In light of the COVID-19 pandemic – and other large-scale issues facing humanity – organizations all over the globe have been working to tackle challenges that are key for human flourishing, and even survival. For example, non-profit organizations, medical institutions, think tanks, and corporate CSR efforts have aimed to tackle challenges such as climate change, social inequity, and finding the cure for disease or illnesses.
However, as organizations aim to address these important societal issues, they are likely to find that it’s hard to tackle grand challenges. Given the magnitude of the issues they seek to address, and the difficulty in doing so, organizations may never fully realize their goals. In such situations, progress is often slow, and failures and setbacks are almost inevitable.
Literature on how organizations might tackle grand challenges in society has only just started to accumulate in the last decade. The current literature focuses on action-based solutions for promoting success in organizations tackling grand challenges. Namely, there is a strong emphasis on the need to effectively coordinate and organize people or resources, as pathways toward success.
Yet, emotions are likely to play a big role in how organizations persist toward their goals in the face of frustration. Indeed, they usually do. When we are faced with traumas and challenges inherent in solving existential problems in society, the realities of how difficult it is to solve such problems quickly comes to light.
Solving grand challenges is like Sisyphus, a Greek mythological character who continually rolls a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. In organizations attempting to tackle some of the world’s biggest issues, emotions are likely to mount when setbacks are encountered or goals are blocked.
We found that hope – an anticipatory emotion that emerges in light of challenging circumstances – bubbles up in such situations. Specifically, we found that organizations tackling grand challenges may build hope cultures, which we define as assumptions, beliefs, norms, and practices that propagate hopeful thoughts and behaviors in pursuit of an organization’s goals. We uncovered that hope cultures play an important, and unexpected, role in helping organizations keep going as they tackle grand challenges. They can also be a double edged sword, stifling progress when the hope culture itself starts to wane in strength.
In a two year ethnographic study, we examined Light for the Future, an organization aiming to tackle the societal grand challenge of commercial sex exploitation. Commercial sex exploitation is a form of gender-based violence and can include such experiences as forced or coercive prostitution and human trafficking. The organization aims to address this grand challenge through a year-long residential rehabilitation program, which provides legal, social, psychological, and health-related services to women who have survived commercial sex exploitation.
We interviewed residents and staff, as well as gathered frequent observations of happenings within the organization over the course of the two year period. We followed best practices in qualitative methodologies to code our data. From there, we created a chronological timeline of four phases which were marked by key events happening in and around the organization, which either bolstered or diminished the hope culture’s strength over time.
Through our analysis, we found that a hope culture existed within Light for the Future. Further, we uncovered that the hope cultures consisted of three key principles. These principles were: 1) collective agency, or a feeling that the organization could be successful if members banded together, 2) a belief that the organization was leveraging effective methods and practices for achieving their goals, and 3) a collective, shared vision for a more desirable future. Given the importance and magnitude of their goals, Light for the Future paid close attention to unfolding events happening in and around the organization, in order to determine whether or not they resonated with the key principles of their hope culture.
Across the four time periods, we found that, when events suggested that the hope culture’s principles were accurate, hopeful stories spread throughout the organization. For example, our first time period, called “Hopes Running High” was marked by positive, hopeful narratives about the organization’s success. Residents were achieving their goals and the organization was fulfilling its mission to provide a new life to survivors of commercial sex exploitation. As a result, positive emotions spread throughout the organization and the hope culture strengthened.
But, over time, events started to unfold that called the hope culture into question (e.g., relapses, deaths, disciplinary issues). During our second time period, called “Harsh Realities Take Hold”, hopeless stories began to circulate. As these stories spread, negative emotions caught on throughout the collective and slowly weakened the hope culture.
During the third time period, “Disappointed Hopes Lead to Emotional Rock Bottom”, the tragic death of a model resident caused hopeless stories and negative emotions to eclipse positive ones. Yet, in the fourth time period, “Hope on the Rebound”, a new group of residents breathed new life into the organization, restoring past positive narratives and emotions.
Across phases, as positive or negative emotions spread, the organization either became energized toward their goals or grew increasingly less vibrant (respectively). When the organization was energized, they were more likely to continue striving toward their goals. Contrastingly, when they were de-energized, they contracted their goals.
Overall, we found that hope cultures operate as double-edged swords in organizations tackling society’s biggest problems. They can both contribute to, and get in the way of goal progress. We also found that stories that are told about unfolding events, and the emotions that spread as result, underlie fluctuations in the strength of hope cultures.
Based on our research, we suggest that organizations anticipate the double-edged sword of hope, to brace themselves for inevitable challenges to come. We also recommend that organizations carefully attend to and manage narratives about unfolding events, and emotions that spread as a result. In doing so, organizations might better stay the course when tackling grand challenges and continue to promote human flourishing.
Katina Sawyer and Judith Clair. “Hope cultures in organizations: Tackling the grand challenge of commercial sex exploitation” in Administrative Science Quarterly 2021.
Image: jplenio via Pixabay.