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Never give up: An interview with Hari Tsoukas

Hari Tsoukas

Hari Tsoukas

Columbia Ship Management Professor of Strategic Management, University of Cyprus and Distinguished Research Environment Professor of Organization Studies, Warwick Business School

What can I say about Hari?  First off, I should say that I loved this interview. It’s so… well… Hari.  It comes at you from the side, a bit unexpectedly.  It is profoundly philosophical, but that is perhaps to be expected, given who we’re talking about.  It reminds us of why we do this.  It is grounded, and yet aspirational.  It is real, but perhaps also a bit unreal (Oh my! Look at this! Here I am unwittingly finding myself using Hari’s conjunctive theorizing to try and explain my sense of this interview and the man behind it!  How did he do that?!?).  This interview gives a fresh perspective, a new way to look and think about organizations. Perhaps it will inspire you to pull down one of those philosophy books sitting on your bookshelf… you know, the one you’ve been “meaning to read” since… forever.  Who knows? It may very well trigger that “ah-ha!” you’ve been so desperately waiting for, as you struggle yet again to try and figure out what your next “contribution” will be.

Let’s start from the beginning – where do your ideas for writing articles come from?

From reading, I suspect. It’s definitely a source of ideas for me. What do I read? Mainly academic papers and books of all sorts (a lot of philosophy, politics, and of course from our field) lead me to formulate some ideas. A second source would be the press, newspapers, conversations – conversations at conferences, informal conversations with colleagues, informal seminars. Those would probably be the main three. So for example, I was recently reading an article in the Financial Times about Apple and the purpose of the corporation – there was a special committee which produced a report. It was something that intrigued me, and that might trigger my thinking.

And when you say books, what kind of books?

When I am in a bookshop, my inclination is to go to the philosophy section. I might visit the business section at the end, if I go there at all. But philosophy is really what attracts me most.  Social science as well.

Your training is in philosophy?

No. My basic training was in engineering, actually. I describe myself as an unhappy engineer. I never enjoyed engineering.

How did you end up becoming an engineer if you disliked it so much?

There was an expectation in Greece at the time that if you were good in high school, you would go into engineering, which was considered to be quite prestigious. It still is, I guess, as is medicine. But it wasn’t me. I love mathematics, but I don’t have a technical mind and you have to have a technical mind for engineering. I’m a self-taught amateur philosopher. To be precise, someone who loves philosophy, who thinks philosophy is not just a system of ideas, but something that illuminates life in many important ways. Which is, if you like, the Socratic idea of philosophy. Philosophy makes life worth living because it makes one’s life an examined life, a reflective life. And interestingly, I think that the more we learn about the world through scientific methods, the more fundamental the questions we ask. Take the notion of mind, for example. The more we find out about what mind is, the more inquisitive we are about it in some ways, philosophically speaking. Or to bring it closer to home, the more we know about organizational change, learning and knowledge, or ethical responsibility, the more we realize that we do not know about them. Wonder is the beginning of philosophy.

All of these things can be revisited, and need to be revisited, through a philosophical lens. But I don’t describe myself as a philosopher, partly because I have not been properly trained as a philosopher, and partly because whatever contribution I aspire to make is not in philosophy, but is rather in my field (organizational and management research). Ideas about process, for example, originated in philosophy and theology more than anywhere else.  But they can be transported to the social sciences, to help us understand the world in a more dynamic way.

Who are your favourite authors?

More contemporary authors, I would say Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre; Richard Rorty and Bert Dreyfus, as well. And then going back in time, I would say Heidegger and Wittgenstein are my favourites, followed by Bergson and Whitehead. And going back even further, Aristotle, of course. And I’ve skipped the American pragmatists, Dewey and James.  So if I were to put my philosophers on a shelf, these are the authors you’d find. That makes for a lot of fascinating stuff. I think I owe my interpretative orientation in the social sciences to Charles Taylor’s philosophy. In my view, he was one of the first to articulate, in a very convincing way, what an interpretative social science looks like. And Wittgenstein was my hero. I love his writing, his non-rationalism, his questioning of rationalism. So authors like these, their ideas, are like my foundation.  And it seeps through everything I do – my work, my research and other things.

It helps you make sense of organizational phenomena.

