Saturday, February 28, 2015

Tim Vogus Responds

[At the end of last year, I wrote two posts (here and here) about a recent paper by Vogus, Rothman, Sutcliffe and Weick (2014). It's my policy always to inform people whose work I criticize directly on my blog and to offer them a chance to respond. Today I received the following from Tim Vogus, which I am happy to post here in its entirety. I'm grateful to Tim for taking the time to engage with my critique and I will be returning the favour in my posts next week. For now, let me just say that, as is the nature of blogging, my remarks were perhaps a bit too blunt when they weren't a little too pointed, and I'm hoping I'll be able to temper the impression in my upcoming posts that I find "no value in the work". Here, in any case, is Tim's response.]

Hi Thomas,

Thank you for giving our work a close read and taking the time to write two interesting posts about it. Even when someone finds no value in the work, it’s appreciated when they take it seriously. I am taking the invitation to respond to your posts to both clarify what we were trying to accomplish in our paper as well as to illustrate how the right/wrong frame that you apply to thinking about emotional ambivalence is unnecessarily limited and restricts our ability to integrate work on mindfulness across the setting that matters to you (scholarly writing) to the one that we theorize (high-reliability organizations).

In your second post on our paper you argue that you, as a writing coach, “help people establish and maintain a process that reliably produces publishable prose.” That is a critically important distinction that merits unpacking. Specifically, your work is an attempt to get people to become reliable (i.e., move from paralysis to writing) whereas our focus is on sustaining reliability. In the former, it makes complete sense that you would want to reduce the heightened emotions that inhibit doing the work. In fact, Kathie Sutcliffe and I have repeatedly made similar claims about the importance of routines for enabling mindfulness (as have Dan Levinthal and Claus Rerup in their excellent 2006 paper) in an educational context in 2012 in the Academy of Management Learning & Education and in a health care context in Medical Care in 2007. In the latter paper, we empirically demonstrate that high levels of mindful organizing paired with well-developed routines improves organizational reliability (in the form of fewer medication misadministrations). So our work definitely reflects an appreciation for routine as a foundation for mindfulness and becoming highly reliable. A similar focus is also evident throughout the classic studies of military high-reliability organizations.

So I would argue that your insights are correct under certain conditions – when individuals or collectives are on the path to becoming highly reliable they need an infrastructure of routines to free up attention to listen (or watch) for signs of deviations. Without those routines, detecting deviations is not possible because everything is noise with no clear expectations. But once you are highly reliable you face a different challenge how do you hold on to the requisite high levels of energy to sustain being mindful. We propose two mechanisms for when that is the case.

As for your critique regarding job design (i.e., complex and contradictory) – you may be right! The section you excerpt is from our discussion of directions for future research. It is fundamentally an empirical question. We were posing the idea of complex and contradictory jobs as one possible mechanism for eliciting emotional ambivalence and, in turn, sustaining (not creating) mindful organizing. But I think you are wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Specifically, because there are actual highly reliable organizations that design work in precisely this way. For example, in wildland firefighting there is the so-called LCES structure (e.g., Weick, 1996) that balances the faith in capabilities to detect weak signals of changing conditions and respond swiftly to them via lookouts and communication links. That embeds hope in the system. At the same time escape routes and safety zones are also in place. These simultaneously instill doubt in the system in the form of a recognition that things can fall apart rapidly and unexpectedly. There is also evidence that work is complex and contradictory in the form of the sets of elaborate cross-checks and committees at the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor (Schulman, 1993). It is argued to be relevant to sustaining highly reliable performance because it works to curb hubris and bullheadedness (i.e., introduce doubt) as well as create a provisional alignment among those maintaining reliability. So wildland firefighting and nuclear power production represent systems that implement systems of work that are complex and contradictory as means of generating ambivalence and sustaining mindfulness and reliability. And it is a complexity and contradiction intelligently deployed to balance a system. Not arbitrary noise thrown into a system with no care like in your university example.

Moreover, I don’t think any HRO scholar would agree with your assessment of universities as well-designed high-reliability organizations. And it further has nothing to do with arguments we actually make in our piece. We are theorizing how organizations that are already highly reliable might sustain their performance over long stretches of time. We know that prolonged periods of success, especially will respect to “dynamic non-events” (Weick, 1987) like consistently safe performance, create simplifications, drift, and potentially collapse (e.g., Miller, 1993). Emotional ambivalence is one plausible mechanism that could keep the attention, tension, and vigilance alive that would allow for the detection of weak signals of impending danger such that they can be arrested before they amplify and generate harm. We make no arguments whatsoever about how organizations become highly reliable. As a result, for the university example to be relevant you would have to establish that the university is highly reliable in the first place and then explore whether ambivalence might be helpful or not.

Thus, our use of emotional ambivalence is not as a virtue in and of itself. That may or may not be the case. Our argument is simply that in systems that are performing in a highly reliable manner the tension introduced by emotional ambivalence can be constructive because it heightens attention and makes one open to alternate perspectives.

In this response I’ve tried to make clear that our paper attempts to solve a specific theoretical problem in the literature on high-reliability organizations and is not intended to generalize to all people and all things at all times. But your critique offers a helpful reminder that becoming highly reliable and sustaining high reliability might be qualitatively different in the ways described above. I hope my attempt at clarification and integration helps to advance the conversation and moves us away from “tussles” and binary thinking in favor of carefully contextualized arguments and collaborative synthesis.

Thanks for the opportunity to respond and please construe this response as only reflective of my interpretations and not necessarily my co-authors.


P.S. I didn’t mention your ASU example in this response because even after reading it several times I have no idea what it means or how it relates to our piece.

[I respond here.]


Levinthal, D. A., & Rerup, C. 2006. Crossing and Apparent Chasm: Bridging Mindful and Less Mindful Perspectives on Organizational Learning. Organization Science, 17(4): 502-513.

Miller, D. 1993. The Architecture of Simplicity. Academy of Management Review, 18: 116-138.

Schulman, P. R. 1993. The Negotiated Order of Organizational Reliability. Administration & Society, 25(3): 353-372.

Vogus, T. J., & Sutcliffe, K. M. 2007. The impact of safety organizing, trusted leadership, and care pathways on reported medication errors in hospital nursing units. Medical Care, 45(10): 997-1002.

Vogus, T. J., & Sutcliffe, K. M. 2012. Organizational mindfulness and mindful organizing: A reconciliation and path forward. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(4): 722-735.

Weick, K. E. 1987. Organizational Culture as a Source of High-Reliability. California Management Review, 29(2): 112-127.

Weick, K. E. 1996. Fighting Fires in Educational Administration. Educational Administration Quarterly, 32(4): 565-578.

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