Michael G. Pratt – Boston College Carroll School of Management
Douglas A. Lepisto – Haworth College of Business, Western Michigan University
Erik Dane – Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University
Gabriel Sala – Boston College Carroll School of Management
Yusaku Takeda – Harvard Business School
Transcript of the podcast:
Yusaku Takeda: Hello everyone. Welcome to the ASQ blog podcast. The ASQ blog is a student-run community of scholars who enjoy reading articles from the Administrative Science Quarterly. I’m your host, Yusaku Takeda, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Business School and also a co-organizer for the ASQ Blog.
Gabriel Sala: And I’m Gabriel Sala, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at Boston College Carroll School of Management.
Yusaku Takeda: Today we’re joined by Michael Pratt, O’Connor Family Professor at Boston College Carroll School of Management, to talk about his recent ASQ article “The Hidden Side of Trust: Supporting and Sustaining Leaps of Faith among Firefighters” coauthored with Doug Lepisto and Erik Dane. Mike is also an associate editor of ASQ and is well known for his contribution to qualitative methods in the field of management. Mike, thanks for joining us today.
Mike Pratt: You’re welcome. My pleasure.
Gabriel Sala: So in this paper, you try to further our understanding of interpersonal trust by investigating how firefighters can form and maintain trust through leaps of faith—that is, when they don’t have a lot of direct experience at work to base their judgment on. So let’s first start with the background of this study because firefighters is a rather unique research context to study as an organizational scholar. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea of studying them, what was the initial puzzle, and how it developed over time?
Mike Pratt: Sure. So it was actually probably one of the longest-running papers I’ve ever worked on in my entire life.
It started out, I mean if you want the whole story, it started out post-9/11 when I was back at University of Illinois and engineers, a bunch of engineers needed social scientists broadly defined on their grant in order to get money. So I get this call out of the blue saying, “Hey, can you work with us?” And I said, “Hey, I’ll give it a shot.” What they were doing is looking at how police officers, firefighters, and emergency response people work together. I became particularly interested in the firefighters because around the same time I was working with Erik Dane on work on intuition, and so there was a little bit of work out there by Klein that said that firefighters are good examples of people who use intuition.
So we decided, well let’s check it out because we had an intuition theory paper and wanted to do something empirical. So came up with a design for a study, talked to them, and it became apparent pretty soon, this is really not a good question for them. Maybe they make intuitive decision making, but part of the problem was they don’t fight fires very often. They don’t make a lot of decisions on their own because they have a chain of command that pretty much tells them what to do. So we knew we had to pivot our research question.
What was interesting at the time was they talked about all these different kinds of firefighters. There were firefighters with heart, firefighters that are there for the paycheck. There were terms they used that I’m not allowed to use in a polite audience, so we’ll just say paycheck people, city workers, and slugs. Those are the nicest of the three. I had also been doing some research on meaningful work so I said this is interesting—meaningful work is usually about how I see my work is meaningful, not how others categorize me in terms of how I see my work. So [I] started thinking about that idea, but the other thing is if you do qualitative research, you really want to figure out what’s the core problem that your audience is facing. And clearly, like I said, it was not intuitive decision making.
The problem they were facing was the issue of trust and how do I trust somebody with my life in a fire. What makes this a little bit more interesting is that since there’s not many fires—less than 5% of calls in North America are fire-related, and firefighters often work on shifts—any given firefighter may not work on a fire for a long time. That means you as a firefighter don’t get much direct experience with fighting fires. You also don’t get indirect experience seeing your fellow firefighters fighting fires. So you don’t ever have direct experience, or I rarely have direct experience, and I may not get direct experience until I’m at a fire. So how do they overcome that? And that’s kind of how we shifted to looking at the role of faith and trust.
Yusaku Takeda: You were also collaborating with two of your former students. How was it like to be working with your former students who are also geographically far apart?
