Interview with Louis Pondy Award Winner

Laura D’Oria (LD), Iowa State University, interviewing Arvind Karunakaran (AK), McGill University, Winner of the Louis Pondy Best Dissertation Award for “Navigating Status-Authority Asymmetry between Professions: The Case of 911 Emergency Management”


LD: For the readers that are not familiar with your work, can you please briefly highlight what your paper is about?


AK: This paper is about how lower-status professionals who are ascribed with higher formal authority (by the organization) elicit compliance from the higher-status professionals. From existing research, we know that it is one thing to have higher formal authority, but quite another to actually enforce it in practice. For one, the higher-status professionals may exhibit acts of neglect, nonresponse, or even outright non-compliance in following the directions of the lower-status professionals. When the lower-status professionals attempt to enforce their authority through directly correcting the non-compliant behavior of the higher-status professionals, then that in turn evokes status threat, which could result in even more non-compliance.


Situations such as these are prevalent in a wide variety of organizational contexts, ranging from software product development that necessitates coordination between higher-status engineers and lower-status designers (who have higher-formal authority for design decisions during early stages of product development), during project estimation that requires coordination between higher-status solutions architects and lower-status pre-sales analysts,  in healthcare delivery that requires coordination between higher-status physicians and lower-status “quality care” administrators, in air-traffic control involving coordination between higher-status pilots and lower-status air-traffic controllers, or more close to home – in universities, between lower-status lab safety auditors and higher-status scientists.


In the paper, I refer to this phenomenon as “status-authority asymmetry” and argue that it poses critical challenges to coordinating across professional boundaries, which in turn undermines the accomplishment of overarching organizational goals. The first part of the paper outlines a theoretical framework to explicate the emergence and persistence of status-authority asymmetry inside organizations, i.e., why it occurs and is a prevalent feature, and not a bug, of organizational life; when and why it persists; and how it undermines cross-professional coordination.


In essence, the argument goes like this: the higher-status professional groups, in their effort to preserve professional autonomy, successfully resist managerial oversight and/or direct supervision by another profession with symmetrical status. In such scenarios, to retain some level of control and oversight, the senior managers and bureaucrats inside organizations ascribe more formal authority to lower-status professionals who do not pose a positional threat to the higher-status professionals (relative to the threat posed by the managerial class or other professions with symmetrical status). But this structural solution of ascribing more formal authority to lower-status professionals to direct the higher-status professionals creates its own set of coordination challenges.


The second part of the paper seeks to examine: how do lower-status professionals with higher formal authority navigate status-authority asymmetry to orchestrate cross-professional coordination with the higher-status professionals? I examine this question in the “strategic research site” of 911 emergency management involving cross-professional coordination between 911 dispatchers (lower-status profession with higher formal authority) and police officers (higher-status profession with lower formal authority). The 911 dispatchers have formal authority to assign 911 calls to police officers as well as direct them during emergency response. The police officers in turn are expected to follow the directions of 911 dispatchers when handling a 911 emergency as well as to update the dispatchers about their progress. Cross-professional coordination between the 911 dispatchers and police officers is fraught with challenges, such as the police officers being noncompliant or nonresponsive to the dispatchers’ command.


Conducting within-shift as well as cross-shift comparisons of coordination encounters between 911 dispatchers and police officers, I find that some 911 dispatchers were able to enact their formal authority over the police officers and orchestrate effective cross-professional coordination. I sought to explain how they accomplished this and with what individual and organizational consequences. Neither the dispatcher’s age or tenure nor the (limited) overlap in demographic characteristics, such as gender or race, between the dispatchers and police office explained why some dispatchers were more effective in coordinating with the police officers than others. Rather, the practices that dispatchers used during their remote interactions with the police officers played a central role in enacting formal authority and accounted for the variance in cross-professional coordination outcomes. The practices entailed a combination of relational tactics (customizing, escalating, and publicizing) and communication media (private or open channels). Specifically, I found that while the customizing tactic (personalizing the call-dispatch process as per the preferences of the individual police officer) and the escalating tactic (reporting a noncompliant, unresponsive, or bullying police officer to a supervising patrol officer or sergeant) performed via the private radio channel led to ineffective coordination outcomes, the publicizing tactic performed through the open radio channel (publicizing an individual officer’s non-compliant behavior to the immediate peer group) enabled the dispatchers to navigate status-authority asymmetry and resulted in more effective coordination outcomes.


