The findings from our study contribute to the literature on identity tensions in two ways: First, we extend the research on identity work by identifying strategies employed by lower-level green employees. Second, we contribute to literature on job crafting by demonstrating how job crafting is essentially intertwined with identity work.
Regarding identity work strategies, we find that the strategies employed in our sample differ from typologies developed for top management [14
] and sustainability managers [13
]. Green employees on lower hierarchical levels resort to identity work strategies that mirror their limited scope of action for changing the organizational context vis-à-vis top managers and sustainability managers, who do have access to corporate resources and/or formal decision-making legitimacy. The dodging strategy in particular seems to reflect the limited legroom for green initiatives that lower-level employees perceive in their formal job design: They feel themselves forced—and legitimated—to overstep formal rules and roles or to bypass formal organizational structures in order to enact their green identities. From the employees’ perspective, the actions might come close to the concept of “useful illegality” [57
], since they feel a need to transgress their competencies to better serve the “good cause” of greening the organization. In addition, the exposing strategy—similar in kind to Hirschman’s famous “voice” strategy [59
]—seems to be idiosyncratic to the green lower-level employees in our sample. While the actors in designated roles, such as sustainability managers, are ex officio and quasi automatically visible and recognizable as “the greens” in their organizations, green employees in other job roles have to find alternative ways of communicating their green orientation to colleagues and the work context at large. They do so by broadly exhibiting green artifacts (songs, stickers) or by performing repetitive scripts favoring pro-environmental behavior (reminding colleagues of double-sided printing, asking the same questions again and again).
In contrast with the strategies of distancing and deflection identified by Allen and colleagues [15
], lower-level green employees embrace and accept non-alignment, particularly with the enduring strategy. Similar to the sustainability managers investigated by Carollo and Guerci [16
], they use metaphors in their identity work to make sense of the perceived misalignment or sustainability paradox. We identify two major differences in the use of metaphors between the managers and lower-level employees: First, while the metaphors employed by managers imply progress and depict an image of green action as slowly but irresistibly affecting the whole organization (a “virus” that eventually “penetrates the organizational body”) [16
], lower-level green employees use metaphors denoting indefinite plight (a “cog”, a “marathon”, a “mill”). Second, sustainability managers use metaphors that imply a level of agency and a valuable role for the organization: The “good parents” will eventually succeed in educating their less green “children” [16
]. In addition, the metaphor of the “activist in a suit” indicates an insider role as a suit-wearing organizational man, and thus at least some kind of identification with the business world [16
]. In contrast, green lower-level employees in our study describe themselves as “weirdos” and “lone fighters” or “outsiders”, thereby marking a marginal role within the organization.
Interestingly, the green employees in our sample draw on identity work strategies that confirm and stabilize their social identities as “lone fighters” and “weirdos” rather than on those that would help in breaching their solitary positioning and in building social linkages, which eventually could boost organizational change. While dodging effectively precludes sharing and integration with others, since it needs to remain below the organizational radar, enduring and exhibiting, which involve the “mill” or “mantra”-like repetition of the same questions again and again, seem to put off others rather than draw them in regarding green issues—at least according to the narratives related by our interviewees. At the same time, actors are conscious about their needing others to eventually achieve success in their green initiatives. We propose that the identity work of green actors here turns into a vicious cycle that effectively prevents them from realizing the potential for sustainability transformation in organizations, which some authors [1
] like to ascribe to them.
Our second contribution concerns the concept of job crafting. While, so far, research on coping with identity tensions has focused on either identity work or job crafting [17
], we demonstrate with our study that identity work and job crafting, from the perspective of green actors, are highly intertwined (Figure 2
). We advance the theoretical conceptualization proposed by Kira and Balkin [17
] by concluding that narrative identity work and job crafting need to be understood as interrelated processes of coping with identity tensions. Upholding one’s identity as green in a non-supportive context involves redefining one’s job, particularly when the job itself does not directly relate to those areas of sustainability that actors are most interested in, and thus precludes enacting one’s identity through one’s assigned tasks. This is evidenced by actors such as Susan, who, as a financial accountant, additionally involves herself in tasks such as advising on procurement (paper, detergents), travel policies, energy management, and sustainability training at her workplace. The extension of one’s job toward integrating sustainability tasks thus, in turn, allows the actor to keep up her self-narration as green activist.
Contrary to the hypothesis advanced by Kira and Balkin [17
] that lower-level employees are unable to job craft but need to resort to either enduring misalignment or changing their identity construction in response to a perceived identity tension, our study demonstrates that actors do, in fact, engage in substantial job crafting in order to maintain their green identities—despite their limited formal job discretion. While they do refrain from crafting their formally assigned jobs, e.g., as technicians, they take on additional roles and tasks pretty much unconnected to their official jobs. This means that they extend their jobs outside the boundaries of their designated jobs, which are, as hypothesized by Kira and Balkin [17
], rather inflexible due to lack of autonomy and strong interdependencies. They do so by—sometimes secretly—taking on tasks of a typical sustainability professional, such as initiating green projects, training others on green issues, or readjusting corporate processes towards more sustainability. At times, this job extension is accompanied by a corresponding form of “leisure crafting” [43
], when actors pursue a second course of study or professional training in sustainability-related areas in their off time. Thus, the personal engagement in our study goes well beyond a “hobby” [43
], which, in the study of Berg et al., serves as an outlet for the “unanswered callings” of their interviewees.