Mike Pratt: To clarify, they weren’t former doctoral students when we started. I started the project with Erik Dane when we were at Illinois and he was in the doctoral program. He collected data—collected a lot of the data. He also collected all the survey data in our study as it progressed- but more on that later. Overall, this is a very inductive study but we did do some deductive work on it as well. So, like I said, we shifted research questions. Remember I said there were different kinds of firefighters? We did the survey of California firefighters to see whether certain kinds of firefighters were trusted more often than others. We found out they were. People with heart were trusted more often. We didn’t really understand why that was the case. We just knew that we had a relationship in the survey but not a reason why.
When I moved to Boston, Erik had graduated and was eventually tenured, and at some point I said, “You know, it would be really interesting to pick this study up and see what is actually happening.” Enter Doug Lepisto who was in the doctoral program at Boston College. I won’t say where we did the study, let’s just say some New England place where we- Doug and I – started to study firefighters once again, and really getting more at this issue of how firefighters saw each other and how this related to trust. Doug took the lead on data gathering during this phase. Over time, the process took long enough by the time we were done, Doug had also graduated and he was on his way towards tenure as well. It’s been a long journey.
It was fun collaborating with doctoral students/former doctoral students. I think part of the thing that helped is that you have a really shared background about what’s important, how to work together. But all that said, they’re both very different. They both think very differently, and so it was probably one of the most fun papers I ever had with people just throwing out ideas. We’d call on the phone and have a three-way call, and we could spend like an hour just talking about ideas for the paper. Each one of us has commented that we kind of miss these conversations now. . It went really well. You should interview them though and ask them about their thoughts, though.
Yusaku Takeda: How did you do the analysis part? Did you kind of divide the labors or split it into different analysis stages, or did you guys do all of them together? How did you divide that?
Mike Pratt: It wasn’t quite that neat. I think Erik and I did passes of the firefighter data in Illinois. Doug did the first pass of the firefighter data here in this area, whatever place we studied at. He decided he would do part of this for his third-year paper, and that had to be somewhat independent —so he did a pass of the New England data on his own. Eventually though, we had to bring everything together, and at that point, we started doing some joint analyses, and then I kind of took the lead in making sure the different moving parts started to fit together.
Gabriel Sala: Let’s talk a little bit about the fit between the research question and the method. So we often hear that qualitative methods are best suited for research in underdeveloped areas where prior work is relatively thin or where the phenomenon itself is not well understood. But as you discussed in your paper, the literature on trust in which your paper is rooted is well established in the field. So we were wondering why did you choose this approach? Was it a problem during the review process, and if so, what would you say to the people who might be skeptical of the value of this approach?
Mike Pratt: All right, so that’s a lot of questions there. So the first one is why did we take this approach? I’ll be honest, I didn’t really want to delve into the trust literature. The paper draws upon [pause]. It is a study at some level of interpersonal trust, but it also draws upon broader sociological dynamics, more institutional trust. And it was a lot to dive into not just one huge literature but two big literatures. It’s one of these things where I think we all decided . . . this was the problem the firefighters were facing, and they talked about it as trust, and so we didn’t feel we had a lot of choice but to do the trust route. This did cause some problems.
First, just a funny story—or funny in retrospect story. We submitted this to the Academy of Management conference, and one of the reviewers rejected the paper, they said, because “This is the trust literature. We already know about trust, so therefore you can’t do any qualitative research in that.” And so I kind of used that. It was a good motivator for me to kind of push forward ahead.
I think what we often don’t understand is that something like trust, which is so universal and so important to how society runs, is such a complex concept that even though we have a lot of research on it, there’s still a lot of about it that we just don’t know anything about. And that didn’t actually come clear to us until we started reading the literature and realizing that there’s this whole issue that—especially going back to Simmel—trust has always been conceptualized as this combination of weak knowledge and a leap of faith. And we found a ton of stuff on the weak inductive knowledge part—trustworthiness as integrity, benevolence and competency, all that kind of stuff—but hardly anything on leaps of faith. So even in a really well-established literature, there was what I would consider a pretty gaping hole in our knowledge. Trust really is about these two things, and we only know about one part of it. We thought our inductive study could help figure out what this other part was.