Exactly. My latest discovery – latest in the last 10-15 years, are the process philosophers, Bergson and Whitehead primarily. So Bergson, Whitehead and William James would be the process philosophers. I think they are very important because if we want to understand the world more dynamically, how do we do this? We need to revisit concepts of change, of process. And there are these great minds who have already thought about this some 100 years ago. So there is a body of knowledge out there which I think we can draw upon to enrich our understanding of change, time, process; which I think have natural implications for the way we understand organizations.

Why are the classical social scientists, like Durkheim, Marx or Weber not on your list?  Were you never attracted to them?

I was, Weber mostly. But somehow, again, I was not formally schooled in sociology, which has made me more liberal in my borrowing, if you like, more eclectic.

You’re known especially for writing theoretical or conceptual papers. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything from you that’s empirical. Most people tend to find doing empirical work easier than theoretical work. What’s the appeal or interest?

It’s a good question. I think about it myself sometimes. I think I have a theoretical mind.  I am attracted by conceptual arguments. I think in abstract terms, I love theorizing. And I think it’s what I’m skilled at. And perhaps as well, at a psychological level, I find empirical stuff complicated, messy and, of course, time consuming. So I’m not the best person to get his hands dirty with empirical work. But having said this, I love data. I love evidence. I don’t think one can do social science without evidence. So I do rely heavily on other people’s data – I feel sometimes like a parasite who draws on other people’s work. My consolation for my excessive theoretical orientation is that some of the best social scientists were very conceptual, like Giddens and Luhmann, who are among my favourite sociologists.

You’re not saying you don’t have respect for empirical work, you just don’t like to do it yourself – data collecting and stuff.

I have profound respect for empirical work. Without it, social science would be impossible. For me, academic research is doing what you’re good at, what you love doing most. There are people who love data. They love getting their hands dirty. But I’m not in that camp. I love ideas.

Some people do a bit of both, a bit of theory stuff, a bit of empirical stuff.  Others have a strong empirical orientation. But you don’t often find people, certainly not in organizational studies, who do only conceptual work.

You’re right and the advice I give to my Ph.D. students and to young researchers is to be more balanced than I am. I think it’s important to be on both tracks. Do both empirical research and conceptual work. And at the end of the day, remember to follow your passions. See what you’re good at, what excites you most, and just carry on doing it.

To understand how someone writes, I sometimes find it helpful to talk about a specific paper. Can you tell me a story about a paper you wrote? 

We can talk about the knowledge creation paper, which was published in Organization Science in 2009. That paper was originally rejected by AMR (Academy of Management Review). And you know how frustrating that can be – to get about 10 pages of comments, good comments, but still. It’s a rejection!  I remember one reviewer in particular who did not at all engage with the paper’s arguments. As a reviewer and as an editor, these situations are a constant reminder to myself to make sure that I engage with an author’s arguments.  This means to appreciate their point of view, and to critique the work from that point of view.  And in that case, I felt that one of the reviewers completely missed the point, and was very critical.

So let’s backtrack a little bit. What sparked the idea for that paper?

I have been concerned with knowledge in the firm since early 90s. And I guess it had a lot to do with my philosophical search at the time.  If you are concerned, as I always have been, with epistemological issues, then knowledge creation in organizations would be something you would be naturally concerned about. And that is what I was gradually moving towards – better understanding of knowledge and knowledge creation in organizations. I published a paper in SMJ (Strategic Management Journal) in 1996, “The Firm as a Distributed Knowledge System”, which I think has the highest number of citations of all my papers. I loved writing it. For me then, moving from there to articulate a theory of knowledge creation in organizations was the next logical step.

So a natural extension of that earlier paper?

Yes.  And I had been trying to publish that second paper since – or rather, let’s say that it was in the making since 2003. I presented it at seminars and conferences all over the world, the US, Australia, Britain; but even so, I was not initially lucky with it. It was at first rejected.

Do you remember what that reviewer’s main concerns were?

