Kristie M. Rogers – Marquette University
Kevin G. Corley – Arizona State University
Blake E. Ashforth – Arizona State University
Johnathan R. Cromwell – Harvard Business School
Ryan Coles – Cornell University
Question 1. Your paper is interesting because it is an inductive study on a topic – respect – that seems like it would have very mature theory. We are curious to know, when and how did you discover a theoretical gap large enough on this topic that it justified a qualitative approach?
I came across the concept of respect in a doctoral seminar during my first year in the Ph.D. program and found it interesting, but didn’t think too much more about it until my first encounter with Televerde. I attended our business school’s award luncheon as a second-year doctoral student. ASU presented Televerde with an innovation award and showed a video of the call centers employing inmates. Following the video, the CEO gave an emotional acceptance speech conveying his deep respect for every woman working for the company. It seemed that respect was the secret ingredient in Televerde’s recipe for success and I wanted to understand it. I leaned over to Blake and said “I want to do my dissertation work on respect and I want to study Televerde!”
I dug into the literature and found that, to my surprise, there wasn’t a whole lot there. Respect is incorporated into several organizational behavior constructs (including justice and leader-member exchange), and discussed in other disciplines, but I had more questions than answers after an initial literature review. I started my dissertation with a theory paper identifying what exactly respect is in organizational settings, then latched onto the questions about how it works as such a powerful driver of positive outcomes. The “how” questions are what drove the qualitative study, and Kevin helped me approach the Televerde executive team to make this dream project a reality.
Question 2. What makes this paper particularly unique is the setting in which it was conducted. Were there any additional difficulties you faced in getting IRB approval for a study focused on a more vulnerable population? Were there any ways in which the IRB process actually helped elevate the quality of the paper from a research perspective? If so, how?
My initial reaction to this question was “nope” and “nope.” But I’m really glad you asked because I’ve never thought about the impact of the IRB process on the project itself.
Surprisingly, the process wasn’t painful. We learned a valuable lesson when we started this project: pick up the phone and call the IRB office! Talking with them prior to submission helped us move things along quite quickly because we understood their concerns and could address them preemptively.
One reason that IRB was not extremely concerned about this study was that we were very focused on the inmates’ perceptions of their work rather than their life as inmates. This meant that we weren’t asking sensitive questions about criminal history. Focusing our protocol on the work context was helpful for the IRB process, but it also helped focus the data collection in an important way. As you can imagine, the context was extremely novel and stimulating. In fact, I would say that collecting data in a prison, especially at first, was like drinking from a firehose of interesting social phenomena. The IRB process and initial protocol helped us stay focused on Televerde employees’ experiences of organizational life, which, we believe, ultimately produced rich and focused conversations with participants.
Question 3. Your context also seems challenging because inductive work requires you to maintain access to a setting for long periods of time, and as new themes emerge you might need to gain access to new parts of the setting in order to develop good theory. How did you navigate the process of developing theory while also dealing with the constraints of your research setting? What were the challenges/difficulties?
Our first visit to the prison-based call centers took place together, as a doctoral student and dissertation committee, and was guided by the VP of operations. On this visit we met managers and employees working in each of the four call centers. The most surprising challenge was the extreme exhaustion we all experienced from just one day at the research site; we could barely form coherent sentences or keep our eyes open on the way home that evening! In addition to the tremendous amount of energy it initially took to visit the setting, I also felt an ongoing need to process my conversations and experiences at the end of each day. I was able to do this through daily memos to Kevin and Blake, who were excellent sounding boards as I settled into the context and as the project progressed. I’m fairly sure I processed the rest of the experience subconsciously, as I dreamed about prison at least twice per week.
After working through some unusual hurdles for gaining long-term access to a research site (e.g., an extensive background check, a Tuberculosis test), I received a badge that allowed me to come and go as I pleased for over a year. I also had a letter signed by the warden allowing my laptop and voice recorder into the prison. This was both exciting and terrifying at first, as I then had to navigate the prison yards on my own to get from one Televerde office to the next. After the first several visits, it began to feel almost as normal and comfortable as collecting data in any setting.
