As any supermarket manager can tell you, one of the headaches of being a grocer is ensuring that the produce the customers want is available when they want it. If that means shipping blueberries in January from Californian fields to New York stores, then that’s what many supermarkets do. But the problem becomes even more complicated when the grocery store in question is a for-profit natural foods store, one that promotes itself as environmentally sound and socially responsible.
“This is an example of a social–business hybrid that has to manage tensions between competing demands,” says Marya Besharov, Organizational Behavior. “Do you truck in the blueberries from far away to give your customers what they want and make a profit? Or do you support local farmers who have only root vegetables available, in order to stay true to your social mission? You may lose a lot of sales doing that.”
Idealists versus Capitalists in a Retail Environment
Besharov studies hybrid organizations in all their many forms. Her research on the natural foods chain Whole Foods Market focused on how the dual missions—social and economic—played out for the company’s retail employees, who may have completely different attachments to the mission. “Some people are there because of the social mission,” Besharov says. “The alternative for them is to work at a cooperative or crusade for sustainability. They are idealists. Others used to work at a conventional supermarket. They are capitalists—focused on operations, on the growth and profitability of their department or store.”
Normally, these two groups would have misunderstandings and conflicts between them, Besharov says. Employees who are most strongly idealists or capitalists might start to feel disenfranchised and may even quit. But that is not the case at Whole Foods. Besharov wanted to understand why; what holds these disparate groups together? She found that the answer lay with the pluralists.
The Pluralists and Integrative Solutions
“Pluralists see the benefits of both sides,” Besharov says. “They are usually managers who respect the social mission but also see the value of the business, and they believe the two can be mutually reinforcing.” Pluralists hold idealists and capitalists together through their own values as well as by their management practices.
“Pluralists emphasize integrative solutions, opportunities where the social mission and the business can both benefit,” Besharov says. At Whole Foods, for instance, they developed an employee “zero waste” competition to support the company’s sustainability mission. When promoting the event to employees, they emphasized not only the environmental benefits but also the cost savings it would generate.
Pluralists also let each group know they are valued through the business practices they adopt. They tell employees to “leave the dogma out of the workplace,” for example. “They will say things like, ‘We are here to give customers a choice. It’s not our place to tell a customer a diet Coke is bad for them,’” Besharov explains. By removing explicit social mission advocacy, in this instance, pluralists make the workplace more hospitable and appealing for capitalist employees.
At the same time, pluralist managers also ensure that work practices supporting Whole Foods’ social mission are routine and required at their stores. For instance, they might emphasize relationship-building with local farmers. “It’s not an option for employees,” says Besharov. “It’s not just something they should do if they care about farmers; it is actually a required part of their jobs. This takes out some of the discretion around the social mission.” Protecting the social mission in that way appeals to idealist employees.
The lessons from Whole Foods are applicable to a variety of situations in all kinds of organizations, Besharov says, from traditional for-profit businesses to nonprofits to social–business hybrids. “You need to have pluralists who serve an integrating role between people who don’t see both sides,” she says. Take a traditional corporation torn between efficiency and innovation. Pluralists may be crucial to bridge the gap between employees who strongly value the existing products the company is known for and those tasked with creating innovative new products. Having people who can honor and retain what both sides care about will contribute to company success.
What Happens When Cooperative Communities Outgrow Their Informal Structures?
Besharov has also turned her attention to cooperative communities that started as individuals banding together to make participative decisions and eventually grew so large that some form of hierarchy had to be adopted. Together with Siobhan O’Mahony of Boston University and Katherine Chen of the City College of New York, Besharov looked at the Burning Man Arts Community and the Open Source Software Community.
Burning Man, which revolves around a week-long, yearly event, is a community dedicated to art, self-expression, and self-reliance. Open Source consists of ongoing projects that allow anyone to contribute code to create open-source software. In both communities, individuals are encouraged to join and actively contribute their opinions and expertise to the overall goal. As the communities grew larger, however, they had to introduce some formal structures in order to coordinate participants’ activities. The challenge was to formalize while staying true to their beliefs in participatory decision-making and individual expression.
“First, they integrated pieces of traditional corporate structure with pieces of collective participation and decision-making.”
“It turns out they did three key things to successfully address this challenge,” says Besharov. “First, they integrated pieces of traditional corporate structure with pieces of collective participation and decision-making. For example, they created a formal organization but then limited what it could do. It can’t govern everything in the community.”
The second key aspect to the communities’ evolution was their willingness to continue to discuss and debate issues. “They don’t believe they have to resolve everything,” Besharov says. “They allow for ongoing debate. At Burning Man, they debated how to interface with the police and not break the law but still stay true to the nature of their community. They don’t expect that conversation to be completely finished.”
Finally, these organizations do have some extremes that they reject outright. “They realized they would need some structure,” Besharov says. “They said, ‘We can’t go to scale with no hierarchy.’ So they rejected that extreme, but at the same time they rejected the extreme of becoming a traditional hierarchical organization.
“It’s a very mindful, deliberate process,” she continues. “It’s complicated. It involves tensions and conflicts. And it comes at a price. If efficiency were the only objective, you would not do this. But that’s not their goal. Their goal is to preserve their values as they grow, and it appears to be working.”