I think that he or she just didn’t get it. I think the other two reviewers did engage with the argument, at least more so, but then again, if you challenge foundational concepts and try to go beyond them, it is likely that you will have a hard job convincing the reviewers. For example, there’s a neat typology in organizational learning, which is “individual/group/ organizational”. I think this is too simplistic. Philosophically, one can critique it very easily. The individual is not separate from the collective. You cannot learn or make sense of things individually. Individuals draw on broader understandings and resources which are located above the level of the individual. So the original perspective didn’t make sense to me at all. And in that paper, I was challenging that. I was questioning that kind of categorization. But doing that actually leaves you nowhere, because there’s no alternative terrain on which you can ground yourself without needing to do a lot of philosophical work, which will probably alienate reviewers.

Plus, you only have like 30 pages.

Exactly. For me, this is always a challenge. So with that paper, one reviewer did not get it, and I think the others were sort of confused by the lack of neat categorizations –  which, by the way, is one of the challenges of doing what I call “conjunctive theorizing” because you need to bridge things. And when things have been traditionally kept apart, it’s not easy to create bridges that are convincing to reviewers.

Anyways, when I got the R&R from Organization Science, there were something like fifteen pages of single-space comments, many of them contradictory. I can still remember it vividly:  I felt momentarily quite frustrated and dispirited because I already knew then that if I was to convince my reviewers, I had to do justice to each one of their comments. But I have found – and this is my advice to younger researchers – that you’ve got no other choice but to persevere. You’ve got to grit your teeth and say, “I’m going to do this.” And personally, I’ve found that it’s often when I’m challenged that I give out my best. This is maybe the Greek in me (we love debates and arguments in the Greek culture), I don’t know.  But I need the challenge. I need someone to criticize me, to stand up to me and say, “This is wrong.” When I’m challenged, I put extra effort into getting things done. So I remember putting that extra effort in, reading more, trying to figure out how to convince the reviewers.

When you had submitted the paper to AMR, was it desk rejected after the first or second round?   

After the second round.

So you had already partly rewritten the paper then, which makes it even more frustrating.

It is. But I can understand how reviewers could have been critical of that early version. It was possibly too philosophical and not sufficiently social science oriented. That I can see now. They had a point. But then again, if a reviewer engages with the argument, he or she can suggest ways the author can articulate it better. “Look at this, look at that, you need to do XYZ.” But to do that requires sympathetic engagement.  It requires a reviewer saying, “I can see where you’re coming from. I can see the possibilities in your argument – here are some ways you can develop it more.” I felt at the time that the reviewers I got then didn’t do that.  But don’t get me wrong: constructive reviewing is challenging to do. Very challenging.

Being unfamiliar with the literature the author is citing makes it even more difficult.  

And that is something I am very sensitive to as an editor. To do justice to a paper, it is extremely important to have people who are competent to judge it. And when I was the editor-in-chief of Organization Studies, I sometimes took risks with papers, sometimes even going against reviewers’ recommendations because I could see potential in a paper that the reviewers did not. But I can only do that with papers for which I know the literature. I felt that those first reviewers did not do that.

They didn’t see the potential, and so the editor rejected it. What did you do then? Did you change the paper at all before submitting it to Organization Science?

It did change it, yes. I tried to make it more organizational. I got good comments from Organization Science, really hard hitting but helpful comments which helped. I made the paper more organizational, with good illustrations. I drew on cognitive psychology more than I had in the earlier AMR draft, because psychologists or sociologists are more concerned with outlining mechanisms by which things happen.  So I had a model in the end of how new knowledge is created.

The pressure they put on me pushed me to develop original insights which were worth developing.  I added to them a more psychological, social scientific dimension which was not in the original paper. But I do remember feeling almost hopeless at the time. How am I going to convince these reviewers that I have something interesting to say?

How many rounds of reviewing did you have to go through before it was published?

Three rounds I think. It helped that I had Martha (Feldman) as editor, who is sensitive to this type of argument, and constructively critical reviewers. Subsequently, I found out that one of them was Paul Carlisle, and Paul is a solid social scientist, who is very thorough and constructive. So these were people who were receptive to where I was coming from. Do you know Carlisle’s work?

Yes, on boundaries.

Exactly. You can see – these are North American scholars who are open to things coming from Europe. So if you submit a paper in which you mention a couple of European philosophers, they will not switch off. I was lucky in that sense. My paper drew heavily on interpretive philosophy. I believe in luck. If these reviewers had not been there, it might not have happened.

