Sub-theme 09: [SWG] Change for Good? Organizational Paradoxes and Unintended Consequences of Transforming Modern Societies

Tobias Hahn
ESADE Business School, Spain
Paula Jarzabkowski
Cass Business School, United Kingdom, & University of Queensland Business School, Australia
Eric Knight
University of Sydney Business School, Australia

Call for Papers

Modern societies are besieged with grand challenges such as climate change, poverty alleviation, migration, digital transformations, gender inequality, and societal resilience (Howard-Grenville et al., 2016). Addressing these grand challenges in ways that are transformative for society requires collective and collaborative action across multiple organizations that have different and often competing interests. The complexity of such societal transformation, in which solutions proposed by any particular organizational actor are only partial, and indeed may have unintended consequences for other actors, provides fertile ground for paradoxes to emerge within and across organizations (Jarzabkowski et al., 2019).
These challenges of transforming modern society are thus particularly salient contexts for exploring systemic paradoxical tensions (Hahn & Knight, forthcoming; Schad & Bansel, 2018; Smith & Lewis, 2011), as organizational actors are faced with contradictory demands that are persistent and that can only be addressed through interdependent action (Putnam et al., 2016; Schad et al., 2016). Such paradoxes are often nested, involving tensions between stability and change (Farjoun, 2010), temporal tensions between the short term and the long term (Slawinski & Bansal, 2015), tensions around scale and space (Bowen et al., 2018) and tensions between different outcomes in economic, environmental, and social domains (Hahn et al., 2015). These tensions may be latent for some actors within a system, even as they are salient for others (Jarzabkowski et al., 2018), shifting between contexts as the consequences of actions by some actors, raise contradictions for others (Schad & Bansal, 2018).
Paradox theory and the study of how actors construct and enact paradoxical tensions as they respond to them (Bednarek et al., 2017; Knight & Paroutis, 2017; Lê & Bednarek, 2017) can offer novel insights into the dynamics by which organizations are involved in societal transformation. A paradox lens provides insights into the contradictory and yet interdepende nt nature of action, in which seemingly well intentioned actions in response to the demands for societal transformation, give rise to unintended or even negative consequences. For example, efforts to address poverty reduction through market mechanisms, such as microfinance, can actually end up exacerbating poverty (Banerjee & Jackson, 2017), because of the different ways that actors construct and respond to the problems that they experience. Essentially, the systemic, boundary spanning nature of societal transformations gives rise to nested and interwoven tensions, whereby the construction of and response to one set of tensions can inform, challenge, and create other tensions across different levels of analysis (Hahn & Knight, forthcoming; Sheep et al., 2017; Smith et al., 2017).
Hence, paradox theory offers a fruitful lens to study the tensions, interdependencies and unintended consequences that arise within and between organizations within overarching efforts for social transformation (Jarzabkowski et al., 2018; Schad & Bansal, 2018). At the same time, change and transformations can be disruptive and threatening, resulting in debilitating tensions that highlight not only unintended consequences but even a dark side of organizational paradox (van Bommel & Spicer, 2017). We thus need to be more aware of how actors’ constructions of and responses to the tensions arising within societal transformation may or may not be a force for good.
In this sub-theme, we welcome submissions that address paradoxes, tensions, dualities, and dialectics that explore contradicting, yet interdependent elements. In particular, we look for scholarly work on paradoxes and tensions at the interface between the organization and wider societal and/or natural systems and research on how organizations and organizational actors are affected by and respond to paradoxical tensions that arise from societal transformations.

Specifically, we invite papers that explore some of the following, illustrative questions:

  • Paradox and societal change. What kind of tensions are triggered by grand societal transformations? Under what conditions can organizations harness the generative potential of paradoxical tensions to work towards positive organizational and social change? What is the role of conflicting temporal and spatial scales in organizational responses societal challenges? Which tensions paradoxes from topic areas and societal challenges have not yet been studied so far?

  • Interwoven and nested tensions. How do organizations and organizational actors perceive and respond to interwoven and nested tensions, especially around grand societal transformations? What are the dynamics among interwoven and nested sets of tensions? How external factors influence the emergence and persistence of interwoven and nested sets of tensions?

  • The role of power. What is the role of power in paradoxical tensions around change and transformations? How do powerful actors shape the perception and response of organizational actors to paradoxical tensions? What is the role of power in enabling or impeding organizations and organizational actors to leverage paradox to channel change into desirable directions?

  • Practices. What are the antecedence and consequences of individual, organizatio nal, collective practices to respond to paradoxical tensions around change and societal transformations? What are the practices that enact, alleviate, or exacerbate paradoxical tensions around change and societal transformations? When do tensions between stability and change create or undermine the adaptation of practices and routines to address grand challenges?

  • Systems perspective. How do paradoxes in different subsystems of complex adaptive systems interact? Can paradoxical thinking help organizational actors to cope with systemic change?

  • Unintended consequences. How do the dynamics of responding to paradoxical tensions by some actors give rise to unintended or negative consequences that may actually exacerbate tensions for others? Can such actions indicate a dark side to the paradoxical intentions involved in transforming society?



