Leading an Organization Through a Triple Bottom Line Dilemma – The Perspective of Employees and Managers


The proposed study is a workplace-based project that considers Triple Bottom Line (TBL) usage from the point of view of its relationships with leadership in the context of my company and its strategic management. In other words, the study will review the way leadership can affect TBL, which is a relatively well-researched subject (Bayle-Cordier, Mirvis, & Moingeon, 2015; Fry & Nisiewicz, 2013), and the way TBL may have an impact on leadership, which does not seem to be a particularly well-researched subject. As a result of this difference in the level of representation of the two elements of the relationship, the paper is likely to focus on leadership and examine it from the point of view of its effect on TBL use, but additional investigation can change this direction. The topic is rather extensive, and it touches the areas of ethics, leadership, practice, rules of engagement (RE), and several other relevant fields.

TBL refers to the management of a company’s sustainability, which is supposed to be achieved through the balance of three Ps: people (a strategical development of human resources), planet (the incorporation of environmental sustainability into the company’s strategy), and profit (finance-concerned strategic development) (Lenka & Tiwari, 2016). According to Lenka and Tiwari (2016), the major problem of modern businesses, which attempt to adopt TBL, is that a positive performance with respect to the two former Ps seems to be difficult to balance with appropriate financial performance. The dilemma appears to be very difficult to resolve, but leadership seems to be able to respond to it (Fry & Nisiewicz, 2013; Wahid & Mustamil, 2017). In particular, successful leadership is expected to improve the adoption of the notion of TBL and ensure the development of a framework that would inform managerial decisions with respect to the dilemma (Wahid & Mustamil, 2017). However, various perspectives on the specifics of the resolution exist: for instance, particular styles of leadership are expected to be helpful or specific leaders’ traits are viewed as necessary for TBL management (Bayle-Cordier et al., 2015; Fry & Nisiewicz, 2013). Thus, the topic of the leading a company through TBL dilemma requires additional investigation, preferably, with the aim of achieving customized results for my company.

The topic is in line with my typical direction of research and practice. In general, the proposed study is a continuation of my investigation of ethical and sustainable leadership, which is the primary reason for the choice of the phenomena to be studied. Apart from that, the topic is of interest to me because of its relevance for my company, which is a leader in the global oil and gas industry. The company currently experiences a downturn, which reflects the recent economic events: the recession of 2008 resulted in a noticeable strain, and the company was further destabilized by the plunge in oil prices. The issues resulted in layoffs, and the company, including the Sub-Saharan region that I work at, still struggles to overcome them and achieve desired performance with respect to the three Ps. This fact results in its need for improved leadership in a variety of fields, including TBL use. In particular, improved leadership in the field of TBL use can help to enhance the company’s sustainability, which is a very desired outcome for it in the uncertain present. In addition, the focus of the project will include both employees’ and managers’ perspectives: I assume that the two are not unlikely to complement each other and offer a more comprehensive view on the topic. As a result of the intersection of the two perspectives, I suppose that the proposed study will be capable of identifying issues or positive elements of the current situation and informing managerial action with respect to leadership in TBL specifically within the context of my company. Thus, the proposed project is of interest to me personally and professionally, and I hope that it will also have some practical implications for myself and my colleagues as we lead our company through its current challenges and dilemmas.
To sum up, the problem that drives the current work consists of the TBL issues experienced by the company. It can be described as the difficulties in managing the dilemma of the three Ps in the context of the overall decline in performance that the company attempts to improve through a variety of tools, which include leadership. The need for the effective use of this tool is the inspiration of the proposed study.

The problem can be used to produce the following Research Question (RQ) and sub-questions:

  • RQ: how can the interrelationship between TBL and leadership be employed in developing practical guidelines on the strategic and sustainable management of the TBL dilemma for the Sub-Saharan subdivision of my company?