But it was also a little bit of [pause], well, you had to obviously sell this to reviewers and editor like you do in any paper. I was really pleased with the reviewers that we had. It seemed to us at least two of them are well established in the micro-trust literature, which is very experimental. But I was happy that at least one of them, and maybe at the end of the day both of them – and the editor –, gave us the benefit of the doubt to at least say, “We’re willing to hear you out,” even though they were initially skeptical and ultimately, it worked out.
Yusaku Takeda: So another question is, so this was a really, really long project as you said, and this can be a really risky kind of endeavor to take up on, especially for junior faculty members or Ph.D. students like us. So do you have any tips on that? Like how do you manage a long project like this?
Mike Pratt: First thing is that fortunately not every project is this long. Every time I gave this talk, I told the audience that qualitative papers do not need to take this many years to finish. So we’ll start with that. But I think more generally, when you’re doing inductive research, I think inductive research takes time. I think all good research takes time – quantitative or qualitative. And so if you’re going to be in projects like this, it really helps to be very organized in terms of having different projects in play. When I was going up for tenure, I’ll give you an example, I was in the middle of a six-year study. I had to make a decision that point: do I stop data collection there—or not stop it, but essentially just take the first year of data and publish that? Or do I essentially wait and potentially get a better paper and wait the six years? At the end of the day, I had enough other things going that I didn’t feel like I had to. But it was critical that this was not my only project.
I think part of it is being very, very organized. You can’t see this because it’s a blog, so on my whiteboard or my idea wall, I have every project that I’m working on, what state it’s in, on whose desk it is. That’s another thing: it also helps to work with co-authors. For this paper it was Doug and Erik, so I didn’t have it on my desk all the time. While it was on their desks, I was working on another project, moving that project forward.
So . . . whether you’re doing qualitative research or just high-quality research, which again I think takes a lot of time, the key really is to keep a variety of things in play, to be very organized. I’m very upfront with my co-authors: here’s the time I can work on this paper, here’s the time when I can’t. I engage in a lot of very proactive management of co-authors about their schedules and mine. And I try to have things at various phases where I’m collecting data for a project, analyzing data for another project, writing things up. I have theory papers throughout there too. Theory papers are nice because by definition they don’t need data.
Yusaku Takeda: You’ve also done some observations for this paper. Can you talk a little bit about how it was like to go into the field with the firefighters? Was there anything striking, or was there any temptation from you or your co-authors to go native?
Mike Pratt: Firefighters are awesome people to hang out with. I will start there. They’re just a lot of fun. It’s a very community-oriented group. It’s a little difficult for people with Ph.D.s to go in to study firefighters because [as] you learn in the paper, they don’t trust people that are overly educated, highly book smart. One of my co-authors—so now you have a 50/50 shot at figuring out who it was—was hanging out with them and went to get a paper towel and couldn’t get the paper towel thing to work, and they just laughed. They said, “Yep. Another book smart.”
So the observation is really important because I think they wouldn’t have trusted us otherwise. When we first started asking about trust, it was like “We trust everybody.” Once we started hanging out there for a while, it was like, “Yeah, we trust everybody, but maybe to a little bit different degree,” and it took really hanging out with them at the fire station for a while for them to really kind of open up and say, “Here’s what we look at when deciding who to trust or not.” It was a critical part.
I’m not sure I was ever tempted to become a firefighter. I mean there’s certainly some cool parts of firefighting. The fire truck is pretty cool. But I’m a little old probably for their demographic at this point. I’m not sure if Doug ever wanted to be firefighter or Erik. It did make me appreciate what they do and made me appreciate how difficult it is to be in an occupation that spends a lot of its time not doing what they would really want to do, which is fighting fires.
Gabriel Sala: Was there any surprising finding from the field that might not be necessarily directly related to the paper, but something that you took home and then thought about it?
