Ashforth & Reingen (2014). Functions of Dysfunction: Managing the Dynamics of an Organizational Duality in a Natural Food Cooperative

Blake E. Ashforth – W. P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University
Peter H. Reingen – W. P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University

Shirley Chaoyi Wang – Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University
Cassandra Aceves – Ross School of Business, University of Michigan

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Question 1. Through an ethnographic study of a natural food cooperative, your paper highlights how an organization can manage the tension caused by the duality of two organizational missions (e.g. social and economic). You note that while this tension could have led to intractable conflict between the idealists (those that considered a social mission to be primary) and pragmatists (those that considered an economic mission to be primary), but that the members managed this tension by oscillating decisions and actions of power between the two groups. Over time this enabled the food co-op to work as a functional unit. This seemed to be a rich context for research on duality. Can you shed some light on why you originally entered the cooperative (what you were originally interested in exploring) and in general how you identify good contexts for qualitative research?

The study was initiated by Jim Ward and Peter Reingen, who are both marketing scholars at ASU (Jim has since retired). Not surprisingly, they were interested in marketing aspects of co-op life, but quickly discovered some fascinating intergroup dynamics, and so the study morphed into understanding those dynamics. We don’t think it’s that unusual for inductive studies to take a 90-degree turn like this one did, since it’s often the emergent (and hopefully provocative!) phenomena that commands your attention. More generally, we think the way to identify good contexts for qualitative research is to (1) find a site that is likely to reveal the phenomenon of interest most clearly, which may well mean a relatively offbeat locale, and (2) hit the sweet spot between an inherently provocative site and one that offers reasonable transferability (generalizability). You want to intrigue the readers and yet have them come away with findings that they could apply elsewhere.

Question 2. Your analysis of the conflict dynamics is fascinating. The rituals you describe around how the co-op handles conflict—trust repair, calling “vibes” to signal the imminent need of a cool off period, exchanging “good moves” in acknowledgment of others, and so on—were imperative in keeping a vibrant dialogue. How might these practices be generalizable to other organizations? For instance, co-ops—your research setting—might be more likely to select and attract people who inherently hold values of tolerance and openness. Do you see conflict unfolding in similar ways in other types of organizations? Are the rituals you describe generalizable to other contexts?

When one hears the phrase “calling vibes,” we must admit that it sounds pretty New Agey to our ears. But we do think the rituals that were observed are easily transferable to other sites. Why? Because they’re predicated on simply respecting one’s colleagues and wanting to keep the conversation very much alive – even (especially?) when it becomes difficult. The rituals allow a heated debate to occur but manage its emotional spillover so that individuals are willing to return the next day, with their dignity and respect for others intact, to continue the debate. We think the secret was that different rituals kicked in before, during, and after the debates, which in combination kept the pot simmering without constantly boiling over. As we describe in the paper, the process looked messy but it had a strange elegance and was supported by the earnest goodwill of core members.

Question 3. 3. The process of research, can, at times, inspire multiple storylines and points of interest. Did you find any interesting, surprising, or confusing observations in the research setting that were left out of the final paper?

Absolutely! We think that any qualitative researcher can very quickly drown in his or her data – or the telling of his or her story – and so discerning the central storyline and pruning the tangents is an important part of the process. That said, we think there’s a place for the “interesting, surprising, or confusing” to the extent that they shed light on – or suggest further provocative questions for – the research focus. In a recent ASQ decision letter, Mike Pratt quoted somebody about the value of including “the blood and guts.” He was speaking about instances that are contrary to the authors’ storyline, and his point was that one can learn as much or more from the outliers and deviant cases as we can from the typical case. Of course, there’s a fine line to how much “confusion” you can introduce and still have a discernible story! It’s kind of like deciding just how much spice to add to the stewpot. Fortunately, ASQ is pretty charitable about manuscript length and so there’s more room for the nuanced story to be told – and, really, what story worth hearing isn’t nuanced?

Question 4. The natural food co-op of your research setting seems to exemplify a strong situation (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978) where normative influences on behavior and thought were likely powerful. Could you speak a little bit about your observation of employees that might have felt “out-of-place” in this setting? (e.g. their rationalization, satisfaction, turnover intent, observable behaviors).

For the most part, we think that employees were mainly looking for some stability. Rather than a strong situation, we’d describe it as a deeply conflicted one. Our study focused on the intergroup value conflict between core members of the co-op (not employees) that we dubbed “pragmatists” and “idealists,” and many of their battles were directly related to workplace issues (e.g., what employees can wear, how much authority managers should have, whether to upgrade store technology). Although employees appeared sympathetic to the values and seemed to understand the value differences, at least tacitly, they felt whipsawed by the debates. That said, while the debates could prove exhausting, employees were not active participants and could carve out an enjoyable worklife in what was a pretty congenial workplace. At the end of the day, the spirit of cooperative principles shone through (indeed, it was because of those principles that members strove so hard to fully air all conflicts).

Question 5. There are particular moments throughout the course of a project that get us very excited about our papers— getting access to really interesting data, uncovering an interesting finding, or getting positive feedback from an admired scholar, et cetera. What was one of your favorite moments from working on this project?

For us, the joy of qualitative research is that you’re learning something new every day. Whether it’s from interviewing a person who walks a different path, a day of observing something unusual, or even perusing some dry documents, there are constant nuggets to discover and surprises to delight. Blake came to this project pretty late, however, and his favorite moments involved talking with Peter and Jim about what the heck was going on at the co-op (Jim later dropped off the project, but none of this would have been possible without him). We love the ah-ha! moments that one gets (hopefully!) when trying to make sense of something sprawling and complex. It’s the thrill of theory-building. And the inevitable frustration you experience before those wonderful moments only sweetens the pot.

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