Dynamic states and spinning plates: Microfoundations of balancing tensions

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The concept of balance holds a prominent position in theories about tensions (Schad, Lewis, Raisch, & Smith, 2016). Tensions are situations involving ‘stress, anxiety, discomfort, or tightness in making choices and moving forward’ (Putnam, Fairhurst, & Banghart, 2016, p. 68). Through balance organizations can minimize the negative impacts of tensions while maximizing their positive impacts (Miron-Spektor, Ingram, Keller, Smith, & Lewis, 2018; Smith & Besharov, 2019). However, this emphasis on balance is not reflected in theories about how individuals manage tensions. For some individuals, tensions paralyze work, while for others, tensions propel work (Andriopoulos, Gotsi, Lewis, & Ingram, 2018). While theory emphasizes the critical role of individuals in stewarding through tensions, it struggles to explain how individuals balance the contrasting impacts of tension. In this doctoral research, I investigate the micro-level mechanisms individuals rely on to balance tensions in projects. Projects are an ideal empirical object for unpacking how individuals balance tensions as they create temporary arenas where tensions are frequent and individuals have greater autonomy to act in novel ways. I use three studies to address this aim. Each study focusses on different tensions in different types of projects, and uses a different methodology, standing as a complete paper. Paper 1 is a systematic review of 289 peer-reviewed papers that assesses how tensions between vertical and horizontal leadership paradigms can be balanced in construction projects. Paper 2 is a longitudinal case-study of how tension between continuity and change is balanced during preparations for a city-wide event. Paper 3 is a comparative case-study of how 38 innovators balance tensions between risk and innovation in defense innovation projects. The results of the three papers are used to explore the underlying mechanisms used by individuals to balance tensions. The theoretical significance of the research is twofold. First, the research contributes a richer understanding of how leadership, teamwork & mindsets serve as micro-level mechanisms for balancing tensions. Second the research gives new insight into the nature of balancing tensions: that balance requires a blend of stable and dynamic states, that asymmetric tension sometimes require imbalanced responses, and that balancing tensions implicitly involves accumulating tensions. Through a dynamic view of balance, the research shows how tensions persist, become entwined and elicit situational balancing logics. The practical significance of the research rests in highlighting how individuals can balance tensions across a range of situations, a skill that is increasingly valued in organizations today.
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