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Filling space in a beautiful Way: An interview with Ann Cunliffe

Anne CunliffeAnn Cunliffe, Professor of Organization Studies, FGV-EAESP, Sao Paulo, Brazil

When Ann visited HEC and we sat down for this interview, I must admit that I was not very familiar with her writing.  I was however quite familiar with her writing style.  Indeed, while I had read only one of her papers – Managers as Practical Authors – which had been required reading in one of my PhD courses, talk among PhD students and others about her unconventional writing style was frequent.  Such discussions tended to follow a familiar arc.  They would often start with someone asking, “How did Karl Weick ever get away with publishing his Mann Gulch paper in ASQ?”  To which someone else might answer, “Well you know (emphasis on “you know”), it’s Karl Weick,” this said with a tone of deference only academic groupies in social psychology or organization theory might get, and with the implication that the rest of us ordinary scholars were stuck with the IMRAD template.  Then someone would say, “Well, Ann Cunliffe has also managed to publish unconventional stuff in pretty good journals” which gave some of us hope that we were not doomed to reproduce the excruciatingly dry writing we struggled so hard to read as newbies to the field, at least not forever or all of the time. Funny how we forget.  Occasionally, a student will comment on how tiresome they find reading in-text citations – I used to think that as well, until I got used to them. The quest for efficiency in scientific production has brought us to this – straightjacket formats, limited pages, lots and lots of tables.  These are practical, no doubt, but oh-so-boring to read (no wonder speed reading has become such a useful academic skill). The idea of an academic article that is savoured, that is so engaging to read you cannot put it down until you are done is nonsensical almost, a joke.  But why is this so?  Why is it that good science cannot go hand-in-hand with writing that is engaging and fun to read?  In this light, it is rather refreshing to talk to someone who, for her entire career, has deliberately pursued a different path and who, despite the risks, succeeded at making a name for herself. It gives hope and inspiration to the rest of us.

Where do your ideas for writing come from?

I’m not one of those people who plans out a paper in advance. When I’m writing a paper, I start with an idea that I think will make a good paper.  And then the paper sort of writes itself around that idea. I often find that it’s not until I get to the end of the paper that I know what I’ve done. Sometimes it’s opportunistic, something occurs that you say, “Okay, I’ll just go with this and we’ll see what comes out of it.”

And that initial idea comes from where usually?

It can come from a number of different sources. It might be something I’ve read and that I think is really interesting. Sometimes it is something that occurs in practice.  For example, the relational leadership paper I wrote actually emerged because a co-author and colleague, who was working at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at the time, said, “Look, I think this would be a really good opportunity to study leadership,” and I said, “Okay, let’s go with it.” So that sort of came from a practical situation, an opportunity that arose to do some research. We knew it was going to be around leadership, but not what it would be.

Was there anything going on that triggered this thought that there might be something worth studying?

This was probably eighteen months after they set up the TSA. After, you know, 9/11. And Matthew was an academic and he just happened to be working there at the time. And the situation was unusual in the sense that these federal security directors were actually having to set up a new organization in light of 9/11. So we thought that this would be a really good opportunity to do some research around that.

But you had no clear idea at the time about what you would write about going in, right? How did you design your study then?

I guess you could sort of say it was a snowball approach, because Matthew was actually working in the field, he had contacts. So he would say something like, “I think that X would be a good person to talk to.”  So we did it on that sort of basis. We did talk about going to some of the bigger airports and smaller airports but that was probably about as far as we got. Sometimes it’s opportunistic.

When did the actual idea that you would eventually write about emerge?

Once we’d done a number of interviews and had them transcribed, we read through them. I often find that even though I will have conversations transcribed, I actually go back to the recordings because I get a lot more out of the recordings than I do from just reading the transcripts. And I was going through those over and over and I said to Matthew, “They keep talking about relationships and about what the nature of those relationships are.” So it was very much an abductive process. The literature I’m interested in is around the notion of living conversations. So then it started to be, “Let’s play the insights from the data through the literature, and the literature through the data and then let’s see how they connect and what we can pull out of that.” So this notion of relational leadership emerged from that.

When do you feel ready to start writing?

