Can organizations serve multiple “masters” without degenerating?

Can organizations serve multiple “masters” without degenerating?

Ever since I was an undergraduate student (maybe even during high school), I have always wondered whether individuals or organizations can serve multiple stakeholders without sacrificing one. Jim Collins, as he popularized in his book Built to Last, contended that organizations that are truly built to last are capable of overcoming the “tyranny of the ‘or'” and embracing the “genius of the ‘and'” .

This is way easier said and written than done. In our research on social enterprises, businesses, and organizations with social purpose, managers can experience tensions in balancing different bottomlines. Those who are able to serve the master of profits and the master of social development are typically veteran entrepreneurs with the luxury of experience, networks, and other resources. These changemakers typically serve as catalysts that stimulate an ecosystem of support—composed of businesses, civil society, and government—towards the fulfillment of a mission.

In her award-winning presentation titled “Two routes to degeneration, two routes to utopia: A critical realist approach to performativity in alternative organizations” at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting 2022, Dr. Genevieve Shanahan discussed why organizations degenerate in terms of their goals and in terms of their structure. She contended that mission drift happens when organizations have to pivot their goals to practically compete with dominant players in the industry. If these organizations persist, they risk being competitively beaten by the same dominant players. In terms of organizational structure, if individuals or top-level leaders are invested in more mainstream and profit-driven initiatives, the organization will abandon its social mission. On the other end, if top-level leaders resist being pragmatic in the face of the great forces exerted by the industry, the organization cannot move forward in its vision.

Overcoming these extremes requires continuous reflection both by the leaders of the organization and its members. Shanahan shares two strategies: symbiotic and interstitial. The former is concerned with strategies for gradually changing the current system in ways that are acceptable to dominant powers while also laying the groundwork for future emancipatory struggles. The latter is focused on creating new models of empowerment in the margins of society, frequently in contexts where they do not appear to pose a direct threat to the dominant powers.

For a social purpose organization to truly achieve its mission, it requires a reflective dance—understanding the extremes and finding the golden mean. Too much deferment to the ruling powers renders an organization a sell-out; too much stubborness does not practically accomplish the necessary steps to actually make things happen.

Thus, to truly serve multiple “masters”, an organization can never do it in autopilot. Or else, it will be pulled into many different directions, and it risks losing its identity and mission in the process. Maybe this is why the gospel mentions that no one person can serve two masters—it is too difficult. But if it is not just one person, if it is a collective, an organization that dares to do so, maybe there is a miracle waiting at the middle of the seemingly extreme. Where the organization overthrows the ‘tyranny of the or’ and imbibes the ‘genius and compassion of the and’.

Luke 16:1-13. No one can serve two masters.


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