28 Mar

Resistance patterns in CSR 


All CSR leaders encounter resistance. They know what it is about. Its’ nearly part of the job!
Let’s try to understand how it works, because this helps growing consciousness on how to handle it or to dance around it.

 A CSR Leader, multinational corporation


Resistance in implementing CSR


Most CSR leaders witness “huge amounts of resistance”. For a minority, resistance has become much lower in the company, but CSR leaders are the ones to tackle the limits anyway, so even if the average resistance is lower, they get it.


Why? How come?


Implementing a CSR strategy implies changing and innovating. It implies moving in unknown fields. It also may reveal contradictions with more direct policies towards profit. So it drives anxiety. It suggests stimulating individual responsibility. Behind this anxiety lies the notion of risk.


Two types of risks appear:          


1/ risks of fragilizing financial results, which is very scary and not admitted,

2/ the risk of stepping out of the box, of stepping out of one’s role , of the primary task.


When facing these risks, people may react differently. Some may resist. Resistance may take different forms and degrees. And how do people resist? They develop defense mechanisms. The process is partly conscious, and partly unconscious.           


Understanding them enables CSR leaders to ‘untangle’ what comes from individuals with their own personality and situation, and what comes from their roles. This in turn enables to recognize patterns and address them more efficiently.


Resistance patterns in CSR


We have researched resistance in CSR. We have interviewed CSR leaders and asked them to describe what the resistances they encountered with different people in their organization looked like. We were not interested in the content, but in the forms and typical speeches they were hearing.

The first point is that most leaders did not feel so much denial regarding the issues carried by CSR, or by ethics and sustainability. A general acknowledgement that these societal problems need to be addressed by business has indeed developed in collective consciousness. The denial is not about their existence but about their relation to business.


We have mapped the typical patterns of resistance we were told about in 4 groups. Each group corresponds to typical attitudes and reactions that are summarized by one key statement :

  • First pattern: “It’s not my business (model)!”       

This pattern is often personified, some CSR leaders refer to ‘the cynical leader’: his/her only concern is the bottom line and his/her own bonus. Emotionally speaking, many don’t understand these leaders and don’t like them either. This type of person is alluded to in many organizations, especially in big ones. They overtly don’t consider that CSR is in their scope.

This pattern of resistance may concern people with managerial power, sometimes at top management, who are not receptive to CSR policies. They won’t be allies, nor CSR advocates. Their eyes are on short term profit, and they don’t seem to care neither about social nor societal nor environmental aspects of the business. The only responsibility they consider is profit.  

They reveal a form of denial, of conscious denial. But we’re also hitting another defense mechanism, unconscious this time, which is called splitting. It’s about behaving differently at work and at home. At work, people who split may appear single minded, fierce, exaggeratedly focused on profit, whereas they can be have very differently in their personal community, with a greater sense of responsibility and care for those who surround them.

Splitting as a defense mechanism is about separating excessively ‘all good’ and ‘all bad’. It occurs under different forms: splitting of the ego (FREUD), and splitting of the object (KLEIN). Here is a case of splitting of the ego. Splitting is a way to simplify problems in reaction to anxiety of change.

It’s a strong form of resistance to cope with, all the more that it may be expressed by people who have climbed high in the hierarchy.

  • Second resistance pattern: “There’s something wrong here”         

In this pattern, we have heard some degree of irritation coming along with anxiety of those who resist:             

  • Irritation occurs when people face contradiction between the CSR policy/ plan/ action and mainstream business requirements, or when there is a contrast between intentions and actions, for example when leaders, up to CEOs, don’t walk the talk. Concretely, contradictions have an emotional cost, and also represent a painful waste of time in overbooked agendas, because they may imply doing and undoing.

These experiences create doubts on the purpose of the CSR policy within one’s own corporation, or in business in general.      
The contradictions are also experienced by the CSR leader himself, who shares empathy for the distress they cause. “It’s schizophrenic!” was said several times… strong and interesting vocabulary, which participates to my conclusions on the interpretation of these patterns.