When I write, I find I can’t write in short chunks. So, I need a week, two weeks, where I can just sit down and do nothing but write. I sometimes don’t even get out of my pyjamas for two days. I just write. So if we take this notion of relational leadership – what can we pull out of these conversations that will illuminate that notion in some way?  It’s just going back to the data, looking at what’s in there and then writing a little bit and then going back to the data again. Writing a little bit more…

Can you start in the middle?

If I’m writing a paper, each time I pick it up, I always start at the beginning. I can’t start at the middle. To me, that’s what writing is about, writing this coherent narrative. And in order to do that, I’ve got to start from the beginning again and pick the story up and develop it. And this is why it takes me so long to write and that the front end of my papers tend to be really good and then they tail off at the end!

If you’re co-writing with someone, how does that process affect the way you work?

I find that when I’m writing with co-authors, and normally there’s only two of us, very rarely more, one of us will take a lead on it. So one of us will sort of craft the story to begin with, and then when it’s done, ship it off to the other person who will either say, “Yes, this makes sense” or “No, it doesn’t”, and then sort of work on that draft. So I’ve just finished a paper with a co-author where she took the lead on it and sort of did the initial draft and then I came in and built it up and then shipped it back. So there’s a back and forth at that stage, but because I see it as a narrative, it’s difficult when I’m working with others to say well, “You do this bit and I’ll do that bit.”

 So everybody works on the narrative from beginning to end?

Yes. But to explain, I need to backtrack a little. This takes me back to New Mexico – an artist who lived in New Mexico for many, many years is Georgia O’Keefe.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with her work.  In any case, her paintings are quite unique. They’re simple, with bold colours and bold lines. And one of my favourite quotes from her says, “Filling space in a beautiful way, that’s what art means to me.” And I think that’s what writing means to me.  It’s about trying to fill that space in a beautiful way.  It’s to try and fill it with simple lines and bold colours. So you know, I and my co-authors will talk about what’s the narrative going to be, what is it going to look like and then one of us will draft that. So in relational leadership case, I did that initial story.

Do you have lots of conversations before you start writing then? 

Yes.  Before, during…

Let’s take a typical paper, how long does this process take?

I’m a slow writer. And I’m a slow writer because I want to create that story. I think about how I’m writing and the sort of language that I’m using. I think if you’re working from a more social constructionist, hermeneutic, phenomenological perspective, language is important.  So I think about stuff like, you know, not using certain words if I can help it.  Like the word “the organization” because that implies there is a real body out there called “the organization”.

So how do you do that?  How do you write about something without actually naming it?

Well, for example, the first paper I wrote on reflexivity was about using what I called “layers of narrative circularity”. So it would involve writing something and then questioning what I was writing about and asking myself, “What are my assumptions here?”  “What is it that I’m taking for granted? And how can I build that into the text in some way?” So there would be different layers of narrative circularity. I had one chapter in my thesis for example, which was a dialogue with myself. So the whole chapter was sort of written in a two-person dialogue with myself, questioning myself and what I was doing. So that was another way of writing. And then, with later work that I’ve done, I’ve tried to be reflexive like that, but in a less distinct way.  So I don’t separate out the two dialogues, I just embed them in the text, by asking more reflexive questions as I go along. So it’s not, “Here’s a bit of text and here’s where I’m questioning the text.”  It’s a questioning that goes on throughout the text itself. So nowadays I try to work with more embedded ways of writing reflexively.

With such an iterative approach, how do you know when it’s time to stop?  

Well, it’s about getting to a point where I say, “Okay, the paper’s nearly finished.” It’s that point where I feel that I have achieved, in writing this narrative, what I was hoping to achieve.  And sometimes I might say, “No, I haven’t achieved what I was hoping to achieve” or “Wow! I can’t believe I said that, I need to change it.”

But when do you know that it’s time to let go? 

Sometimes it’s just that I’m up against a deadline. If I’m writing for a special issue, it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got to get this in.” But I’ve had papers where I’ve sort of said, “Okay, I think this is nearly done. I think it needs something else but I’m not quite sure what that is, so I’m going to send it off and see what the response is going to be.”

Like testing the waters?

