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The cultural change work of change agents without formal authority: Integrating sustainability into an organization’s culture

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
Author: Pek, Simon
Organizations are increasingly engaging in efforts to change their cultures. Reflecting this practitioner interest, scholars have explored how organizations can change their cultures, and the everyday actions of employees, to address concerns and opportunities including safety, sustainability, and diversity. Yet much research to date on the microprocesses of culture change focuses on the work of senior leaders, who tend to have the important advantage of formal authority, and on the catalyzing roles of crises and social transformations. We know relatively little about the microprocesses of cultural change, particularly when undertaken by individuals without formal authority. In my dissertation, I seek to shed light on the work undertaken by change agents to support cultural change, what I refer to as cultural change work. Drawing on recent research on work, I conceptualize cultural change work as effortful actions to integrate focal element(s) into other elements of an organization’s culture. Adopting an emergent and inductive research strategy, I study the cultural change work of a team of change agents rolling out a sustainability-oriented cultural change initiative at ManufactureCo, a North America-based global technology manufacturing company. Based on my analysis, I developed two pathways of cultural change – the cultural elevation pathway, and the cultural integration pathway – both of which are underpinned by different forms of direct cultural change work. I also identified three forms of indirect cultural change work, which refers to efforts to improve one’s capacity to undertake direct cultural change work, and unpacked the mechanisms through which each can support, and is in turn supported by, direct cultural change work. My dissertation makes three contributions to research on organizational culture and cultural change work. First, it expands our understanding of factors that constrain and enable the deployment of culture. Second, it lends insights into how change agents can improve their own capacity to undertake direct cultural change work through engaging in indirect cultural change work. Third, it expands our understanding of the nature of cultural change work by pointing to the effects of tailored versus broad work. Collectively, these contributions paint a picture of change agents as savvy navigators of culture that combine an appreciation for their organization’s culture with a diverse repertoire of cultural change work. My dissertation also makes numerous contributions to practice, providing change agents and designers of cultural change initiatives with specific guidance on how to structure their initiatives and how to successfully affect changes in meanings and actions.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Bertels, Stephanie
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