Action research international
Paper 3: Rosalie Holian (1999)
Doing research in my own organisation:
ethical dilemmas, hopes and triumphs
Action research international is a refereed on-line journal of
action research published under the aegis of the Institute of
Workplace Research, Learning and Development, and Southern
Cross University Press
Rosalie Holian, School of Management, RMIT
Doing action research in my own organisation: ethical dilemmas, hopes and triumphs
This paper is mainly written from the perspective of an action research practitioner. It is drawn primarily from my experience as a Senior Executive and HRM specialist, supplemented later by additional academic research and teaching.
The purpose of this paper is to describe some aspects of my own experience and my reflections from doing what in retrospect was a fairly ambitious action research project in my own organisation. At the time I undertook this project I had a few years experience in addressing organisational issues and solving practical problems using action research teams, techniques and approaches. I had incorporated these into my management style and this approach had served me well. Having 'cut my teeth' using aspects of action research to address organisational re-structuring, a merger/take-over and down-sizing in several different organisations I felt ready to address something even more pervasive and immediate, decision-making.
There are many stories I can tell from this particular action research project. The field notes, documents, journal entries and reviews of related literature fill several filing cabinets. This particular story is about some of the mistakes that I made. I have chosen to tell it because I hope it may be interesting and useful to others engaged in action research in their own organisations. In my travels seeking literature on accounts of real organisational change practices I have only ever found one text (Mirvis & Berg 1977) of collected papers where the authors described learning from mistakes. It was refreshingly authentic, reassuring (how many times does everything really fall easily into place) and challenging(this change-agent-leadership role is really difficult to do). I learned a great deal from the mistakes I briefly describe here, I hope others may also.
An action research project in my own organisation
In the early 1990's my work role included leading an action research project to improve Human Resource Management/Ethical Decision Making in my own organisation. The need for improvement in this area had been initiated by the National CEO, in conjunction with Senior Executives and Human Resource Managers. The CEO was personally engaged in advocating the need for change in this area of decision making and had convinced the Senior Executives to actively and seriously support this. At the time the Senior Executives were also beginning to listen to internal champions of the 'learning organisation', and starting to encourage members to detect errors, take initiatives and learn from mistakes. Some fairly large and public (eg: reported in newspapers) ethical mistakes in decisions had been made at the time and the CEO was keen to avoid repeating these. I had been recruited into this organisation as a professional 'change agent' to assist in the achievement of a planned strategy, and so the action research project related to the basis of this paper was part of my normal work role. In addition to my role as a Senior Executive with line management responsibilities I facilitated a management development and organisational change program in conjunction with several other senior executives. We discussed managers and staff concerns and strove to 'lead by example', being transparent about our own decision-making.
I learned some hard lessons about the interaction between my two (formal and informal) organisational roles and the additional role I took on as a researcher. It was going to be such a long-term, interesting project, I thought 'why not make it the area of focus for my PhD' - which sounded very reasonable at the time. Now, years since my involvement with that particular project finished, my colleagues at that organisation and I am still learning from the experience.
On reflection we still believe that forming an action research team in order to address a problem of central importance to the organisation was a useful choice. Choosing the same project as the focus of my academic research proved to be an enormous challenge, however a 'tame' topic would not have grabbed and held my attention so well, nor given me the answer to the question 'who cares' when the going got tough.
For the past four years I have been a full-time academic and in that period I have worked closely with over a hundred post-graduate students who have been engaged in doing action research while leading or participating in major changes in their organisations. As we explored together the pulls and tugs of their own organisations while they struggled to understand and act in situations of uncertainty, some of the same issues I had encountered in my own organisation regularly emerged. Discussion of these issues at an initial planning stage can prepare the researcher to expect the unexpected by 'normalising' reactions that may otherwise be seen as resistance or backlash. In particular an unusual level of expressed and felt emotion by both the researcher and members of the organisation as a result of having faced the exposure of underlying problems, entrenched patterns of behaviour and discussion of the 'undiscussables'.
At the time of this story I was researching decision making, in particular ethical issues and decision making. I was also keeping a journal, reflecting on and re-examining my own thoughts, feelings, behaviour and practices in relation to teaching, learning and making decisions about ethical issues. My project had a dual purpose, to change practice in my own organisation and to understand it in order to inform future action. Through processes of observation, participation, reflection and feedback I became 'fully engaged in body and mind' in attempting to change, understand and describe ethical decision making behaviour. My primary focus was working with my action research team colleagues and other organisational members to identify ways in which our culture and behaviour could be improved. Together we sought to describe and understand what the problems were and how together we could improve communication and working relationships. My secondary focus was research, looking for links between the literature, our organisation and my own practice as a manager, a management educator and researcher.