It varies. But I don’t think I’ve ever reached a point where I’ve said, “Definitively, this paper’s finished.”  Because no matter what, I know that I’m going to have to do more work on it. It could be a lot, or it may not be, but one way or the other, I know there’s going to be more work.

How hard is that?  Dealing with the review process?

It can be devastating. But in my writing, I do try to stay true to myself, and to what I believe in.  And I’ve actually withdrawn papers from journals because the editor asked me to do something I didn’t want to do. Where I’ve been asked to turn my paper into a different paper and where I’ve said, “That’s not the story I want to tell.” So I’ve withdrawn it and sent the paper somewhere else.  But there are also other papers where I thought the reviewers really brought up good ideas and I’ve gone with that.  So you make choices in the review process about what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do. Because you know, sometimes you look at reviews coming in and you kick yourself:  “It’s so obvious, why is it that I didn’t see that?” And then there are others where you say, “That’s just not what this paper is about and that’s not where I want to go.”

But that’s hard to do isn’t it?  Especially for those working towards tenure?  It’s hard to turn down an R&R. 

It’s a question of how instrumental you want to be. How much am I willing to give up? And this may be because, you know, I was in the US, writing in what’s typically seen in a more European way, and that was a challenge.  I think what was important to me, and I sort of knew this implicitly at the time even if I didn’t articulate it in this way, but it was about saying, “What do I want my voice to be?” And, “I don’t want to write in a mainstream way, I want to write differently, that’s important to me, so I’m not willing to give that up.”

Have you had reviewers comment on your writing style?

Yes. Comments like, “This adds nothing to theory because you’re not testing propositions.” Or, “Isn’t this just common sense?” Or, “I think you need a few tables in here.” I have one paper with a table in it, and other papers that don’t have tables in them because it doesn’t fit my writing style. When you put something in a table, you’re bounding it. So I was not willing to compromise on that. I’ve actually withdrawn two papers from the review process for this reason.

Were they published elsewhere?

One of them was and one of them wasn’t. One of them I’m still working on.  This last one that I withdrew I’m not willing to negotiate. It’s about what it means to be constituted as the ‘Other’ and how one deals with that from an auto-ethnographic perspective.  And at one point, I was asked to turn it into a paper on careers and to include career theory in it.

Could you have not contacted the editor, challenge them about their decision perhaps?

Well, I did. And it didn’t get me anywhere. The reviewers got what I was doing, ironically. It was the editor that wanted me to turn it into a different paper.

We don’t talk about this very often, but it does happen – the situation where you have an editor that votes in your favour when all the reviewers are like, “no-way” and then the reverse, where the reviewers are favorable, and it’s the editor who is saying “yes-but”…with comments that don’t necessarily align with what the reviewers said…

Yeah, and I’ve had that happen with a paper that’s now published, where the reviewers basically three reviewers, said accept and the editor said this isn’t the sort of paper we want to publish. The paper has been on the ‘Most Read’ list since it was published!

After the first round or after a few rounds?       

After a second round.

Wow, that must have been hard!  Let’s keep talking a bit more about ideas. What about other scenarios for generating ideas?

There might be a time where, for example, I’m hoping to get a research project funded. So I have an idea of what the research questions will be, what I want to do, how I want to do it and so on. And that’s a more deliberate approach. So the papers that come out of that will be around the research questions that I’ve come up with. And that approach is closer to what we tell our students to do.  Ideas can also come from a desire to do something different. So something completely different from anything I’ve done before, but that, at the same time, also builds on it. So for example, I’m interested in working with practitioners, doing more collaborative forms of knowledge generation and research.

Action research?

No. I’m sort of working on what I call “participative dialogical research,” which is a more reflexive, collaborative, form of knowledge generation.  Up until now, I’ve done a lot of interpretive, subjective based research. Now, I’m interested in what is inter-subjective. So if we begin to think of ourselves as a “we”, then how do we generate knowledge between us? To look at, you know, what actors in civil societies are doing? What innovative ways of thinking, or what innovative practices do they have and how can we develop knowledge around that? So it’s not about doing research on, it’s about doing research with. And to perhaps explore more collaborative forms of writing based on that.  So it’s challenging myself, it’s trying to do something different, trying to make a difference in some way and it’s trying to push the boundaries a little bit. It’s sort of like saying, “Okay. I’ve written these academic papers. I’ve written these books, I’ve done research, I teach and I try to make a difference by helping people think differently about things. But what if we actually shift that to research? What if we become co-researchers? What will knowledge look like then? How do we generate knowledge in that way? And you know, what can we learn from that process?”