And how did you find out who the reviewers were?

After the paper was published, Paul identified himself to me.

A paper with another story is our becoming paper, which I wrote with Robert Chia and which was also published in Organization Science. Scott Marshall Poole handled it. I remember when we got the first set of comments – which again were extensive, Robert’s advice at the time was, “The reviewers don’t seem to get it. Let’s just drop this and send the paper elsewhere.”  And I said, “No way!”  So I spent the whole summer of 2001 revising the paper before sending it back to Robert.  But I had to insist, “No, no, we will not give up.”  In the end, it turned out that our perseverance was rewarded. The paper was accepted. So for me, an important character trait to have in scholarly work is perseverance.

Do you find that in that process – and this is maybe where Robert was coming from – that in an effort to please reviewers or to meet their expectations, you end up writing a paper that isn’t really yours anymore?

Yes, reviewers often would like you to write a different kind of paper. But this is the “conjunctive” bit again. I always interpret that kind of reaction as: “I will both stick to my original insights and do what reviewers suggest.” I will accordingly push myself to explore things differently, more deeply so as to make my argument relevant to reviewers. Because if I cannot convince you, the reviewer, then chances are I may not be able to convince the broader community either, because you’re the expert here. The key word is engage – engage with the reviewers and stick to your original insight. So I always take it that way, even if I feel misunderstood. I turn it around and ask myself, “What do I need to do to convince you?” And typically, what I need to do is make my argument more relevant to your concerns: provide better illustrations, relate the argument better to current debates in the field, eliminate inconsistencies, but to do that without relinquishing the original idea or insight that I had.

It could happen though that after three or four rounds of reviews, you end up with this weird hybrid paper that’s really not doing anything for anyone anymore.

I think that is more likely with empirical papers – they lend themselves to be told in different ways; you can wrap different theoretical narratives around them.  I have faced this problem recently. We have done an empirical paper on ethical decision making in organizations.  The way we framed it initially was confusing, however:  we talked about lots of disparate things like decision making, organizational injustice, theories of justice at large, emotions, etc. All of them are relevant but we needed to decide what story we want to tell; how to frame the findings.

And I can see there that if one follows a particular path (as suggested by reviewers for example), then you can end up framing your data in a way that is not what you had in mind originally. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Reviewers may give you insights you had not thought of.  Good reviewers would be able to spot the conceptual cacophony in the paper (the disparate and non-complementary voices), point it out to you, and offer some useful advice.

With conceptual papers, the potential for multiple framing is less likely to happen. If people accept your basic premise/frame or at least are not alienated by it, then what you have to do is convince them that what you’re arguing makes sense, and addresses their concerns. The frame itself won’t be put into question, as happens quite often with empirical papers. Although, having said this, it is not always the case! Recently, a paper of mine, drawing on virtue ethics to explore questions in strategy, was rejected by a leading journal in the third round. One of the reviewers started questioning the basic frame (virtue ethics) – after two reviewing rounds! Not fair, but it happens!

Let’s talk a bit about writing routines? When do you write? How do you write?

I’m a morning person and I need to dedicate blocks of time to writing. I try to make space for this, usually on weekends or half days throughout the week, typically in the morning because after lunch, my clarity tends to go down. Afternoons are time for emails and admin work!

When you say blocks, you’re talking a few hours?

Yeah, ideally full days, but more realistically half a day. But several half days in a row, not just half a day and then another half day next week. It has to be consecutive blocks of at least three hours each. Otherwise, I find that the work gets too fragmented and I can’t focus. And I should add that unlike others, I am not very good in writing several papers in parallel. I need single focus.

Okay, so one at a time.

For me, each paper I write requires such an intense focus, I can’t be bothered by other things.

That must be hard though, no?  Because most of the time, you must be working on papers that are at different stages of development…  

Yes, and it’s a constant struggle. So right now, I have two rejected papers which I need to do something about.  And I have three R&Rs – so several completely different papers that need work. But I can’t handle them in parallel. I need to tackle them sequentially. When I write, I need to immerse myself in the language and in the relevant literature, so that the writing becomes fluent. Because if it’s not fluent, I lose creativity.  The kind of work that I do requires a lot of reading. A colleague, who is quite distinguished and well-known, once said to me, “I don’t do much reading.” And she writes extremely good papers, some conceptual, some empirical. But I don’t know how she does it. I cannot even conceive of writing without doing a lot of background reading beforehand.

