness

Traditional leadership models tend to emphasise the importance of clarity and of aligning organisational members behind a single, powerful vision or purpose.

But what happens when there is no single purpose?

An increasing number of organisations are seeking new solutions to societal challenges by deliberately embracing competing principles, such as profits and social impact. Established methods for managing the tensions inherent in these hybrid organisations are separation (a standalone commercial arm is created, for example) or blending (such as developing a common organisational identity that attempts to blend beliefs and activities). However, the potential for conflict is high, and sometimes such solutions simply won’t work, particularly when the principles of the organisation seem irreconcilable or deeply conflicting. How, then, can the leaders of such organisations address the challenge of working with more than one goal or purpose?

In the Academy of Management Journal paper 'God at work’: engaging central and incompatible institutional logics through elastic hybridity authors Ali Aslan Gümüsay, Michael Smets and Tim Morris draw on a 24-month ethnographic case study of the opening of the first Islamic bank in Germany, the KT Bank. The highly personal nature of faith and the incompatibility of Islamic teaching with much of conventional Western banking practice make the competing logics in this case particularly intense.  

The study reveals that leaders at KT Bank used ambiguity to give people the flexibility to make the bank ‘theirs.’ Rather than imposing a fixed position on religion and market, they made it possible for everyone to comprehend the venture from their own viewpoint and strike a personal balance.

There were two mechanisms by which this was achieved. Polysemy—literally ‘multiple meanings’—describes the way in which leaders deliberately cultivated vagueness around organisational purpose and the way that KT Bank balanced its religious and commercial ambitions. This created space for flexible interpretations of their visual and verbal presentations. For example, images on calendars or products used subtle religious symbols; people versed in Islam would recognise their religious connotation, but others could enjoy them as artistic or cultural artifacts. Campaign slogans played on double meanings in German that both signalled religious commitments not to speculate or trade in improper goods, and also could be construed simply as a distinctive market position.

Polyphony—'many voices’—is the way in which staff themselves found ways to maintain their personal balance between market and religion by moving between different physical places, times or languages. The prayer room, for example, was where people could temporarily retreat from work and decompress from faith-work conflicts and anxieties. Flexible work times allowed people to accommodate religious practices within the working day. And people expressed religious sentiments in Turkish or Arabic, rather than in the official office languages of English and German.

The interplay between these two mechanisms allow the bank to accommodate highly diverse views and practices while maintaining organisational unity. Individuals strike their own personal balance between the competing logics and manage any potential conflicts with the balances struck by others through making one logic less central in a particular place, time and/or language. This state of dynamic tension is described as elastic hybridity. Both logics remain central to the organisation, but individuals are constantly moving between the two, prioritising one and then the other or re-engaging with both.  This affords the organisation the resilience to bend without breaking.

'God at work’: engaging central and incompatible institutional logics through elastic hybridity is co-authored by Ali Aslan Gümüsay, Michael Smets, and Tim Morris, and is published in the Academy of Management Journal.