“I” as in you the researcher? Or I as in, the participants – all of the participants?

I think all of us, but I think me as a researcher as well. So what do I get out of this paradigm of going to interview people, and actually work with them in a reflexive way? To have conversations with them about how we can do things differently. About how we can develop knowledge around what it is that we’re doing and begin to share that. So it’s a much more collaborative approach.

That’s super interesting.  What about routines?  Do you have routines when you write?

I have to start early in the morning.  I’m usually up at 6:00 AM, and if I’m sort of writing seriously I’m starting work at 7:00.

Do you write from home then?

Yeah. I actually find it easier to write at home without distraction. And actually, I know this sounds corny but for years I didn’t have the internet at home, so I wouldn’t get distracted. Now I do, but it was a way of separating work from writing. And then, as I’ve said, I’ll spend four weeks, six, sometimes seven days a week just working on a paper.

A specific paper?

Yeah. I find it difficult to write two papers at the same time. I have to focus on one, I have to tell that compelling story. So my routine is waking up early, having breakfast and just going straight into writing in my pyjamas.

How many hours can you spend writing on days like those?

I can do anything. Sometimes, especially if I’m working to a deadline, a special issue for example, I can sort of work 13, 14 hours a day. When I was doing my PhD, I used to measure the complexity of a paper or a book by the number of cups of tea it took me to get through it!

So you would say something like, I’m at nine or ten cups, that means I’ve been chewing my nails on this one.

That was a three cupper, this was a nine cupper. The other thing too – and this is sort of a symptom of my generation, is that I type with one finger. When I went to school in England, I went to a grammar school, we didn’t learn how to type.  So I type with one finger.  I’m pretty quick, but I get extremely embarrassed on planes. People are like, “What is she doing? Poor woman, she can only use one finger.” (Laughter)

Let’s talk about the review process a bit more. You’ve told me about how you respond to reviewers and editors, can you tell me a bit more about your emotional reactions to receiving a review letter?  Do you have a process in terms of looking at those or –      

Yeah, I look at them right away and then I’ll go through the reviews.  If it’s a reject, I’ve had times where I’ve said, “Okay, I can’t look at that right now.” I actually have one of those at the moment, where I’ve just not been able to go back and go through the reviews because it’s like I put my heart into that paper and I can’t go through it again just yet. And then others, if it’s a revise and resubmit, which it tends to be, I’ll sort of sit there. Obviously you have an emotional reaction to it, “Why don’t they understand what I’m trying to do?” But I’ve found that the easiest way for me to deal with that, or at least the most coherent way, is to do a table. So I create a table in which I put the editor’s comments, and the reviewers’ comment in column one, and then in column two I put what my response to those comments is going to be.

This is before you start rewriting the paper?

Yes. I do that because it helps me figure out what I need to focus on, what I’m not going to focus on. It becomes a plan of the key points I need to look at when I’m revising. So I’ll use that as a basis for going through the paper and then when I’m done I’ll go back and I’ll fill in the table, in terms of how I’ve actually responded to each comment. And quite often that table is what I’ll send back to the journal, because as a reviewer, I find it helpful to see clearly how the authors have addressed the concerns that I’ve raised.

It’s interesting because you don’t like using tables in your papers.

No, but it’s the only way I can make sense of all those comments. If I’m looking at, for example, 16 single-spaced pages of comments. I have to have some sort of way of making sense of that.

Who would you say are your favourite authors?