  • Skepticism may arise with the feeling that CSR in the organization is in fact not much more that greenwashing. Once installed, the feeling may be fueled quite easily by the fact that important issues are left aside, and that the focus is on less important things.

The resistance forms here tend to generate splitting as a defense mechanism. Splitting has a lot to do with feeling things are either all good, or all bad. In the present case it leads people to think it is all bad. Here we face splitting of the object: coping with environmental and social responsibility is a good thing, but here, in my organization, it’s manipulation.

Third pattern of resistance: “It’s never going to work…”     

Different arguments are opposed to the CSR leaders’ initiatives in this pattern:

  • The denial of a solution, which seems out of the box and inapplicable.       
  • The rejection of complexity, as CSR / sustainable solutions may complexify business models.       
  • Another argument is that teams will not have the competencies to adapt.
  • Another reaction involve is resistance to organizational learning: i.e. the difficulty to adopt a solution without knowing the end of the story[1]…

Implementing a CSR process implies dealing with a greater number of internal and external stakeholders. There may be a lot of end benefits, but also introduction of complexity, hence resistance.    

Concretely, this pattern results in arguing against and refusing projects that seem impossible to carry out, under a “yes, but” syntax, which is typical of denial, another defense mechanism described in psychodynamic literature.      

Denial comes in many forms, from a rare almost psychotic refusal to perceive the physical facts of the immediate environment, to the common reluctance to accept the implications of some event (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1973; Cramer, 1991; Baumeister et al. 1998).

Part of this denial is unconscious, rejecting change, because of the anxiety that it rises.

  • Fourth pattern: Great, but not my top priority

In this pattern:

  • Other tasks may compete in terms of attention and priority. The CSR plan/action/idea is then left for future consideration.
  • It may be “forgotten about”.
  • Some others feel their capacity to contribute to change is too weak to make the change that important.

These behaviors concretely result in postponing projects. They reveal denial, and passive aggression. 

 Passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a habitual pattern of non-active resistance to expected work requirements and is exhibited by indirect behaviors as procrastination, forgetfulness, and purposeful inefficiency (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).    
In organizations, passive aggression is manifested by procrastination.


  • Summary

It appears that big corporations, with all their complexity, carry a lot more of these resistance patterns, more especially in their extreme forms (splitting).


On the contrary, splitting resistance patterns seem to be lower in organizations in which the CSR policy is now embedded, and progresses are visible.


So what ?


Changing for good helps CSR leaders navigate through resistance.


Developing awareness about what patterns are at stake and what in this resistance is rather related to roles than to personality allows to address it more wisely, or to dance around it more certainly. We help you develop stances, attitudes and behaviors that help the melting of resistance.


Our team or group interventions also help your followers develop their own awareness about what hurts them in the CSR change, and to unlock defenses allowing creative stances to go further.

Driving business for good faster, more efficiently, more meaningfully.


For all.



Barabasz, A. (2016). Psychodynamic perspective of organizational change. Management (1429-9321), 20(1), 155-166. 

Baumeister, R. F., Dale, K., & Sommer, K. L. (1998). Freudian defense mechanisms and empirical findings in modern social psychology: Reaction formation, projection, displacement, undoing, isolation, sublimination, and denial. Journal of Personality, 66(6), 1081-1124. 

Burnes, B. (2015). Understanding resistance to change – building on Coch and French. Journal of Change Management, 15(2), 92-116. 

Joly, A. (2018). Leading Ethical / CSR change in Business: a Psychodynamic Perspective (EMCCC Master thesis INSEAD 2018). Consulté sur https://librarycatalogue.insead.edu/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=86829

Krantz, J., & Gilmore, T. N. (1990). The splitting of leadership and management as a social defense. Human Relations, 43(2), 183-204. 

Laplanche, J; Pontalis, JB (1973) The language of psychoanalysis, Nicholson-SmithD, Translator. New York, NK, London / Norton and Hogarth.

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