Multiple roles and role conflict: too many hats (and coats)
The role of the researcher as an outsider or insider can vary with different research methods, ranging from that of an impartial objective observer, through observing while participating, to being a fully participating observer. In this project my roles varied across these dimensions, from a fully participating observer in my own organisation, to an observer who participated in group and individual discussions and later becoming a 'co-researcher or co-participant'.
During the life of this research project I was a member of the 'target group' studied (decision-makers in organisations), worked in senior executive positions in three different organisations (leading an organisational change program in one and in operational as well as human resource management roles in two) and an 'academic' researcher undertaking data collection and analysis for a post-graduate award (PhD).
The level of organisational belonging and involvement I had in my own organisation added a complex dimension to the first stage of my research. While it assisted data collection it also involved the need to consider the potential impact of research activities on working relationships, as well as my reactions to data collected about ethical issues within the organisation. My involvement in the research project was overt, identified in addition to my organisational role to organisational members, and some ethical issues arose as a result of conflicts between my role as a researcher and my organisational role.
When organisational members provided information to me 'in confidence' there was some doubt as to whether it was in confidence to me as a researcher or as a senior executive. Merely asking my 'informants' to identify which 'hat' they saw me as wearing at the time did not resolve this uncertainty. After all I am the same person, when I walk into another room in my other role they still know what they have told me and I can't forget it. If they had given me information as a senior executive I may have been authorised, or even obliged, to act on it to prevent harm to others. If it was provided to me as a researcher, however, I may not have the right to do so. Determining and maintaining the boundaries between these roles required constant vigilance and even so there was some 'spillover' from one role to the other. This role conflict caused me some ethical dilemmas.
I had not initially realised the risks associated with overtly researching ethical issues while having responsibilities as a senior executive of the same organisation. In the course of conducting my research, members of my organisation discussed their perceptions of events and behaviours, and fears and emotions with me to an extent and depth that would not otherwise have occurred. My initial intention was to examine ethical decision-making with a view to finding ways to improve this in our organisation. It was not clear whether the final outcome of the organisational program I facilitatedbased on principles of action research resulted in more help or hindrance to the achievement of this objective.
On reflection it seemed to me that I had been too idealistic about the expected benefits of the organisational program and unrealistic about the ability to promote standards and expectations about what was a 'right' or better way to treat members of the organisation. I attempted to examine my own thinking in order to surface, challenge and address the 'undiscussables' about how we should behave. At the same time I felt constrained from clearly stating my view as to how I determined what was 'right' when making decisions because this would involve criticism of senior managers. In doing this I knew that I appeared to be tolerating perceived unethical behaviour in my workplace.
The personal impact
I was not prepared for the strength of the backlash that resulted from surfacing 'undiscussables' (Argyris 1990, 1991) within the organisation related to 'cover-ups of cover-ups', perceived abuse of power, nepotism, harassment, allocation of rewards and unfair discrimination. In order to determine what problems needed to be addressed we determinedly levered the lid from the 'Pandora's box' of organisational members' and program participants' thoughts and feelings.
We knew that this would involve dealing with conflict and were as prepared as we thought we could be. It was not enough, the problems that tumbled out were deeper, more shocking and troubling and more full of pain and fear than we had anticipated. I discovered that I was not adequately prepared to look after either others or myself when the tidal wave of negative fall-out arose and fell. As a result I was not able to continue to balance the multiple roles of researcher, senior executive and program facilitator. At the time I felt as if I had almost gone over a precipice that I had known was looming in my peripheral vision, although I had nevertheless rushed towards it, teetered on the edge and just managed to grab a safety line before the organisational impact 'imploded' on me. So after one last 'stand up fight' with some of the most senior executives in my organisation I chose to clear my desk, pack my bags and quit that job.
On the way out the front door for the last time I thought of a Robert Frost (1955) poem, titled 'One Step Backward Taken':Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices.
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis,
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing
And the sun came out to dry me.
I found doing action research on ethical decision-making in my own organisation was uncomfortable and at times frightening. As a member of 'the inner circle' of the organisation, I knew the 'real reasons' for many decisions when it may have been easier to support and implement these if I had not known. I discovered that raising ethical issues in a program designed and endorsed for this explicit purpose, and channelling communication within the boundaries of line management while maintaining strict confidentiality and 'need to know', was perceived as 'airing dirty laundry' or 'whistleblowing' by other senior executives. Acting within the parameters of my formal role and demonstrating an ethical approach to decision-making did not leave me feeling heroic so much as battle scared, leading me to a realisation that encouraging others to do the same could bring them more pain than the outcomes were worth.