Peer publicity, generated through the bounded dissemination of information about the non-compliant behavior of the higher-status professional to his immediate peer group (in this case, the police unit), triggered peer control and self-disciplining. This is because the non-compliant individuals’ professional status is on the line in front of his peer group.


Moreover, through the bounded dissemination of information about non-compliance only to the peer group, these dispatchers avoided the non-compliant act from “mutat[ing] into a spectacle” (Adut, 2018, p.10) across the entire organization, which is interpreted as a form of “personal score-keeping” — or more broadly as extra-professional behavior — on the part of the dispatcher.


In that sense, through peer publicity, the lower-status professionals avoid directly enforcing their authority upon the higher-status professionals (and therefore, avert evoking any form of status threat); instead, they indirectly enforce their authority through enrolling the alters’ peers in the compliance process. Through this way, the lower-status professionals generate stealth influence, i.e., disguising their formal authority, while at the same time generating common knowledge about non-compliance that enables the alters’ peers to do the enforcement on their behalf. In doing this, the lower-status professionals were able to navigate status-authority asymmetry and orchestrate effective cross-professional coordination with the higher-status professionals.


LD: How did this project come about? (What was the inspiration for this study? How did you connect with the setting? What intrigued you about the context?)


I was generally interested in the sociology of work and professions and the role that technology plays in shaping professional jurisdictional contests. Around that time, I read Peter Bearman’s “Doormen” and was quite fascinated by his descriptions of how the doormen “absorb impurities by mediating the relationship between the street and the tenants… marked off in the boundary between the street and the inside of the apartment building, close to yet distant from their tenants” (p.16-17). So I wanted to study a profession that exists at the nexus of two different social worlds. I made a list of such professions. Within that list, the 911 profession sounded the most interesting: they were at the intersection of the world of law enforcement/public safety and the world of the public. They did the bridging and translation between these two worlds, and therefore are often subject to the wrath and anger of people from both these worlds. Also, this was just a year after Ferguson, and I was interested in understanding what goes on organizationally at the frontline of emergency coordination. So the 911 dispatch centers seemed like a good place to examine this.


Soon after starting fieldwork, I noticed how the 911 call-takers need to constantly shift back and forth between handling the “serious” calls – as in life-threatening, serious – and the “stupid” ones, also referred to as “bullshit calls.” So one minute, a call-taker will be handling a 911 call from an 8-year old who wants to “talk to an ambulance” so that her dad, who is having a seizure, could be saved – clearly a life-threatening emergency, and its quite traumatic and depressing to listen to such calls; the next minute, the same call-taker will be handling a call from someone whose refrigerator stopped working, who’s worried that all the food will go bad, and therefore wants to get the refrigerator fixed asap; the third minute, they might get a call from someone who lost his apartment key on a Saturday night and apparently is also not sober enough to try and call the apartment maintenance number first.


Both these calls are what the call-taker would refer to as “bullshit calls.” But the call-taker also knows that these two calls are not quite the same. The second one (“lost apartment key”) could potentially become serious if the drunk dude decides to do something on his own, such as trying to get into his apartment through the terrace or something like that – from “bullshit” to potentially “life-threatening” within a matter of minutes, so that call needs to be handled with adequate deftness and skill. The first one (“refrigerator stopped working”), at worst, could lead to a smelly apartment, therefore the call-taker handles that caller very differently.


As a coping mechanism, the call-takers label the different types of incoming calls (and the callers), and such labels are often morally charged. These labels provide them with a heuristic to quickly categorize the calls, but such heuristics are also prone to errors and biases. So during the moment of taking a call, the call-takers are trained to suspend judgment and just “listen.” But given the amount of “bullshit calls” they get every day, suspending judgment is often so hard to do. Things like these were quite intriguing in my setting.