In those cases, green identity work, job crafting, and leisure crafting activities are aligned in such a way that they do not just make the current work situation more endurable, but prepare for an “exit” [59
]. Such a “crafting-out-of-the-job” strategy has been successfully pursued by three of our interviewees who, after the period under study here, moved into greener jobs and/or start-ups (sustainability consulting, renewable energy industry, e-bike shop); three more have been preparing for or were in the process of applying for dedicated sustainability jobs in and beyond their current organizations. Crafting out of the job is quite similar to the practices of responsible career building, as delineated by Tams and Marshall [60
Contrary to other findings [17
], job crafting as a form of identity work is rather prominent in our sample. On the one hand, crafting becomes possible in lower-level jobs because actors look beyond their assigned jobs and also extend their job crafting into their leisure or spare time. On the other hand, crafting becomes possible for our sample because it is often conducted below the organizational radar, as already discussed above. It remains an issue of further research to investigate whether green employees are subject to less scrutiny or are supported by their immediate supervisors who might sympathize with their green engagement.
Our final contribution concerns the notion in the literature that identity work and job crafting are employed by green actors in organizations to cope with and/or lessen identity tensions. Regarding its effects on wellbeing, job crafting is generally seen as leading to better alignment as well as more enjoyment and meaning at work [18
]. For our study, several actors instead seem to remain rather frustrated despite substantial job crafting efforts. Job crafting does not allow them to achieve alignment between their work, their green identity, and their organizational context, but rather helps them to continue enduring and thus maintaining the misalignment (Figure 2
Building on the argumentation advanced by Kira and Balkin [17
] and Meister, Jehn, and Thatcher [19
], we at this point wish to draw attention to a potentially positive side of continuous misalignment: Continuous misalignment, when exhibited or otherwise communicated, might call attention to organizational blind spots and thus constitute a trigger for organizational learning. The strategies of exposing identified in our data might work in this direction, particularly if they are acknowledged rather than repressed by the organization. In addition, continuous misalignment might strengthen the actors concerned, both regarding their mindset or personality and their competencies in coping with or handling discomfort. By developing a cognitive frame that accepts misalignment, they might be better able to embrace and integrate the paradoxes and inherent contradictions associated with sustainability in organizations [61
5.2. Limitations and Directions for Further Research
Although the study discloses empirical insights into the interrelatedness between job crafting and narrative identity work, on a conceptual and theoretical level, the relationship between both processes is much less clear. Whereas proponents from the job crafting literature have so far upheld a view positioning job crafting and identity work as two separate processes [17
], researchers in the identity work tradition tend to see identity work as a broader concept encompassing narrative as well as embodied identity processes [30
]. Future research needs to systematically clarify whether job crafting and narrative identity work are clearly distinguishable constructs or not. With our focus on the actual handling of identity tensions by lower-level actors and an understanding of the empirical phenomenon, this important theoretical work could not sufficiently be addressed in this paper.
There is also potential for interesting further studies on the boundary conditions of the identity work strategies of lower-level green employees. We have demonstrated on the basis of our data that the identity work strategies in use partly enforce and/or stabilize rather than moderate identity tensions and how job crafting and narrative identity work contribute to this vicious cycle. We have suggested that there are certain resources involved in enabling actors to keep up their frustrating and uncomfortable position. More research is necessary, however, in order to explore what makes actors tolerate sustained identity tensions over time. Are there certain personal characteristics and competences that help actors cope with the perceived tensions? How do organizational and institutional norms and structures interact in keeping actors in their uncomfortable positions?
This study looks at lower-level green employees situated in a highly specific social and temporal situation, which might, on the one hand, influence the identity work strategies in use in our case. On the other hand, it also clearly limits the transferability of our results to other contexts. In particular, all interviewees work in Germany, where the current labor market is rather tight. In addition, labor contracts tend to be well protected by law as well as social practice based on the German co-determination system. In this context, employees might be willing to take more risks by dodging or exiting, since they can count on attracting other, maybe more fitting employment elsewhere. At the same time, with a culture of permanent contracting and life-long careers in the same organization that is still common in the German system, employees might be expected to invest in loyalty [59
], e.g., with the enduring strategy. In addition, the striving for identity coherence assumed here as an important driver of aligning one’s green identity with one’s job may be a (Western) cultural norm rather than a general human condition. The effects of the institutional environment on the identity work strategy are thus still undecided and merit further research.