Having said this, the R&R that my former doctoral student and colleague and I received for what eventually became our 2013 AMR paper on routines came in when I was teaching heavily, and I had to struggle to revise it at the expense of family time, on weekends and evenings. Something creative came out of that struggle, I guess, but it was very stressful. Needless to say, I am eternally grateful to my wife for undertaking extra family responsibilities when I am terribly busy.

How do you organize your time then, because isn’t this always a challenge for scholars?

Well, if I teach on Monday, then Monday is lost for me. I would rather do administration, more teaching, or I’ll prepare for my next class. Other days are fine, and can be more research focused. So my organizing principle is essentially to identify blocks of time during the week when nothing is likely to interfere with my writing.  Ideally, the phone will be switched off and I try to not look at email too often.  I don’t do any editorial work or other things, I try to just focus on my writing.

Do you actually block off time in your calendar for that?


And if someone says, “I need a meeting at this time”?

I would say no, if I can. “No, I’m not available. It has to be after lunch or whenever.” I remind people, if need be, that writing is part of my job and if I were to disrupt it, I would not be doing it properly. Most Deans and Rectors buy it, provided you say it to them nicely!

Are there any rituals that you need to follow in order to get started?

I cannot sit down and write unless I read something related to what I’m writing first. Reading inspires me, it puts me in the mood to get going.

Do you outline?

I may write a few bullet points, so as not to forget important parts of what will become my argument.  That is usually the closest I get to doing outlines. I don’t produce a detailed overview of my argument in advance.  Usually, I have a core idea, which I think is worth developing, and I’ll have a go at writing it up. I’ll write multiple versions and then I’ll reflect, see what needs to be done to improve it.  In this, I’m not as systematic as someone like Jerry Davis (see interview here), for example.

What about writing style – do you write in a linear way, starting at the beginning and ending at the end, or can you jump around?

I tend to be linear. I can jump around, but only when I collaborate with someone else.  Other than that, I would say I write in a linear way.  I have a go, then I have another go, I elaborate some more, I move things around. But it proceeds in a fairly linear way.

And writer’s block, how do you deal with that?  

I have lots of ideas. I think the struggle is to give form to them, not to generate them. I may have an insight and I know what needs to be done to develop it.  But making that insight relevant and convincing to others takes a lot of work. To give shape and form to an entire line of argument is hard.  It’s a struggle. The key is to persevere, to keep working at it until it comes together.

You mentioned just before that right now you are sitting on one R&R and two rejects. You’ve been doing this for a while, you know how the game is played, and yet you’re still getting rejects.

Absolutely, most of the time.

How do you deal with them?

I don’t get upset. I get frustrated, sure. But despite this, I always view the process as a kind of game:  we are in the game of convincing one another. It’s the persuasion game. So anytime a paper I’ve written is rejected, I interpret it as having failed to persuade someone of the point I am trying to make.  So I ask myself, “What is wrong with the way I constructed my argument?  What do I need to do differently to overcome my audience’s concerns, so that they can see its value?”  When I get rejected, I always assume, even if it is not true, that it is because I did not do my homework properly. I think that clarity and being able to resonate with reviewers are important. So if you don’t use the right language or if you frame the paper in a way that doesn’t do justice to its content, or sounds strange to others, or you have left out important parts of the literature, people won’t buy into it.  In such a game, learning to cope with disappointment while still having the energy to carry on is very important.

Have you ever abandoned a paper? One that might have been rejected a few times at different places?

No, I keep trying. At the very end, it might end up as a book chapter or as something else, but it will find its way.  As long as I’m convinced that what I’m saying makes good sense, I’ll persevere. I have a conviction that what I’m saying is sound and possibly interesting. But this is my conviction. To turn my conviction into an idea that is shared by others, I need to convince colleagues that my argument makes good sense, and this takes a lot of work. This is the hard, laborious bit of the work, and it takes time.  Sometimes, because I tend to be impatient, when I have worked a lot on a paper, I’ll think, “I’ve done what’s needed.”  That’s wrong. This is my weakness, if you like. I’ve learned that it’s better to put a paper on the shelf for a month, two months, and come back to it – you’ll be a better judge then of whether the paper is ready to be sent out or not. If you act impatiently, you’re more likely to make mistakes.