The focus for this particular paper – status-authority asymmetry – emerged more inductively. When I looked around, say in hospitals, in schools and universities, in tech firms, there is a profusion of new roles and professions that are lower-status within the professional order but have more formal authority (within and across the organization) to monitor, audit, or even to just get work done from the higher-status professions. Once I was convinced that status-authority asymmetry is a broader phenomenon and prevalent across a wide variety of organizations, I decided to study this more systematically within my setting.


LD: Your findings show that acts of non-compliance by higher-status professionals happens relatively frequently and generate significant emotional toll for lower-status professionals; however, supervisors tend to see these events as low-intensity conflicts. What do you think are the implications of these findings and in what ways might your work provide insights on how to manage/improve dyadic relational work in the presence of status-authority asymmetries?


AK: If one could conceptualize workplace harassment along a continuum, acts of non-response and non-compliance exhibited by higher-status professionals are often viewed by the supervisors (and the organization at large) as relatively minor issues or low-intensity conflicts. It’s more like ‘so this person is ignoring you and not responding to your emails even though he is officially supposed to do so within 48 hours? Yeah that sucks, but tough luck, keep trying. Maybe send another reminder email?’


Such acts of non-response and non-compliance are not taken all that seriously by the supervisors. But these are also high-frequency events that the lower-status professionals experience on an almost daily basis. So these events produce substantial emotional toll and affect the ability of these professionals to do their job. As one of the 911 dispatchers noted, everyday acts of non-compliance exhibited by the higher-status professionals affected them severely, to the extent that they are “not even recognized as a person. As if I don’t even exist anymore to them.”


In these situations, one of the suggestions that managers give to employees – typically under the guise of career advice – is to “work it out” with that higher-status person who is non-responsive or non-compliant. More than that, the managers view such “soft skills” to work it out and get things done without “creating a scene” or “drama” as a core part of the employees’ job requirement, although nothing of that sort is written in the formal job description. Quite interestingly, it is the managers’ job to address issues about non-compliance whenever it gets escalated to them (and is actually part of their formal job description). But oftentimes, they don’t want to get involved to enforce these rules, as that would put them at risk of ‘unnecessarily’ wasting their political capital.


Instead, they create rhetoric aimed at their own employees, emphasizing that it is not enough to just do the technical portion of the job well but also the soft skills (or “social skills”) portion. In essence, they are emphasizing the importance of relational work. But my study also shows that dyadic relational work performed through private communication channels, and especially when there is status-authority asymmetry between the interacting parties, leads to worse outcomes – both for the organization as well as for the lower-status individual. The moment lower-status professionals make relational accommodations privately, the higher-status professionals tend to view these acts as something that they are entitled to and, therefore, have no obligation to reciprocate. Eric Leifer would refer to it as being locked “into the giver’s role” (1988, p.872), while the taker is convinced that he “fully deserve(s) favorable terms” (p.873).


So I don’t think advising your employees to use their social skills to just “work it out” with the folks that they are supposed to direct is necessarily good advice – both empirically speaking as well as normatively. Dyadic relational work when enacted through a private communication medium – say, for instance, setting up a one-on-one meeting with that higher-status person, sending individual reminder emails to that person, or even trying to be nice by going to the office of that person and gently probing him/her to respond/comply/get stuff done – might sometimes work in the short-run for that particular task, but you also run the risk of getting locked into a giver’s role. This could have more longer-term (sic) consequences. More than that, it is quite emotionally demanding and even demeaning for that individual who is doing all the relational work – that person didn’t sign up for this!  


Ideally, establishing formal structures and organizational processes for handling escalations and taking corrective action, formulating internal rules, SLAs [Service Level Agreements], and turn-around times which clearly spell out the consequences for non-response/non-compliance, communicating these ground rules widely across the organization – these could be good starting points. But things like compliance rules and SLAs, formal structure and organizational processes are not in vogue now. The “employee empowerment” rhetoric has paradoxically shifted the burden of rule-enforcement and compliance to the lower-status disadvantaged professional groups, while the managers are happy to sit back and relax, avoiding the messy political tussle that rule-enforcement, norm-enforcement, or even suggesting corrective action, could bring to the table. Why waste the hard-earned political capital when it could be spent on more self-serving things?!