  1. What are the relationships (interrelationships) between TBL and leadership? In other words, how can leadership affect TBL and how can TBL affect leadership?
  2. What consequences can the mentioned patterns have for the practice of leadership, managerial decision-making, rules of engagement, and crisis management?
  3. How can these patterns be employed in the context of the Sub-Saharan subdivision of the company, especially with respect to the management of the TBL dilemma?

Thus, the Research Aim is to find the practical application of the interrelationships between TBL and leadership for the Sub-Saharan subdivision of my company with a focus on TBL dilemma resolution that should be strategically aimed at enhancing the company’s sustainability.

Your role in the research

Multiple factors enable me to undertake and successfully carry out the proposed research. I have twenty years of experience as an employee of my company, and throughout these years, I have been holding managerial positions in its various affiliations in different countries. Currently, I hold a middle-level position in the company’s management matrix, and I am working in the subdivisions of our company that are located in seven countries of the Sub-Saharan Africa region (Angola, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria) as a project management and unit sales professional. Thus, I am a very knowledgeable insider with a certain level of autonomy and authority over other employees.

Both these aspects should facilitate research activities for me, even though I admit that the limitation of insider bias is also applicable to my case. In an attempt to resolve the issue, I will be granted a year off my duties and reporting specifically to help me distance myself from the situation and be more objective. Thus, I will have the opportunity to retain insider knowledge while also reducing some of the insider bias that I am likely to exhibit.

Literature contribution

Based on a preliminary investigation, it can be suggested that the current literature represents the topic of the impact that leadership can have on the effectiveness of the use of TBL with the aim of improving the sustainability of a company. Thus, the topic of the study is at least partially discussed by modern research. However, one of its elements (the potential impact of TBL on leadership) does not seem to be equally well-researched. It can be suggested that some indirect reference to a reciprocal relationship can be found in the fact that ethical leadership has been demonstrated to be beneficial for stakeholder engagement (Fry & Nisiewicz, 2013, p. 276). In other words, since TBL is directly related to business ethics, its implementation can strengthen leadership by making it ethical from the point of view of stakeholders. Still, direct references to TBL affecting leadership have not been found through the preliminary research. Despite this fact, both elements of the relationship will be considered in the proposed study, but the existence of literature on one of them is likely to make its investigation easier and better informed.

The key themes of the relevant literature include the use of particular types of leadership to improve the effectiveness and facilitate the implementation of TBL (Fry & Nisiewicz, 2013; Lenka & Tiwari, 2016; Wahid & Mustamil, 2017). Apart from that, specific leadership activities and leader traits that can help to achieve the successful use of TBL for sustainability are also investigated (Bayle-Cordier et al., 2015; Fry & Nisiewicz, 2013). It is noteworthy that the encountered studies seem to relate TBL to a kind of spirituality-based leadership. In particular, Fry and Nisiewicz (2013) and Wahid and Mustamil (2017) believe that spiritual leadership, which is a broad term related to spiritual values, faith, and altruism, is capable of maximizing TBL. Also, Lenka and Tiwari (2016) discuss resonant leadership, which is characterized by emotional stimulation of employees, as a vehicle for TBL-promoted sustainability. However, Lenka and Tiwari (2016) also mention spirituality as a significant component of effective resonant leadership (p. 698). As a result, all the studies from the preliminary research that promote a leadership style seem to refer to spirituality as a significant factor for TBL maximization. This finding can be explored in the proposed study, but it should not be used to limit the participants’ ability to express personal opinions on applicable styles of leadership. In general, the study does not intend to focus on any type of leadership to avoid such limitations. Also, some of the works demonstrate that leadership activities, skills, and traits are also of importance, which suggests ensuring that the study is not focused on leadership style only; other aspects of leadership should also be introduced (Bayle-Cordier et al., 2015; Fry & Nisiewicz, 2013; Quinn & Baltes, 2007).