The homogeneity of the broader cultural and institutional context might also be an explanation for the interesting finding that lower-level green employees from highly different organizational contexts (size, industry, sustainability policies) and at all ages (25 to 68 years) employ similar identity work strategies. On the basis of our data, we can only advance the proposition that the identity work strategies in use are bounded by the green identity orientation itself and the similarity of resources that actors draw from, irrespective of organizational and structural differences. A more thorough investigation of boundary conditions of identity work strategies is necessary, which should also address the question of whether identity work strategies change over time. From our study, it unfortunately remains unclear whether an exit follows a longer period of enduring (actors finally give up on the marathon) and leisure crafting (building up a second career), or whether external conditions serve as a trigger. In addition, the influence of personalities (integrator/separator disposition, cf. [62
]) or personal competencies (self-efficacy, self-leadership) are beyond the boundaries of our paper, but have been shown elsewhere to impact identity work, as well as job crafting strategies [63
5.3. Practical Implications
For employers, there are three risks and two opportunities arising from our study: The first risk arises from identity work strategies that interfere with an efficient performance of work tasks. If employees choose to take time for personal pro-environmental activities at work, this time is no longer available for performing their assigned tasks. If they openly resist orders from their superiors (“actively resist”), this may cause discipline problems at work and undermine their superiors’ positions. If they practice “hidden green action”, the employer might lose control over their behavior altogether. Moreover, through their active and encompassing job crafting, employees might add so many tasks to their portfolio that they increasingly feel overloaded. The second risk is brought about by the identity work strategies of “starting green” and “shift engagement”. Both mean that the employer loses, fully or partly, a valuable resource and suffers a cost increase through hiring new employees. The third risk is that the employees’ personal well-being might be negatively affected when they have to endure misalignment between their green identities and their job roles over a longer period of time. Apart from the fact that an employer should care about their employees’ wellbeing, motivation may suffer from a reduced level of wellbeing.
On the other hand, lower-level employees with a strong green identity are also a significant opportunity: First, they are ideal candidates for green roles and positions, e.g., in CSRor environmental management departments, provided that they have the necessary fundamental skills. Second, for organizations that are heading towards more sustainability, green lower-level employees might help in triggering and shaping the green transformation from below. However, many identity work strategies identified in our study prevent the organization from learning from their green members, since green employees make use of covert activities, e.g., as part of a dodging strategy. Equipped with necessary resources and support, lower-level green employees might turn into green change agents, spearheading a bottom-up organizational transformation.
In order to mitigate the abovementioned risks and capture the opportunities, companies have to take action: The first step is to identify lower-level green employees in one’s own organization. Employers can carry out an employee survey to do this, or they rely on the perceptions of their management. With the “exposing” strategies, lower-level employees already reveal themselves as green activists and may thus be easily identified by management.
As a next step, organizations might consider encouraging and supporting green employees in their job crafting efforts. Job crafting has recently been discussed as an avenue towards organizational change, albeit not in the sustainability context [64
]. When in line with the overall organizational sustainability strategy, self-initiated job crafting by green employees might provide one important pathway towards redesigning roles and tasks to better align organizational work processes and structures with sustainability goals.
There are many platforms and instruments that companies can create to harness the ideas and engagement of their lower-level green employees. However, when designing these platforms, companies have to recognize the fact that acting green is a crucial identity element for these employees.
Firstly, this means that many of them want to be a part of the implementation of their green ideas. Therefore, a standard idea management system in which employees write up their ideas and then leave the evaluation and implementation to some other department will not be an adequate instrument for eliciting green employees’ ideas. A platform that successfully engages green lower-level employees would have to offer them process participation and a role in implementation. This requires employers to allow these employees to use a part of their working time for working on the projects they initiated.
A second requirement is for the platforms to be open for spill-overs of green ideas from the private context, in which green employees have often gathered substantial experience with pro-environmental practices, into the work context. While this may be not so relevant for, e.g., the design of machinery or the handling of hazardous industrial waste, it may well be possible for areas such as the canteen or energy-saving practices in offices.
If the company wants the green employees to become change agents, a third requirement arises: The green employees must be visible to other members of the organization. So, the organization should facilitate networking among likeminded green employees, but also with non-green employees, and allow the green employees to turn into role models.
Using the three abovementioned requirements plus the resource implications as a touchstone will help companies design effective platforms. Thus, an idea management that gives the idea-generating employee a role in implementation and allows ideas in peripheral areas, such as the canteen, may be helpful in fulfilling the first and second requirements, but may be costly. Supporting a renewable energy cooperative run by employees that installs photovoltaic panels on the factory roofs, on the other hand, may incur little cost and allow employees to implement their idea, but, since the cooperative is not part of the organization, may only make limited use of green employees as change agents within the organization.
Finally, companies should reconsider the design of their career paths and work roles; by formally acknowledging sustainability-oriented job crafting, employers might open up satisfying pathways for green employees inside the organization and within or beyond the CSR/sustainability department.