Karl Weick, because I think he has a unique style of writing. One of my other favourite writers is Bud Goodall. Bud was an organizational communication scholar who developed a way of writing which he called new or narrative ethnography. He has a wonderful paper I give to my students when I’m teaching advanced qualitative research methods.  I start with that and ask them, “Is this research?” and they usually say, “No, it’s not.”  Because he uses himself and his experiences as data to make comments on broader cultural issues.  The paper I give the students is called “A Nuclear Family with Toxic Secrets.” And it’s about how he discovered that his father was a CIA agent when his father died and he never knew. Everybody I’ve given this text to have said that it is so powerful, you can’t put it down when you read it. To be able, as an academic, to write in such a powerful way and at the same time say something meaningful that connects with other academics, is a tremendous ability. I would love to do that. Drawing readers into the story, but doing it in a way that it’s not just storytelling –

You mean that there are two layers of stories, a story and a story.

Yeah, there’s a story, a narrative, but there’s also a theoretical story in there, but one that is not told in the conventional way. And once you get to the end of it, you want to go through it again. It’s not a writing style that is for everybody, but the idea of being able to write in such a powerful way is very compelling.

Are you highlighting these examples because they represent the kind of writing you want to do, or are you saying, “I too want to find a style that is different and here’s how it’s different?”

I’m saying that the intention of these authors was to write in a different way, and each went about it in their own unique way. Now, how do I find my own style that draws the reader in?  There’s no way I could write like Weick or Goodall, but I do feel comfortable in doing my best to draw the reader in, to try and engage with him or her. And because of that, I don’t write in a detached way. I write in a more conversational way.  For example, my papers aren’t split up into the usual:  “Introduction, Lit review, Methodology, Data, Findings, etc.”  I don’t write in that way.  In my papers, you’ll often find that the literature is interspersed with a discussion of the “data”. And I’m saying data in inverted commas, because I don’t think of it as “data” in the usual sense, but more as comments interviewees have made.

Why is it that you don’t call “data” data?

One of the problems I have is that data brings baggage with it, in terms of what it is supposed to look like.  As in, “we should have some codes here” or you know, “Let’s have a framework or some propositions or a theory.”

So what is theory for you then?

When I start writing, I try to avoid – or rather, it’s not theory that I’m developing, in the conventional sense.  Earlier I talked about practical theories – theories that practitioners carry with them in their practice. Then I talked about interpretive insights – so what I’m presenting are my interpretations of the data that might be insightful for the reader. John Shotter, who was  a good friend of mine (he died last year) uses the term: “action guiding anticipatory understandings,” which is a mouthful, but it’s basically developing a different understanding of something that might guide people’s actions in the future. And that’s what I’m trying to do.

How is that different from resonance?

It IS resonance, because I think in order to do that, the ideas have to resonate in some way.

For practitioners? 

Yeah, but for academics too. It might spark another academic’s curiosity, and get them thinking, “That’s an interesting question, I’ve got to follow up on that.”

Okay, that’s kind of a cool way to put it. So given that, how do you approach – we won’t call it coding but….

Interpretation. I also try to not use the word “analysis” because again that brings with it baggage about how it should be done.  So I could end up with several of these insightful interpretations, and then I would try to weave them together in some kind of coherent narrative.  What’s the thread here?  Again, going back to that relational leadership paper, one of the ideas that we developed was this notion of relational integrity.  It’s not as if we went in saying, “Let’s look at relational integrity.” It was more like “That’s a quote that’s got to go in the paper” and from there, “What does it relate to? And how could we talk about that if we start to bring these different quotes together?  What’s the connection between them? Eventually, we’ll talk about all of that as relational integrity.

If you use your painting analogy from before, how might it help explain what you are trying to say?

It would be like saying, “I’ve got these twenty sheets of blank paper, how am I going to fill them in a beautiful way?  What bold brushstrokes am I going to make? What colours am I going to pick out of this research?” It’s also recognizing that sometimes we try to fit too much into our papers, which just makes them confusing. So it’s also saying, “What’s the thread that’s going to run through it? What is my initial brush stroke going to be?  And how do the strokes that follow fit in?  How do they help me tell that coherent narrative?”

Let’s talk a bit about researcher identity. I think you are quite known for doing non-mainstream or non-traditional research. You’ve done well, and I’m sure others envy your success.  To what do you attribute this success?  And what advice do you have for people who’d like to walk in your footsteps?