Apart from that, the preliminary review considers other terms and leadership- or TBL-related phenomena, which includes crisis management and managerial decision-making, the practice of leadership, leadership ethics, sustainability, and RE. The interconnection of these topics with that of the proposed study is apparent: using leadership for the resolution of TBL dilemma is likely to require certain guidelines for decision-making and the practice of leadership, which are supposed to be ethical (Doh & Quigley, 2014). Also, these guidelines are intended to be strategically aimed at building sustainability (Sheehan, Garavan, & Carbery, 2014), and they would be expected to be informed by RE (Berman & Marshall, 2014). Other forms of interconnection can include the use of TBL for sustainability (Svensson et al., 2016), the connection of leadership ethics with decision-making guidelines (Doh & Quigley, 2014), and the ethical component of the TBL dilemma (Lenka & Tiwari, 2016; Jayanti & Gowda, 2014). In other words, the key notions of the Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA) are of relevance for the proposed study. The majority of these aspects appear to be well-researched on their own and in connection with TBL, but it is not true for RE: the latter does not seem to be applied to TBL often.

To sum up, the preliminary research allows constructing certain research questions. First of all, the proposed study is interested in distinguishing patterns in the relationship between leadership and TBL. Also, it is apparent that the readings on the topic are very practice-oriented, which corresponds to the general intent of the proposed study. As a result, a research question should be aimed at determining a practical application of the knowledge of the mentioned patterns. In particular, the study will target the investigation of the means of affecting TBL and leadership through patterns, which can be found in their reciprocal relationships and their interconnections with other DBA notions, with the aim of enhancing the sustainability of the company that is being studied. It is also noteworthy that the orientation of the research towards practice suggests that the subject can be effectively investigated with the help of practice-oriented action research; the latter term can be used to describe the methodology of the proposed study.

Methods and Methodology

The proposed study is guided by the intersubjective perspective, which presupposes the attention to varied experiences of different people and the value of a “witness” discussing an event. From this perspective, humans are reflexive subjects (that is, actors, constructors of reality) who are relationally embedded in the social reality; the attitude of intersubjectivism to knowledge is pragmatic and implies the acquisition of knowledge through situational knowing (Cunliffe, 2011). This ontological and epistemological approach guides the proposed work, determining appropriate methodology and the application of various methods.

The proposed study is going to use qualitative methods and be carried out in the form of an insider critical participatory action research. Qualitative methods are chosen because they appear to be particularly useful for soliciting varied views (those of managers and employees) and gaining insights into a phenomenon that is relatively under-researched. As for the method of insider action research, there are advantages and disadvantages to it. In particular, the fact that I am knowledgeable about the company and its situation is an advantage, and so are my connections with some of the employees and managers, which should facilitate recruiting. The problem of insider bias is going to be partially resolved due to the time off duty that I am offered; also, the introduction of multiple perspectives should improve my ability to be self-reflective and detect personal bias.

It is noteworthy that Kemmis, McTaggart, and Nixon (2013) specifically highlight the fact that insider research has its advantages as well. In fact, they believe that the participatory action research is based on the premise that insiders are capable of researching their practices, can benefit from the process by gaining additional understanding of these practices, and can perform it efficiently due to their direct influence on these practices and intimate knowledge of their field (Kemmis et al., 2013, p. 5). Thus, even though there are specifics of action research that should be addressed, the approach should be regarded as a facilitator from the point of view of the chosen methodology.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the findings of the research are going to be employed at the workplace, which is a major expected outcome of action research (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014). This factor should provide extra motivation for me and for other participants, which can be regarded as another advantage of insider research. It is notable that the notion of critical action research is in line with the intersubjective view of a person as a reflexive subject and a researcher as a witness developing situational knowing (Cunliffe, 2011).
Predominantly, individual interviews will be used to solicit information from employees and senior managers from several regional subdivisions of the company, including those in the US and Africa. The method involves talking directly to a respondent, which is particularly appropriate for the examination of complex topics (Hair, Celsi, Money, Samouel, & Page, 2015, pp. 200-201). As the interviewer, I will use a questionnaire to guide the process, but since I need insights and in-depth discussions, I will make the interviews only semi-structured.