Do you rely on friendly reviews to help you with that?

I do, but not a lot. I know people are busy, I don’t want to be imposing on them. But that’s me, my advice to others is to search for friendly reviewers first.

When do you know that a paper is ready to go?

I don’t think one can have clear criteria, it’s more of an intuitive thing. I think the questions one can ask oneself as an author are: “Is there a clear line of argument? Have I explored the literature as systematically as I should? Is there sufficient novelty or value- added in the paper? What else do I need to do?”

Sometimes it helps me, again in a quasi-dialogical fashion, to ask myself; “If I were a reviewer and I saw this paper on my desk, what would I think? What would be its weaknesses? What sort of recommendations would I make?”  I find that sort of momentary juxtaposing of identity, becoming someone else and taking a distance from one’s own work, to be helpful.  Doing it properly can give you a sense of whether your paper is ready. Of course, it’s always easier to do that with someone else’s paper. But it’s worth a try.

What about your identity as a researcher? How important do you think it is in terms of developing an academic career? 

I think it is important, but it shouldn’t be overrated. It is important because it gives you a frame. It gives you a perspective. And I think it’s important to know what this perspective is, and to learn how to articulate it well, as you go along. My identity has been built over time, but it was not done consciously. I just focused my energy on things that I found fascinating. So the themes that people identify with me were not necessarily consciously chosen by me.  They emerged over time, and it is only when I reflected on my past work, that I could see them as part of my identity. I could see the patterns and I could then carry them forward more consciously into the future.

This being said, while identity is important, it should not act as a straightjacket either, because labels can be constraining. So for example, in the last five years I have developed an interest for the notion of judgment, which brings us back to Aristotle’s virtue ethics and practical wisdom and judgment, which is not necessarily related to process thinking.  I can seek to relate it to process in the way judgment develops over time and people arrive at judgment. But my interest in this notion doesn’t necessarily stem from my identity as a process scholar, as it were.  So identity should only be partly constraining in terms of how it gives shape to what you do. In a field identity is important insofar as it signals to the outside world what sort of scholar you are. It’s the branding side of academic identity, if you like. People will identify you with certain things (perspectives, topics, etc.) whether you like it or not. So one may, at times, be strategic about it, and consciously build symbolic capital around specific themes.

Is this important for emerging scholars?

To some extent.  The German poet Rilke, giving advice to a young poet, supposedly said, “You’ve got to find your own voice, articulate your own voice.” That for me is what is truly important. Whatever my identity, I know that I need to work at clarifying and articulating my voice, articulate what it is that I’m doing.  My advice to younger scholars is to work on things they are passionate about; feel they have something to say; and work hard to articulate their distinctive voice. One does not necessarily know in advance what one is truly interested in, until after one has seen what one has done. Think of Weick’s classic dictum: how do I know what I think until I see what I say?  Certain themes will emerge out of the process of writing and reflecting on the outcomes of writing. What is important for me is to avoid incoherence without damaging one’s creativity. Creativity requires playfulness and experimentation without foreknowledge of results – the risk of waste or incoherence is always there. Coherence is not necessarily something you plan in advance but it is something that may emerge. It is in the space between the need to be identifiably coherent and playfully creative that novelty lies.

Identify some of sort of thread that pulls everything together?

Sometimes this comes spontaneously, but more often you’ve got to pragmatically reflect on it. What is it that you have been doing? How is that related to that? Take it forward. For pragmatic reasons, it’s worth asking yourself these questions. When you’re looking for a job, people have got to be able to label or identify you in some way. So if someone looks at my CV, what do they see?  It shouldn’t become an obsession, or an ongoing strategic preoccupation – just something you keep at the back of your mind.

What advice do you give to young scholars?