I can actually remember a point when I was doing my PhD where I sat there, I was in the US and I was getting into stuff like reflexivity, post structuralism, social constructionism, and so on, and I remember a point where I was sitting there saying, “Okay, I have to make a decision here. Do I want to do what I feel passionate about and I’m probably not going to have a career? Or do I do more mainstream work that I’m not going to enjoy doing, but at least I’ll have a career.” And I said, “I’ve just got to do what I feel passionate about, otherwise there’s no point doing it.” So I made that conscious decision and I’ve now written about it in my auto-ethnographic paper.

That dilemma that you had to work through.

Yeah. I knew it was going to be difficult, and it was a conscious decision to actually do it. So how does one deal with that?  I’m actually going to be giving a seminar on getting published in a few weeks, and I called it, “Patience, Persistence, and Dogged Determination” because that’s what it involves.  You have to be prepared for rejection.  And that doesn’t mean that you don’t go away and cry when you put your heart into a paper and somebody says, “This is a load of rubbish.”  But it means being able to pick yourself up – this is the dogged determination part, pick yourself up and say, “I think I’ve got a point to make here and I’m going to make it somewhere and somehow.”

At some point though, if people keep telling you, “You really don’t get it,” you probably have to stop and ask yourself, “Am I just being stupidly stubborn here?” Did you ever wonder about that?

No, because if I had, then I might have started to doubt myself. There’s a cult classic 1960s book, they also made a film out of it, called “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.”  It’s an old black and white film, and it’s a story of a poor guy from the North of England who was determined to become a long distance runner. And for years and years I’ve had a poster of the movie in my office at home. Tom Courtney plays the role of the long distance runner in the film, and he’s sort of like running alone in the picture and I’ve always had that in my office because it really captures, at least for me, the feeling of what I was doing. It was a long, lonely, experience. But it’s not just that. It’s also about finding colleagues who will support and encourage you and not taking the comments you get from reviewers too much to heart.  If it seems as if they really don’t understand what it is that you’re doing, then it’s saying, “Okay, I just need to find another audience for it somehow.” Which is what I did.

The other thing that I’ve tried and I still try to do is to create spaces for scholars who want to do different work, where they can exchange with each other and get support from like-minded scholars, which is what my qualitative research methods conferences are for. I was also involved for 12 years as associate editor and co editor-in-chief of a journal that is interested in non-traditional work (Management Learning). So in general I’ve tried to position myself in a way that I can offer people opportunities and encourage them to work from a different perspective.

So what about advice then?  What would you say to people who are just starting out?

You’ve got to follow your heart. You’ve got to decide what you want to do and what is best for you.  Nobody can make that decision for you. I encourage my students to explore their options before they make a decision and to not take it as given that there’s only one way of doing research. I also tell them to be persistent, because it’s just so incredibly competitive now. But it hasn’t always been this way.  I used to say to students, “Look, do what you have to do to get through your PhD, you can worry about the rest later.”  Then I realized that most people, when they do that, just continue doing their PhD work after they graduate. So since then I’ve changed my advice, and now I tell students to explore the possibilities now, so that they can decide what they want to do early on, because momentum and expectations get built in pretty quick.  Before you know it, you’ve established your co-authors, the sort of work you’re going to do, and it gets harder and harder to change.  I’ve seen this happen a few times where an author will say, “I’m known for this article that I wrote, but that’s not really me. I’m actually about this, but people can’t seem to think of me in terms of anything but that article.” Something like that feeds into the process of directing where your work tends to go. People will call you because they know you from that article. Invitations to collaborate, or to speak all turn towards it – a momentum is created around how people have consumed your work, and once it gets going, it’s very, very hard to change or to get out of it.  So now I really try to encourage people to only write the papers they want to write.

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier.


Goodall Jr., H.L. (2005); Narrative Inheritance: A Nuclear Family With Toxic Secrets; Qualitative Inquiry; 11 (4); p. 492.

Cunliffe, A. L. and Matthew Eriksen (2011); Relational leadership; Human Relations; 64 (11); p. 1425.

Cunliffe, A. L. (2001); Managers as practical authors:  Reconstructing our understanding of management practice; Journal of Management Studies; 38 (3); p. 351.

Weick, Karl (1993); The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster; Administrative Science Quarterly; 38 (4); p. 628.

Long Distance Runner 2

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