  • Bednarek, R., Paroutis, S., & Sillince, J. (2017): “Transcendence through rhetorical practices: Responding to paradox in the science sector.” Organization Studies, 38 (1), 77–101.
  • Bowen, F.E., Bansal, P., & Slawinski, N. (2018): “Scale matters: The scale of environmental issues in corporate collective actions.” Strategic Management Journal, 39 (5), 1411–1436.
  • Farjoun, M. (2010): “Beyond dualism: Stability and change as a duality.” Academy of Management Review, 35 (2), 202–225.
  • Ferraro, F., Etzion, D., & Gehman, J. (2015): “Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited.” Organization Studies, 36 (3), 1605–1625.
  • George, G., Howard-Grenville, J., Joshi, A., & Tihanyi, L. (2016): “Understanding and Tackling Societal Grand Challenges through Management Research.” Academy of Management Journal, 59 (6), 1880–1895.
  • Hahn, T., & Knight, E. (forthcoming): “The Ontology of Organizational Paradox: A Quantum Approach.” Academy of Management Review, first published online on September 30, 2019;
  • Hahn, T., Pinkse, J., Preuss, L., & Figge, F. (2015): “Tensions in Corporate Sustainability: Towards an Integrative Framework.” Journal of Business Ethics, 127 (2), 297–316.
  • Jarzabkowski, P., Bednarek, R., & Lê, J.K. (2018): “Studying paradox as process and practice: Identifying and following moments of salience and latency.” In: M. Farjoun, W. Smith, A. Langley & H. Tsoukas (eds.): Dualities, Dialectics, and Paradoxes in Organizational Life. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 175–194.
  • Jarzabkowski, P., Bednarek, R., Chalkias, K., & Cacciatori, E. (2019): “Exploring inter-organizational paradoxes: Methodological lessons from a study of a grand challenge.” Strategic Organization, 17 (1), 120–132.
  • Knight, E., & Paroutis, S. (2017): “Becoming salient: the TMT leader’s role in shaping the interpretive context of paradoxical tensions.” Organization Studies, 38 (3–4), 403–432.
  • Lê, J.K., & Bednarek, R. (2017): “Paradox in everyday practice: Applying practice-theoretical principles to paradox.” In: W.K. Smith, M.W. Lewis, P. Jarzabkowski & A. Langley (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Paradox. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 490–509.
  • Putnam, L.L., Fairhurst, G.T., & Banghart, S.G. (2016): “Contradictions, dialectics, and paradoxes in organizations: A constitutive approach.” Academy of Management Annals, 10 (1), 65–171.
  • Schad, J., & Bansal, P. (2018): “Seeing the Forest and the Trees: How a Systems Perspective Informs Paradox Research.” Journal of Management Studies, 55 (8), 1490–1506.
  • Schad, J., Lewis, M.W., Raisch, S., & Smith, W.K. (2016): “Paradox research in management science: Looking back to move forward.” Academy of Management Annals, 10 (1), 5–64.
  • Sheep, M.L., Fairhurst, G.T., & Khazanchi, S. (2017): “Knots in the Discourse of Innovation: Investigating Multiple Tensions in a Reacquired Spin-off.” Organization Studies, 38 (3–4), 463–488.
  • Slawinski, N., & Bansal, P. (2015): “Short on time: Intertemporal tensions in business sustainability.” Organization Science, 26 (2), 531–549.
  • Smith, W.K., Erez, M., Jarvenpaa, S., Lewis, M.W., & Tracey, P. (2017): “Adding Complexity to Theories of Paradox, Tensions, and Dualities of Innovation and Change. Introduction to Organization Studies Special Issue on Paradox, Tensions, and Dualities of Innovation and Change.” Organization Studies, 38 (3–4), 303–317.
  • Smith, W.K., & Lewis, M.W. (2011): “Toward a theory of paradox: A dynamic equilibrium model of organizing.” Academy of Management Review, 36 (2), 381–403.
  • van Bommel, K., & Spicer, A. (2017): “Critical Management Studies and Paradox.” In: In: W.K. Smith, M.W. Lewis, P. Jarzabkowski & A. Langley (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Paradox. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 143–161.
Tobias Hahn is Professor of Business Sustainability at ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. His research on paradox focuses on how individuals make sense of paradox as well as on organizational tensions and paradoxes around business sustainability. His work related to these interests has appeared in ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Organization Studies’, and ‘Journal of Business Ethics’.
Paula Jarzabkowski is Professor of Strategic Management at Cass Business School, City, University of London, United Kingdom, and at University of Queensland Business School, Australia. Paula’s research focuses on the practice of strategy and markets in pluralistic and paradoxical contexts. Her work on these topics has appeared in ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Organization Science’, ‘Strategic Management Journal’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’ and ‘Organization Studies’. She is also co-editor of the recently published “Oxford Handbook of Organizational Paradox”.
Eric Knight is an Associate Professor of Strategic Management and Innovation at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. His research on paradox focuses on how organizational actors use discursive, cognitive, and visual practices to deal with strategic tensions, especially in relation to exploration and exploitation demands. Eric’s work in these areas has appeared in journals such as ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Strategic Management Journal’, and ‘Organization Studies’.