Why Challenging Perspectives Matter

What makes good research? This is a critical question, especially for me as a young Ph.D. candidate. The authors of the paper “Generating research questions through problematization” state that what makes a theory interesting is whether it challenges our previous assumptions (Alvesson & Sandberg, 2011). I found this article fascinating, as usually all researchers talk about are gaps in existing theories and building on top of the existing foundation. Yet, in many ways, that’s only producing incremental improvements. Of course, it is still necessary to produce incremental improvements, but the most exciting discoveries lie in the transformative improvements. Having a background in the industry I can see the parallels here.

What I would like to do is to take the framework produced by the authors and apply it to my own field of study. My research interests lie in the direction of exploring Self-Managing Organizations. This area of research is very young, and it’s hard to even say yet if it is a distinct area of research as the number of papers on the topic is in a couple of dozens worldwide, while only a few are from respected journals. Nonetheless, I have grounds to believe that this topic is in itself challenging the assumptions behind at least three different theories. I will explore one of them using the framework of Alvesson and Sandberg (2011) here.

Alvesson and Sandberg’s (2011) framework consists of:

(1) identifying the domain of literature,
(2) identifying and articulating assumptions,
(3) evaluate articulated assumptions,
(4) developing an alternative assumption ground,
(5) considering assumptions in relation to the audience,
(6) and evaluating the alternative assumption ground.

Following the steps provided by Alvesson and Sandberg (2011), we start with (1) identifying the domain of literature. I intend to take a look at the literature on leadership and management, particularly studies on empowerment. Studies on leadership and management skills (Bennis & Nanus, 1985; House, 1988; Kanter, 1979, 1983; McClelland, 1975) tell us that empowering employees is a principal component of managerial and organizational performance.

Next, let’s (2) identify and articulate assumptions. In the management and social influence literature, power is primarily a relational concept which refers to the perceived power or control that an individual agent has over others (Bacharach & Lawler, 1980; Crozier, 1964; Dahl, 1957; Hinings, Hickson, Pennings, & Schneck, 1974; Kotter, 1979; Parsons & Smelser, 1956; Pfeffer, 1981). The assumption behind seeing empowerment as the principal component of managerial performance is the thinking that the perceived distribution of power is the best and ultimate approach. In a way, the researchers are saying that the primary matter is the perception of power distribution. The actual distribution of power matters less.

Moving on, we will (3) evaluate articulated assumptions. Is this assumption worthy to be challenged? In my opinion, it is. It is worthy to be challenged due to the fact that, if we assume that perceived distribution of power is an extremely influential factor for managerial success, we should go a step further and ask ourselves if the real distribution of power is going to be even more effective. This thinking could open up a whole new horizon in the research on managerial effectiveness.

Next, let’s (4) develop an alternative assumption ground. In their foundation for this research area paper, Lee and Edmondson (2017) defined Self-Managing Organizations (SMOs). SMOs are the organizations that radically decentralize authority and eliminate the subordinate and manager relationship, and they do it through formal processes and organization-wide. Our alternative assumption would be that in the empowered organizations people might be negatively affected by the fact that the power is not really distributed, with the boss still holding the power over the people’s fate. Also, we could assume that the perceived power decentralization would not be stable as it would be changeable on a whim of the manager. This, then, would form our cornerstone assumption that real full decentralization could bring even better results than empowerment.

The next step in Alvesson and Sandberg’s (2011) model would be (5) to assess how the effects of challenging these assumptions would be perceived by the audience. I have a hard time evaluating the reaction of the empowerment researchers, but I have hope that it could be positive. The reason for this is that what I propose is not directly smashing the empowerment theory, but rather just saying that we could go one step further.

Finally, let’s (6) evaluate what new theories the alternative assumption ground could open up. The first question that arises is whether indeed perceived power is worse than real power and in which ways. Secondly, if there is still the real boss in the empowered organizations, does that mean that they are less stable than SMOs in preserving the empowerment culture since it is really easy for the boss to abuse his or her position? Lastly, do SMOs indeed perform better than empowered organizations? And, perhaps, we haven’t seen this with self-managed teams because they don’t practice organization-wide decentralization of power and thus still don’t achieve real power decentralization benefits?

Alvesson and Sandberg’s (2011) framework has been really useful for me to evaluate my own research and I strongly support their perspective on identifying and challenging theory assumptions as the main method for identifying new research questions.


Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2011). “Generating research questions through problematization.” Academy of management review, 36(2), 247-271.

Bacharach, S. B., & Lawler, E. J. (1980) Power and politics in organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bennis, W., & Nanus, B. (1985) Leaders. New York: Harper & Row.

Crozier, M. (1964) The bureaucratic phenomenon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
Dahl, R. A. (1957) “The concept of power.” Behavioral Science, 2, 201-215.

Hinings, C. R., Hickson, D. J., Pennings, J. M., & Schneck, R. E. (1974) “Conditions of intra-organizational power.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 14, 378-397.

House, R. J. (1988). “Power and personality in complex organizations.” Research in organizational behavior, 10, 305-357.

Kanter, R. M. (1979) “Power failure in management circuits.” Harvard Business Review, 57(4), 65-75.

Kanter, R. M. (1983) The change masters. New York: Simon & Schuster

Kotter, J. P. (1979) Power in management. New York: Amacom.

Lee, M. Y., & Edmondson, A. C. (2017). “Self-managing organizations: Exploring the limits of less-hierarchical organizing.” Research in organizational behavior, 37, 35-58.

McClelland, D. C. (1975) Power: The inner experience. New York: Irvington Press.

Parsons, T., & Smelser, N. J. (1956) Economy and society. New York: Free Press.

Pfeffer, J. (1981) Power in organizations. Marshfield, MA: Pitman.

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