Projecting Different Identities: A Longitudinal Study of the ‘Whipsaw’ Effects of Changing Leadership Discourse About the Triple Bottom Line

The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 2015, Vol. 51(3) 336– 374

39 Pages Posted: 16 Oct 2015  

Julie Bayle-Cordier

Catholic University of Lille - IESEG School of Management

Philip Mirvis

Independent

Bertrand Moingeon

HEC Paris - Strategy & Business Policy

Date Written: October 13, 2015

Abstract

This paper focuses on changes in leadership’s discourse about the “triple bottom line” in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream from its founding days through to its acquisition by and integration into Unilever. For this study, we analyzed CEO claims about “who we are” from their letters in annual reports (what we label projected identity). A sample of employees (both long-service and relative newcomers) were interviewed about their perceptions of B&J’s over the thirty years covered.

Findings reveal that successive CEO’s stressed different “logics” about the business and what would make it successful over the years with the founders emphasizing a strong linkage between the economic, product, and social components of the company’s triple bottom line and their next three successors decoupling these components and pushing, each in different ways, for stronger financial returns. As a result, organization members were “whipsawed” between their CEOs’ different logics and identity claims.

The CEO letters exhibit a progression over time from a more normative to utilitarian tone familiar in the organizational identity literature. The messaging shifts, however, when a fifth CEO takes charge and re-integrates the firm’s triple bottom line. Thus the firm’s projected identity evolved in a U pattern starting with an integrated triple bottom line logic, shifting to a more linear logic where the economic mission dominates, and then reintegration where multiple bottom lines are embraced once again.

Here we explore both the strategic (external) and personal (internal) challenges informing the different CEOs’ messages over years, the whipsaw effect on staff, and the longer term evolution of projected identity in the company and reemergence of its integrated triple bottom line. This study contributes to the CSR and organization identity literatures by documenting how CEO’s (and their company) must struggle with maintaining an integrated triple bottom line in the context of commercial challenges and major changes involved in M&A. It also speaks to the practical matters of keeping normative traditions alive amidst competing pressures for change.

Keywords: Leadership, corporate social responsibility, triple bottom line, mergers & acquisitions, managerial discourse, projected identity

Suggested Citation

Bayle-Cordier, Julie and Mirvis, Philip and Moingeon, Bertrand, Projecting Different Identities: A Longitudinal Study of the ‘Whipsaw’ Effects of Changing Leadership Discourse About the Triple Bottom Line (October 13, 2015). The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 2015, Vol. 51(3) 336– 374. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2673486

Julie Bayle-Cordier (Contact Author)

Catholic University of Lille - IESEG School of Management ( email )

3 Rue de la Digue
Office: A321
Puteaux, 92800
France

Philip Mirvis

Independent ( email )

Ipswich, MA
United States

Bertrand Moingeon

HEC Paris - Strategy & Business Policy ( email )

Jouy-en-Josas Cedex, 78351
France

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