Mike Pratt: Yeah. At a basic level it made me – and I think Doug and Erk as well – think more about how faith in religion works and the surprising thing is that firefighters – as an occupation – may have something in common with religious organizations in terms of how they keep faith alive. I was also surprised that firefighters do so little actual firefighting. It made me think of other professions or occupations where people may not do what the public or clients think they do. In fact, since Erik, Heather Vough, and Teresa Cardador were all doctoral students at the time, I asked them to add questions to the research they were doing with lawyers, architects, and nurse practitioners, respectively, about what these occupational members thought about what clients, customers, or the public actually knew about their jobs –and that became a separate project but the original insight was in this project. Similarly, the ideas about why people work, which is typified in the firefighter types, really launched me into an entirely new research stream on meaningful work. However, this paper ended up not really being about meaningful work. So I took quite a few findings from this study and worked them out in other projects.
Gabriel Sala: And can you talk a little bit about how you exited the field? So if you like those people, did you keep in touch with some of them?
Mike Pratt: Not a whole lot. Certainly the people from Illinois not really at all now – though I stayed in touch about a year or two after I moved. Here, every once in a while, probably up until maybe a year or so ago, I had popped in and said hi to the fire chief. The fire chief then got promoted, and so things change. But it wasn’t like we were done and just said “See you, goodbye.” We did try to exit a little bit more slowly than that. Doug was really good with that, I think even better than I was. He did a really nice job kind of keeping in contact with people.
Gabriel Sala: Let’s now discuss the findings and the contributions of your paper. So your main contribution is your model that shows how individuals can create a system to deal with the uncertainty and lack of direct experience in the work and still trust each other when performing the test, so in this case, fighting fires. How did this finding take shape?
Mike Pratt: Through a ton of trial and error. The findings I think took shape in a couple of different ways. One, as I said, reading about it. Reading a lot in literature. I also presented this in more places I think than I had presented any paper. And I think it was really helpful to kind of take this paper on the road to bounce ideas off, see what worked with people, what didn’t work with people. There’s only three authors listed on the paper, but a bunch of people have contributed actually to the final paper. You should check out our acknowledgements!
And I’m not really sure when it clicked, but I think somehow between the first and second . . . I know after we got our first revision back, our first decision letter back, we decided, you know what, this is really about trust and faith. We’re going all in. We were at the point in the revision where we could have taken it in a different direction. We were getting some pushback on a few things –and the faith angle was definitely risky. At the end of the day, I remember saying—we looked through the data, we discussed it extensively and said, “This is the story. If the reviewers don’t like the story, that’s fine. We’ll go someplace else.” It’s one of those things we felt we have faith in the findings, no pun intended. A lot of papers that I read — and when I’m fortunate, papers that I work on — help me think about things differently. This as one of those projects. It made me think about how we take leaps of faith all the time and how they’re supported by broader belief systems.
Yusaku Takeda: I also wanted to ask about the generalizability or some may say transferability of this research to other contexts. It’s often the case in qualitative research that the context we study can be quite unique or sometimes show extreme qualities. So what was the biggest challenge in convincing your audience and the reviewers that the findings can be transferred into other contexts?
Mike Pratt: So to take a step back from all those overly zealous transferability people out there, part of the thing about qualitative research is that it is strong at some things and not strong at others. So if you want generalizability, do a survey. If you want to . . . look at causality, do a lab experiment. If you want to figure out kind of realism and things with specificity and a lot of richness, you do with inductive research. It’s not that I think we should forget transferability, but I do think—my own opinion, since I get a chance to talk to people on the ASQ Blog—I do think sometimes we go a little bit overboard about how generalizable or transfer this is because we’re asking people to talk about something the method is not built to do so. Certainly not statistical generalizability. It is important, but I don’t think it should be the very first thing or even the most important thing to focus on – get the theory building from your informants’ data right first. Okay, now that that is out of my system….
