Organizations often face paradoxical demands, dualities, and tensions, such as the need for stability versus the need to change and adapt, the need for employee participation versus the need for management control, and the need for proactive planning versus the need for reactive responsiveness to external conditions. Traditional organizational structures and processes are often not effective in promoting organizational responses to paradoxical demands, and a large literature on paradox has developed in an effort to grasp paradox, its impacts, and possible responses.

This project advances a general contingency theory of organizational response to paradoxical demands. The theory posits that it is not paradoxes per se, but rather the organization's response to paradoxes that determines their impacts, positive or negative on organizational effectiveness. The theory defines six distinct responses organizations may take when confronted with paradoxical demands, none of which is always the best response to paradoxical situations. The degree to which each of the various responses is likely to effectively deal with the paradox depends on four contingency variables: (1) press, the strength and urgency of the paradoxical demands; (2) the balance between the two poles of the paradox; (3) collaborative climate; and (4) the organization's level of experience in dealing with the paradox.

The contingency theory is investigated in the context of the Netherlands emergency management system. Emergency management is fraught with paradoxes, in particular the integration-differentiation paradox and the paradox of professionalism. We investigate how regional emergency management centers within the Netherlands system respond to these two paradoxes and evaluate whether the resulting responses are consistent with the predictions of the contingency theory.

This project contributes through basic research that develops a more general theory of paradox and response. The research also has the potential to ground the development of more systematic instruments for assessing paradox, moderating contingencies, and responses. The project also contributes to our understanding of emergency response organizations, an important type of organization that is representative of networked organizations and fluid organizational forms. Emergency response is a critical function in society. By furthering our understanding of emergency response the project can yield practical advice on how to cope with conflicting demands in emergency situations. This can inform design of structures and processes for emergency response organizations.

Project Report

The specific objective of this project was to test a contingency theory of managers’ responses to paradoxes in the case of emergency response organizations in the Netherlands. A contingency theory explains organized behavior in terms of a set of factors that co-vary with the problem under investigation, in this case contradictory requirements for action in emergency response. We posited that emergency responding organizations would vary in their responses to paradoxes in terms of press (perceived urgency and importance of each pole of the paradox) and balance (the extent to which the poles of the paradox are of equal strength), as well as the cooperative climate of the responding organizations. The investigators developed a unique method of studying paradoxes as perceived by a large sample of emergency responders by devising a survey instrument that included paradoxical scenarios through which the responders could indicate their familiarity with and perceptions of common paradoxes they faced. For example, emergency responders often face the problem of either leaving local departments in charge of managing a response or placing higher authorities in charge of a developing emergency. Each choice, or pole, contradicts the other and has ostensible costs. In the course of the project, the investigators expanded the project to include emergency responders in the United States (Illinois). As we complete the project, we can report that we have identified several generic paradoxes frequently encountered by emergency responders in the Netherlands and the United States. In addition, we have developed a situated judgment method to study the concept of paradox for use in a survey such that we can analyze multiple perceptions of paradox, moving the study of paradox beyond the common case-by-case analysis. We have confirmed that paradoxes encountered by emergency responders do indeed vary in terms of press and balance. We have confirmed that the frequency, perceived press, and perceived balance of paradoxes confronted by emergency responders are related to responders’ preferred responses. Finally, we have learned that established patterns of emergency response are institutionalized in mutual assistance organizations in the United States and similar arrangements in the Netherlands. Based on our observations in this regard, we have developed a communicative model of institutionalization focused on the case of mutual assistance organization in Illinois. This study has broader impact in that we have developed a new way to study paradoxes, re-conceptualized as persistent dilemmas commonly faced by organizations; we have worked with emergency responders to assist them in evaluating their responses to common dilemmas or paradoxes; and we have developed a way of understanding how organizational arrangements become institutionalized.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Erik Herron
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University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
United States
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