Access was not a problem most days but the Department of Corrections (DOC) guards at the front door were unpredictable, and who/what comes in is ultimately at their discretion. There was one day that I was turned away because they didn’t think my letter of approval was sufficient for the computer and voice recorder, and didn’t want to accidentally let a reporter into the prison. Even these challenges had a place in the theory-building process. If we hadn’t experienced the unpredictable nature of DOC first hand, it would have been difficult to understand why the clear policies and predictability of Televerde life was such a refreshing contrast to prison life for the incarcerated employees.
Another important challenge was building trust and rapport with participants in the looming skepticism that pervades the prison setting. My status as an outsider was abundantly clear to the Televerde employees. I was dressed like an outsider but wasn’t a manager, DOC employee, or client. I was often mistaken for a psychiatrist as I made my way through the prison. Televerde employees saw me regularly and recognized me quickly, but I was not there often enough to be part of their daily routine. I remember approaching a woman for an informal interview very early in the data collection process and asking if she wanted to go outside to talk at a picnic table. She asked if I was setting her up to get in trouble with Televerde or DOC. I knew at this point that gaining access to the prison was only half of the access battle.
What I learned quickly was that the women communicated swiftly about outsiders, so if I could establish with a just few participants that I was harmless, word would spread. I made it clear in early interviews that I was not affiliated with the company or the prison, and was genuinely interested in learning from the women. Seeing the employment experience through their eyes was my ultimate goal. I didn’t record interviews during my first weeks of data collection to minimize the formality. I didn’t dig into their past experiences or pass judgment, and it wasn’t long before the women seemed excited to talk with me as a way of processing their new experiences.
Question 4. One of the major contributions of your paper is that you repurpose an existing concept: identity holism. What kind of pushback did you receive when proposing your new take on this concept, and in what ways did the pushback help you further develop it? Were there other parts of your theory that received more pushback?
The relationship between multiple identities is something that many identity scholars have discussed, but when we saw it playing out in our Televerde data we knew there was something deeper there than the literature had previously explored. The reviewers and editor seemed supportive of our use of the concept, but they did push us to document the concept more with our data and to briefly articulate the foundational literature. These were very constructive suggestions as every “new” idea builds on the shoulders of others and needs to be carefully documented.
As to other parts of our theorizing, the review process was very thorough and so we received numerous comments. These were enormously helpful because they helped us see what remained unclear or flawed in our arguments and data presentation. The tone of the reviews was very positive and developmental so the revision felt more like a collaboration than many other reviews we’ve experienced.
Question 5. One thing that really impressed us about your paper is the scope of the theory that you developed. During the process of conducting your coding and having your findings emerge, what was the most exciting moment, and when did it occur?
I honestly can’t identify just one exciting moment in the theory development process, but two stand out in my memory. The performance and well-being outcomes were apparent to me early on in the coding process, but the holism piece hadn’t emerged yet, and the identity component to the respect story was quite fuzzy. When the identity holism theme emerged it was a very exciting moment because it allowed me to work backward and piece together the social validation and security processes leading to it. This is where working with coauthors can be such a great help in doing qualitative research – I was able to talk through the emerging relationships with Blake and Kevin in a way that their true importance finally came through.
Although forming the initial model was exciting, our theory became far more refined through the first revision. We felt that the review team had truly phenomenal insights. The author team was no longer co-located, but I traveled to ASU to work through the most challenging pieces of the revision face-to-face. As co-authors, we were able to discuss the reviewer comments together, work back and forth between the data and the theoretical model, and ultimately create a model that was richer and more refined through a very enjoyable process. It was one of the most intense and enjoyable work weeks that I’ve had in my career.
Question 6. Was there anything else that was particularly interesting that we missed?
- I NEVER tired of the data, or data analysis. Loving the setting and the topic were everything. When I read a quote or an interview I can still hear the participant’s voice in my head and my mind takes me right back to the conference room, picnic table, or visitation room where the interview took place. Loving a context goes a long way toward sustaining passion for a project. For me, this has inspired my selection of subsequent research settings.
- This was my very first qualitative project. Blake and Kevin could not have been more helpful as I “learned on the job.” As I mentioned, they both came to the prison with me for the initial visit, then Kevin came with me two more times to help me develop my interviewing skills. They debriefed with me often and helped me filter through interesting observations in ways that made the project feel manageable.
- We never used the word respect in our protocol, but because respect was so salient to our participants (given the prison setting and what Televerde was trying to accomplish), the interviews were saturated with reflections on it. As we argued in the paper, we think this palpable hunger for respect is unfortunately true of many organizations.