Apart from that, a small focus group of employees and managers will be recruited to develop the findings. Focus groups are an exploratory, discovery-oriented data collection method, which offers a balance between structured questioning and respondents’ initiative (Hair et al., 2015, pp. 191-192). The structure is provided by the moderator, and I am going to play the role by guiding participants to explore the topic and encouraging them to explain and elaborate on their perspectives and opinions. However, the participants will have the opportunity to take the initiative and engage in an informal discussion with their peers. Such an approach to interviewing is openly intersubjective since it fosters joint reflection of the subjects (participants) on their diverse experiences (Cunliffe, 2011).

Given the fact that one of the aims of the study is to discover the perspectives of employees and managers, compare them, and introduce them to each other, the use of individual interviews and focus group discussions is particularly appropriate. Indeed, the methods focus on extracting and critically evaluating the views of the participants in an attempt to explore a topic. The exploratory nature of the methods is also of use for the proposed study since it aims to explore and evaluate leadership practices of the company in the context of TBL relationship. Indeed, this particular topic has not been researched before, which means that the aim of focus groups to discover and explore a subject suits the aims of the proposed research. Finally, it should be pointed out that both methods (especially focus groups) are an appropriate approach to action research. Indeed, a characteristic feature of action research is its focus on the participants who are regarded as researchers and collaborators rather than subjects (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014, p. 6). The collaborative nature of focus groups is apparent, which makes them applicable to critical action research, especially as tools for planning, reflecting, and evaluating change (Kemmis et al., 2013). Similarly, it can be suggested that the critical action research approach is more likely to maximize the methods’ ability to extract insightful and actionable knowledge due to its focus on collaboration (Herr & Anderson, 2014; Kemmis et al., 2013). Therefore, the tools and methods of the presented methodology seem to improve the effectiveness of each other.

Naturally, there are limitations and disadvantages to interviews. In particular, this method relies on the perspectives of its participants, which means that it might exhibit objectivity issues that need to be taken into account by the researcher. Apart from that, it is particularly important for a focus group moderator to be aware of the issue of their own bias; they need to stay objective and avoid letting their opinion interfere with the discussion (Hair et al., 2015, p. 192). Also, organizational issues are related to the method, and the coordination of group meetings is likely to be more difficult than that of personal interviews. However, the limitations and disadvantages of the method do not seem to undermine its appropriateness for the study.

An important element of a reflective action research is the process of reflection, which can be used to test the validity of the outcomes of interviews and focus group discussions. One of the methods of reflection is the use of journals and field notes, which are used to challenge the interpretations and assumptions of the investigator, expose and analyze various views, and consider them from the perspective of theoretical foundations employed by the research (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014). In general, journals are effective means of tracking the process of the changes in thinking (for example, that of learning and unlearning) and conceptualizing the problem; also, they are applicable to the process of change observation, which is meant to produce information for the evaluation of change (Kemmis et al., 2013). Due to the usefulness of the method, it is going to be employed during this research.

The sampling process is likely to involve quota sampling: quotas will be set for the participants that can be recruited from different countries; also, quotas will limit the number of participants that can belong to the two different groups (that is, employees and managers) (Hair et al., 2015, p. 176). The sample is not going to be very large, and it is going to represent different groups in roughly equal numbers. Both these approaches to sampling (the quota method and the small size) are aimed at limiting the information to be analyzed while also expanding the number of perspectives that can be country- and position-specific. Apart from that, the sampling is going to be voluntary, which can be regarded as a motivation technique; it is not expected to produce bias predominantly because the topic can hardly be viewed as sensitive.

With respect to the participants, it is assumed that any employee of the company can contribute significant information on the perspectives of the employees or managers. Also, the diversity of the employees, who are going to be recruited from different countries, is likely to introduce culturally diverse perspectives. Moreover, this diversity is expected to produce actionable data for culturally different departments, which should make the results of the research more helpful for the company. A major advantage of recruiting managers is that they have the authority and autonomy to set in motion changes in accordance with the findings of the research, and the employees are going to be the ones to be involved in the change, which makes their perspectives similarly relevant.