Members of my organisation did not feel comfortable working closely with colleagues who questioned the ethical bases of decisions or the targets of unfair decisions (intended 'victims') who internally protested these actions. Organisational members who privately stated that they admired people for having the 'guts' to stand up for themselves or others did not want to be seen as publicly supporting or associating with them. While 'truth' may sometimes 'make us free' it seemed it could also leave people isolated and cast out of organisations. It seems that in my organisation as in others (Gortner 1991) the culture and systems both caused ethical problems to arise and hampered them being addressed or resolved.
Learning from experience
Argyris (1977; 1982; 1990; 1991; 1992) descriptions of organisational learning suggest that decision making can involve caring, help, support, respect for others, strength, honesty and integrity. Argyris defined 'single loop' learning as including the use of positive and negative feedback: deferring to others, advocating options, telling no lies and sticking to ones principles; and 'double loop' learning as expecting more of others, allowing oneself to be vulnerable, actively minimising distortions and recognising that others may have values which differed from one's own.
In my organisation some people talked about what they though 'ought' to be done but seemed to lack the power, influence or will to attempt to advocate for these outcomes. Harrison (1988, 1990) suggests that to avoid the 'dark side' of a power culture and move it towards higher values requires 'true wisdom, statesmanship and integrity' on the part of leaders, who must set an example of fairness, compassion and personal responsibility. At times there is a fine line between what is a cover-up and what is appropriate 'informal' feedback about the impact of behaviour. Giving someone a warning instead of applying punishment under the full weight of the law can be allowing for 'the benefit of the doubt' (even when there is no doubt about their intentions) and so allow them to 'save face', leading to the reconciliation of damaged relationships and improvement in their future behaviour. This 'turning a blind eye' may be regarded as 'more ethical' than using punishment which mayhave less desirable consequences for almost all those involved (other than those who desire retribution).
While it may be possible to see the benefits of this choice of action from a perspective outside the immediate context, if you are immersed in the situation your personal relationships, feelings and responsibilities may cloud your judgement as to which course of action is the most appropriate and why.
I learned a great deal about my organisation, my colleagues and my self from doing this action research project in my own organisation, most of which was not what I had intended to learn. I immersed myself in solving a practical problem (how to improve ethical decision-making) with some of my colleagues, dealing with emerging issues as these arose, withdrawing both alone and with them to reflect on what was happening and taking one step at a time.
To learn that 'my' program to improve practice was tolerated because (a) it was seen to be an impossible task but (b) allowed the organisationto be seen to be doing something, so was a 'cover-up' in itself was enlightening. To leave an organisation when your have achieved your task is a great feeling (I know that feeling too). To choose to leave because you learn that you are permitted to offer only 'snake oil' to people in real distress is, however, no disgrace.
Sensibility of doing action research in your own organisation
Pastin (1986) argues that for an organisation to be flexible and adaptable requires 'strong ethics and a weak culture' and that to attempt to change organisational culture without addressing changes in ethics is 'like trying to change a tyre without a jack'.
In retrospect I can now see that it was a difficult, if not impossible, task to attempt to improve the quality of human resource management decisions in my organisation by conducting an organisational program. We attempted to present and discuss rules, norms and ideals as having 'No One Right Answer' and at the same time encouraged organisational members to 'do the right thing' when it was not clear what this was supposed to be. I found that doing action research on ethical decision making in my own organisation and exploring the established literature (most of which was on the philosophy of ethics, not how it was practiced in organisations) was not enough. I wanted to better understand ethical decision making behaviour.
As a next step I extended my study of ethical issues to include decision-makers in other organisations, broadly based on principles of co-operative inquiry (Reason 1988, Heron 1996). Together with other people with senior management/human resource roles similar to my own, we discussed issues, ideas, thoughts and feelings about our organisations and ourselves. Our interactions were as people with common interests and problems, not as work colleagues or 'subjects' of a study.
Through a combination of links with professional associations and personal contacts I sought out people in decision making roles from a diverse range of organisations who were interested in talking about how they thought felt and acted when faced with ethical issues and dilemmas. Those who volunteered to join in these meetings developed a high degree of mutual trust and openness.