My research points to peer publicity as a possible mechanism to elicit compliance. Peer publicity is also a form of relational work, but it is enacted through a more public communication medium and therefore is not really dyadic. Other people – the alter’s peers – are listening to what is going on, which in turn creates common knowledge about non-compliance. Through enrolling the alters’ peers in the compliance process, the lower-status professionals are able to trigger peer control, indirectly enforce their authority, and elicit compliance. In my setting, common knowledge about non-compliance was generated through the peer radio channel. In other contexts, such as product development, this might include the use of email listserv and task-management tools. For instance, during the initial stages of product development, the lower-status designers can possibly publicize the behavior of a non-compliant engineer to other engineers within the peer group, say through the product group’s email listserv for engineers or through using task management sub-groups that the engineers use to communicate, or even during a cross-team meeting with other engineers just before the engineering manager arrives.


LD: Would you like to share any challenges you faced during the research process (e.g.: data collection, data analysis, etc.)? If so, how did you overcome them?


AK: Getting field site access was incredibly challenging. I had multiple meetings with the 911 Director and the 911 senior managers, sent out project proposals, underwent two different background checks, a voice-stress test (a type of lie detector test to infer deception from the stress measured in the voice), and cleared all of them. But I still had to wait for a number of months, with no definite answer about site access. After knocking on the “blue wall of silence” for almost a year, I was ready to give up and even pursued a new field site in an altogether different setting. But my dissertation chair (Wanda Orlikowski) and committee members (John Van Maanen, Kate Kellogg, JoAnne Yates) were very supportive and encouraged me to persist. Finally, I got access, thanks to Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, who put in a good word. Sometimes that’s all it takes – the kindness of strangers. I will spare you all the details, but I will say this: no amount of formal procedures and presentations and lie detector tests and legalese will measure up to a good word put in by The Stranger who is widely perceived (by your field site gatekeepers) as someone with no ulterior motives.


Another major challenge was understanding the lingo – especially the police radio codes, but more so the informal codes that the officers and the 911 dispatchers used to communicate. It took me 3 to 4 months to just get a handle on this. I had a printout of all the formal and informal codes, but that was clearly not enough to understand the conversations. Then, I used to listen to the scanner for 4 to 5 hours every day, with the printout in front of me. That helped a bit, especially in figuring out the broader structure of the interactions. After that, I sat next to the dispatchers, listening to the radio chatter in parallel, and asking them clarification questions whenever possible. That really helped in improving my understanding of the micro-moves and tactics that the dispatchers used during their remote coordination with the police officers. There were several other challenges I faced during the course of this project, but I would say that understanding the lingo and being relatively proficient at it in order to parse the structure of a dispatcher-police officer interaction was the most challenging. 


LD: What did you enjoy most about this research project?


AK: Learning about a new profession, its subculture, codes, and lingo, what it values, what/whom it finds trustworthy or morally reprehensible, and why so – all of these were endlessly fascinating and clearly the most enjoyable part of the project. Other than that, it’s a pretty grim project – all day long, you hear people making these emergency calls, typically under enormous stress, sometimes angry, sometimes panicking, and at other times quite rude and entitled, but nevertheless hoping that some form of help would arrive. In fact, one of my field site participants referred to the 911 operations floor as a “laboratory” to study all things dreary and dismal about the human condition.


The 911 professionals try their best to take these calls and dispatch the available first-responders on-time. But you realize that despite their efforts, there are larger structural and organizational issues at play that impede emergency coordination. Observing street-level bureaucracy in action, especially in a time-sensitive setting such as 911 emergency management, is both intriguing as well as unnerving. You learn to appreciate the tactics and maneuvers your participants make to get things done under severe constraints; you develop tremendous respect for them and for what they do. But after witnessing how the sausage gets made, you also secretly hope and pray that you never encounter a situation in your life that will make you dial the damn number. That’s the broader paradox – or a “dreary and dismal” truth if you may – that I learned through this project.