Moreover, the managers would be expected to have a better understanding of the specifics of the notions that are going to be considered in the proposed study. Here, it could be pointed out that the employees may lack a similar understanding and also have a limited perspective on the company’s activities and events. However, the proposed study specifically targets the differences between the perspectives of employees and managers because of the differences in their experience. The work is guided by the intersubjective idea of the employment of varied perceptions and experiences of different witnesses in research (Cunliffe, 2011). It may not be useful to interview the employees who demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the topic, but their limited perspective should not be an issue; in fact, it can be regarded as one of the objects of research. After all, the lack of TBL understanding in employees can be viewed as an important finding because it is a phenomenon that is known to limit the effectiveness of TBL promotion (Quinn & Baltes, 2007). To sum up, while a sampling procedure for the employees may require the identification of their ability to participate in a discussion on the topic, the lack of their expertise in the area is not a significant restriction in the context of the aims of the proposed study.

Finally, given the importance of producing actionable knowledge in the process of action research (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014; Herr & Anderson, 2014), the present proposal needs to consider the procedures for evaluating and applying the findings. The evaluation of the outcomes is going to consist of the determination of their feasibility (that is, the possibility of their application in the Sub-Saharan region) and their ability to contribute to the improvement of the company’s sustainability. The correspondence of the results to the aim is also a criterion of evaluation, but additional findings will not be disregarded. The process of acting is difficult to describe for the time being, but it will be based on the outcomes of the interviews and focus group discussions, and the process of evaluation is also likely to be facilitated by the same means of engaging the participants. The application will be limited to the Sub-Sahara African region, which is the place of my work; the process is expected to be facilitated by the fact that the managers of the region and headquarters are going to be engaged in it. Indeed, the research is also likely to involve the managers from the headquarters (Houston, USA), which might result in them making use of the results as well. However, the study aims to implement the findings specifically in the Sub-Sahara region, and I intend to be directly involved in the process. The specific activities are difficult to define for the time being, but they are likely to involve the review, development, and implementation of decision-making guidelines meant to assist in TBL dilemma resolution and contribute to the company’s sustainability.

To sum up, the details of at least one full action research cycle (planning, acting, and evaluating) are described above. However, the process of action research is unlikely to be linear, and the proposed plan is expected to be adjusted as more information is gained through interviews and discussions (Kemmis et al., 2013). The resulting process is described by Kemmis et al. (2013) as “self-reflective spiral” (p. 18), which will be employed to define and redefine the problem and the desired change and the methods of performing it; also, it will be used to evaluate the results and, eventually, achieve the aim of the proposed action research.


The proposed study can be regarded as feasible because multiple factors are likely to facilitate the process, including my position in my organization, the possibility to take time off duty, and my experience in action research and leadership research. Moreover, the study is not very resource-consuming. The main necessary resource is time, and the proposed study is expected to take up approximately twelve months. Time target takes into account the possibility of reframing the research; however, it is also noteworthy that the present study does not have to envision several iterations of the action research cycle, and it can end up in a suggestion for a new cycle.

Certain events can be regarded as obstacles which might result in the extension of the time target; in particular, the project can be viewed as less significant or urgent by certain participants. Indeed, they will be required to spend their time and resources on the research, which can be perceived as an obstacle by themselves unless they are convinced of the significance of the study or provided with additional incentives. No direct incentives are proposed for the time being; however, the participation in the action research is going to be voluntary with the sample consisting only of the people who are interested in the study. The fact that the investigation is aimed at improving certain aspects of the participants’ workplace can be considered motivational. My position is not going to be used as a form of pressure; however, this position makes most of the company’s departments accessible to me and ensures various forms of positive relationship with a number of potential participants. The latter can be used as a motivational factor as well; moreover, a friendly atmosphere is beneficial for focus group work (Hair et al., 2015, p. 192). Thus, the obstacles that can be encountered during study might be mitigated by some of the factors that enable me to carry out the research.


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