We discussed sensitive issues, observations and opinions about our thoughts and behaviour and the actions of those around us, we viewed our perceptions as valid for discussion although not necessarily 'The Objective Truth'. Our decisions and actions at work were influenced by these discussions. We met regularly and talked about current issues we faced over a period of many months. We talked about our ideas, hopes, fears and reflections about how these impacted on our decisions on ethical issues we faced. As a result of our discussions we were sensitised to observe our own practice, open ourselves to each other and finding new ways of perceiving and behaving about ethical issues in our organisations. We encouraged each other to reflect on our own and others experiences and attempted to make sense of these.
Validity of doing research in your own organisation
Validity can be defined in a number of ways and what is considered to be an adequate measure and standard of validity is closely linked to the matter of research paradigm. It has been argued that there can be no 'value free' social theory (Gouldner 1962; Carey 1977; Neuman 1991). The nature and extent of data collected can be influenced by a number of factors including the focus of the research, the size of organisations, trust and confidentiality issues impacting on the readiness of participants to provide information and the researcher's skills, experience and time available (Bramson & Parlette 1978). Susman and Evered (1978) argue that the parameters of a positivist paradigm cannot be used to judge the legitimacy of another paradigm, such as action research or co-operative inquiry.
The concept of research as an accumulation of facts that can be drawn on is one which separates theory and practice, while action research and co-operative inquiry regard theory and practice as contingent and interdependent. Predicitive generalisability and repeatability are not necessarily particularly useful concepts in qualitative research when the objective is learning from understanding and knowing particular actors intentions, actions and reflections in-depth rather than forming general rules about others behaviour.
A similar study using action research or a co-operative inquiry approach with either the same or a different group of participants could produce different results if conducted by another researcher or even the same researcher at a different time. This may suggest that the results of qualitative research are not 'reliable' in the sense that outcomes based on quantitative data can be. On the other hand good qualitative research has a high degree of face validity and so can 'make sense' to the people who were the subject of the research, providing accessible ideas and practical recommendations. 'Contextual' validity is a concept used in field research and refers to how well a piece of data fits with the rest of the data obtained, while 'catalytic' validity relates to emerging possibilities. Reason and Rowan (1981) define validity as that which is 'not only right but useful or illuminating to the actors' (p.249). Validity can also be defined as the property of being 'well founded' (Heron 1988), based on a 'triangular' combination of aspects of the presented world, the posited world and the researched world. In action research and co-operative inquiry two-way positive and negative feedback loops and action-reflection-analysis cycles are used to enhance validity by successive movement towards a best available description, explanation and plan for action.
Ongoing reflection can be used to examine and judge how 'well founded' aspects of descriptions are and how well they fit with the rest of the theory emerging from the data. Action cycles 'test' how valid emerging concepts are by seeing how well they fit and where they may fall short. The use of multiple sources of evidence has been advocated by Yin (1987; 1994) as a method of contributing towards validity based on the assumption that multiple data sources of the same phenomenon add up to a 'chain of evidence' which can be shown to underpin concept and theory development.
The validity of the results obtained from my study of this organisation may therefore rest on whether or not the concepts make sense to other practicing managers. If the tools and techniques that were later developed for discussing ethical issues are useful and practical, and if the concepts and ideas assist decision makers in determining options and making choices when faced with ethical dilemmas.
The action researcher's role as a participant/observer is that of a 'native' who attempts to explore their own culture. It differs from the traditional definition in social science where the researcher joins the organisation, overtly or covertly, for the purpose of doing research. As an action researcher who explores issues in your own organisation you are a participant first, prior to, during and (usually) after the research. As such you have a history with the group you study; know the native language, know who are the key stakeholders and you can bring retrospective observations into the analysis of current issues. You also have relationships with other members of the organisation. Opinions, responsibilities and constraints as a result of these can impact on your research as well as on your work role. Action research may be seen by some as little different from normal management practice. However the proportion of time spent as a 'participant' and as an 'observer' may differ from usual when you are engaged in action research. As a consequence the length of cycles of immersion and withdrawal may change from those that would otherwise have occurred as you make more attempt to understand the bases and effects of choices and actions. Action research in your own organisation can offer opportunities for exploring links between theory and practice, enhance identification of options, assist decision making and engage organisational members in on-going reflection and feedback as to how to better meet desired objectives.
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Dr Rosalie Holian
School of Management
Level 16, 239 Bourke St,
Phone 61 3 9925 5943
Fax 61 3 9925 5960
Copyright © 1999 Action research international and Rosalie Holian. May be used with appropriate acknowledgment for any educational or training purpose without further permission
This paper may be cited as follows:
Holian, R. (1999) Doing action research in my own organisation: ethical dilemmas, hopes and triumphs. Action Research International, Paper 3. Available on-line:
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