First, I tell them that there is no substitute for hard work. You have to really know the literature in your domain.  You’ve got to be an expert in whatever theme or topic you have identified. You don’t so much need creativity for this, you just need to roll up your sleeves and sit down and do the reading and do it reflectively. So a lot of hard work. Second, if you’re attracted to philosophy, wonderful. But remember, you’re not a philosopher, you are an organizational scientist. So you’ve got to contribute to organizational science and whatever ideas you take from philosophy, you’ve got to be able to demonstrate that they make a difference to the particular topic you explore.  Whatever intellectual inspiration you get, you must be able to relate it to your field. And third, persevere. I think that in our job, frustration is a much more frequent feeling than being pleased and happy about outcomes, so being able to handle frustration is important.

It is important to remember that the academic persuasion game is based on criticism. I’ve found that in the last 25 years, we have become softer in our academic criticism. We don’t want to offend people. We want to be kind and, as a result, the tone of criticism has become diluted.  While I acknowledge the importance of collegiality, relentless critique is the engine of intellectual progress. We should be telling our doctoral students that they will have to stand up in front of an audience, defend their paper, thesis, or presentation at a conference. You’ve got to be able to convince others about your ideas and address critical questions. So students must get used to being criticized by others. Meaningful engaging and sometimes foundational critique is the engine of change in any academic field. And yet more recently I’ve noticed that we are reluctant as a scholarly community to offer or receive critique. In fields like philosophy this is not the case.

Well, there’s criticism and criticism.  There is criticism which is tough, but also constructive. As you said before, where reviewers actually engage with your argument and try to consider it from your point of view. And there’s criticism which is harsh and mostly about gatekeeping.

I agree, and I also mentioned earlier my frustrating experience with non-engaging criticism. Again, being conjunctive in my thinking, I don’t think there’s any dichotomy between being kind and being critical at the same time. If you’re a good professional, you care to be constructive, since this is the essence of dialogue. When we engage with others in a dialogical conversation, we acknowledge the thread that binds interlocutors in it. Reviewing is the institutionalization of such dialogue (quasi-dialogue, to be precise). You do not critique to demolish but to help someone construct a better argument. Both parties are bound to the search for clarity, better argument, for truth, if you like. The integrity of the process requires that we be able to withstand criticism and take it constructively.  I would suggest even further, that even if criticism is unconstructively offered to you, there is still something there that you can learn from it. At least, I try.

So you see it as a challenge?

I always see it as a challenge. What can I learn from those that dispute my claims?

I’m going to convince you. You are not leaving this conversation until I’ve changed your mind.

Exactly. Although, more precisely, like in an authentic conversation, both interlocutors end up partially changing their minds. Hans-Georg Gadamer, the great hermeneutics philosopher, talks about the “fusion of horizons” that emerges in a process of dialogue.

Is there anything about writing that pops in your head that you’d like to talk about or that I haven’t asked and you think might be helpful for others to know?

One thing I might add is the importance of immersion, and the accompanying emotional as well as moral identification with what one does. One needs to be immersed in a particular field to experience and feel the concerns, debates, unresolved issues, and tensions in it, and to want to contribute to its development.  It is very similar to what is going on in any process of skilled performance, as the late Bert Dreyfus kept reminding us. Fundamentally, writing for me is about expressivity. Writing is not instrumental, for me, anyway. I write because I feel I am part of a conversation to which I aspire to become capable to contribute. I never felt that I need to write to find or keep a job but because I have something to say and feel the need to share it with others. I do not under-estimate the importance of securing a professional future in conventional terms – having a good job and progressing in one’s career. But, at the same time, this cannot be the real purpose of what we do, pretty much like for good professionals and good companies, profit is never the most important incentive. Intrinsic rewards are more lasting and energizing in the end than extrinsic ones.  We are devoted to something bigger. Doing something with care and, hopefully, creativity (whatever it is – research, teaching, etc.), requires devotion, passion, and relentless drive for self-improvement. If you write, do it well, do it constructively, do it passionately.

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier.


Tsoukas, Hari (1996); The firm as a distributed knowledge system: A constructionist approach; Strategic Management Journal; 17(S2); 11-25.

Tsoukas, Hari (2009); A dialogical approach to the creation of new knowledge in organizations; Organization Science; 20(6); 941-957.

Dionysiou, Dionysios D. and Tsoukas, Hari (2013); Understanding the (re)creation of routines from within: A symbolic interactionist perspective; Academy of Management Review; 38 (2); 181-205.


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