Case 5 Managers’ challenges when dealing with change Ying was struck when one of the lecturers on her postgraduate module talked about how managers

Case 5 

Managers’ challenges when dealing with change

Ying was struck when one of the lecturers on her postgraduate module talked about how managers often struggle when companies undergo changes such as mergers, and how they often fail to address their own difficulties. Since it was time for her to start thinking about her postgraduate research project, she thought that understanding the challenges managers face in looking after the organisation and its employees during change processes would be a worthwhile and fulfilling research aim for her project and that maybe she could use her findings to help people cope with organisational change in future. As Ying filled out the form that would help her department assign her project tutor, she started to think about how she could design a project like this. She recalled several different methodologies from her research methods module, including quantitative and more qualitative research designs. She vaguely remembered that qualitative methods were better for understanding people so that was what she put down.

Soon after she was assigned her research project tutor, Mikael, they sat down together and discussed the best method. Mikael agreed that qualitative methods would be well suited and suggested that Ying could start reading around what methods there were and the analysis that she would be doing. Soon after starting to read about qualitative methods in more detail, she ruled out interviews. These she reasoned would not allow her to follow what was actually going on ‘live’ in the organisation (Van Maanen, 2011). She was convinced that the challenges that managers face in a change process could only really be understood by observing what they were actually doing and understanding the context in which this was happening. Consequently Ying decided that an ethnographic research design would most suit her research goal, which was to understand the challenges that managers face when dealing with change (Stahl et al., 2013) and understand aspects such as emotions experienced by managers themselves, making sense of what is happening around them and dealing with their own workload (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2003).

On reading further about ethnography, Ying realised that she needed to further refine her research design and think about her underlying research philosophy. From her reading she identified three common approaches to ethnography: critical, realist and interpretive. Each of these would mean something different for the way she would gather data in her ethnography. She immediately decided that the critical approach to ethnography might not fit since she was not interested in the power relations in the organisation. She felt it was difficult to decide between the realist and interpretive approaches on her own. The realist approach would give her insights into how managers deal with change by focusing on the objective decisions and actions they take, but it would not allow her to gain insight into how they actually make sense of and interpret change. Interpretive ethnography might give her a richer understanding of how managers deal with change, but she was concerned that interpretive ethnography was rather unscientific as, unlike the realist stance, it involved her own interpretation of the data. For this reason, she felt that realist ethnography might help her to gain better data. After having mulled it over for a couple of days she decided, slightly reluctantly, to ask Mikael for help. Soon after the two of them met and discussed which stance would be more appropriate. Mikael told her that the realist and interpretive approaches were equally accepted methods. He questioned whether taking a realist stance would really let her find out what motivated managerial actions during change. He felt that interpretive ethnography might be most appropriate for Ying’s study as she wanted to look at how managers deal and cope with change beyond what they say and do. He advised her that it was important to acknowledge that the researcher is part of the creation of knowledge, but that this is an accepted means of uncovering the rich insights that will come from interpretive work. Consequently Ying felt more comfortable taking an interpretive stance.

Having decided on her philosophical position, Ying started thinking about some other aspects of her research design – how many cases she was going to study and for how long. She remembered that it was acceptable to carry out a single case study but that using multiple cases would allow her to make comparisons between different situations. Upon reflecting on the amount of work that goes into an ethnography and reading some articles that used ethnography, she realised that one case was all that she would be able to manage since she only really had a couple of months for gathering data. However, she realised that in order to understand the managers and how they dealt with change she would have to study the company for as long as possible. Therefore she decided that she would use the entire two months that she had available for data collection, which seemed like a good amount of time since she found that other researchers had spent similar amounts of time in their research setting.

Ying stepped back and thought about her decisions. She was very happy with every aspect of her research design so far and was already looking forward to the next step – finding access to a company to help her work out who she would talk to and observe. She knew getting access was not going to be easy but she was ready for the challenge.


Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (2003). Ethnography, Principles in Practice. London: Routledge.

Stahl, G.K., Angwin, D.N., Very, P. Gomes, E., Weber, Y. et al. (2013) ‘Sociocultural integration in mergers and acquisitions: Unresolved paradoxes and directions for future research’, Thunderbird International Business Review, Vol. 55, No. 4, pp. 333-56.

Van Maanen, J. (2011) Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (2nd edn). Chicago: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing and Publishing.


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