But that said, how do we convince people that the findings are worth paying attention to? So the reviewers obviously asked the same thing. Part of it was trying to find examples of other organizations, and again, part of it just made you think about [pause] I’m really into astronomy. I have no idea if black holes exist. I have faith that they do, I have evidence, but I will never have, I hope I never have direct experience [with] a black hole. I mean the belief in science involves a leap of faith. Science is all about we can support or not support. We don’t prove or disprove. So faith is a huge part. Taking leaps of faith, it’s a huge part of that. Then I started thinking about how do organizations run. If we think about trust has to be in a domain-specific area, in complex relationships—which many of us have at work, they’re not just work relationships, we often have multiplex relationships—well, we’re not going to have direct experience at everything. Yet we’ll have to trust people. I’m trusting my CEO is not embezzling. I might never have a direct experience one way or the other about their financial habits, but I have to take a leap of faith.
So, we had to show the reviewers that leaps of faith are important on all aspects trust. In that sense, anytime there’s trust, leap of faith will be a part of it. Will it be this extreme? Probably not. I think the biggest difference here is that most times we think about a leap of faith, it’s something pretty short term or fleeting in terms of its overall importance in the trust “equation.”. I’m hiring somebody for my university – let’s say you, Yusaku. You’re from Harvard. I think, oh, Harvard’s a pretty good place. I know some people you work with. I’ll have you out for an interview because I take a leap of faith that you’re well trained because of other things beyond you. It’s kind of impersonal. The nice thing about it is that eventually I’ll get to know who you are and direct experience can take over. Most times, leaps of faith are pretty ephemeral.
The nice thing about firefighting is that because faith needs to be maintained, I think it shows pretty starkly how these things come about, and because it has a longer shelf life we can study it. So again, that’s a kind of a long answer to your question, but part of it I think is for a qualitative paper, how do we create theory which is then applicable to other places? I think that there’s some naturalistic generalizability to be sure – that is, how the context and dynamics were are studying are like those in similar organizations. There are probably other high-risk organizations that you can apply this to. But more fundamentally, I think we can take good theories and apply them pretty broadly.
Gabriel Sala: And finally, how do you think your findings can be used by practitioners in high-risk organizations or other contexts?
Mike Pratt: I think one way, the important way is, especially for something like firefighting or other areas where direct experience is not—they don’t get updated information a lot—I think a big finding of this study is that you may have things in place that reduce uncertainty, which allow you to do your job, but those very same things may block things like innovation and the adoption of technology. So the things that kind of make your job doable also may hurt being able to do your job better. I think if I was a practitioner in a high-risk organization, I want to take a look at it. Where do we take leaps of faith? And then what supports that? How do we get there? What in the organization maybe do we need to look at again and maybe want to rethink some of these things? Maybe we want to make our system a little bit more open.
Gabriel Sala: Thank you Mike for your time and your great insights.
Mike Pratt: My pleasure.
Yusaku Takeda: That was Professor Mike Pratt from Boston College on his recent paper “The Hidden Side of Trust: Supporting and Sustaining Leaps of Faith among Firefighters” with Doug Lepisto and Erik Dane. The ASQ Blog is a student-run community of scholars who enjoy reading articles from the Administrative Science Quarterly. If you’re interested in writing or interviewing for the ASQ Blog, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabriel’s Bio: Gabriel Sala is a PhD candidate in Organization Studies in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. He is interested in how people relate to what they do and to each other at work. His research interest includes identity, trust, relationships, and emotions and the way these topics guide individual and group behavior in organizations and occupations. His current projects include an ethnographic project on trust repair among Special Forces’ operatives and a qualitative study of identity changes and relationship evolutions in a dying occupation.
Yusaku’s Bio: Yusaku Takeda is a PhD candidate in Business Administration at Harvard University. His research examines when, why, and how incumbent organizations pursue diversification strategies that fundamentally transform their evolutionary trajectories. In particular, he focuses on the role of cognitive frames and framing processes that enable or prevent organizations from re-conceptualizing their organizational identities, core competencies and capabilities, and competitive landscapes necessary for such transformations.