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2021 SAP Pushing the Boundary Award


The winner of the SAP Pushing the Boundary Award are Matthew James Hurst, Davide Nicolini, Rene Wiedner with their paper “We Get Them Running Through Walls: Strategizing Via an Indignation-Based Moral Battery”.

Congratulations on winning the SAP Pushing the Boundary Award! Can you briefly elaborate on what your paper is about?

Thank you very much, we were very pleased to receive it!  Our paper theorizes a process model of how emotions are harnessed through organization-level strategizing to both materialize strategy and mobilize executives and managers for it. Leaders of large organizations face considerable challenges in getting themselves and everyone else clear on organizational-level strategy and having potentially thousands of employees ready to act in tight timeframes; often they turn to management consultancies for help. Our paper focuses on an extreme setting of a management consultancy that, while working with FTSE 100 and 250 organizations to set organizational-level strategy, rejects traditional strategy tools and approaches used by most management consultancies in the industry. Instead, they focus on working with and on the emotions of both executives and managers through an experientially immersive strategizing process.

We conducted 18 months of multi-method ethnographic research in this extreme setting and found that through the strategizing process complex emotions are harnessed in careful sequence and combination to, unreflexively, form an indignation-based moral battery. This concept of a moral battery is drawn from the social movement literature and the work of James Jasper.

We found that the strategizing process, through a series of moves, generates a deeply negative emotional pole around the status quo in an organization which repels executives and managers; and a starkly contrasting positive emotional pole around the possible future for the organization which attracts them. The feeling of tension and indeterminacy between the two poles forms an indignation gap which, if sizeable, mobilizes commitment and action towards macro-organization phenomena, such as change. This indignation-based moral battery is first formed with executives and is then replicated with managers to promote organization-wide acceptance and buy-in. We found that rather than individual charismatic leaders maneuvering emotions, the theorized process takes temporal and logical precedent with leaders becoming the carriers of the process in line with a practice-based perspective of strategy.

What motivated the paper and how did it change over time?

The paper was motivated by a paradox in the research setting, the management consultancy stated that they work on and with emotions and yet what is meant by emotion and exactly how emotions affect the strategizing process is largely undefined by the consultants. However, there was clearly a very different, and sophisticated, way of strategizing taking place which was taken seriously by FTSE 100 executive boards. Therefore, we wanted to understand what is being created, and how, through this experientially and emotionally immersive strategizing process.

The paper went through numerous iterations as we debated what was really going on and how. One of the most challenging aspects was identifying the larger moves taking place in the theorized process and what was being accomplished at each stage – the combination and sequence of emotions being harnessed along the way. As our understanding of the moves developed, so the paper and process model had to fundamentally change.

Would you like to share any challenges that you faced during the research process that spanned across 18 months? If so, how did you overcome them?

On a positive note, we had great access in the research setting. However, as first author this was my first major ethnographic study; prior to my PhD I’d completed my master’s degree in social anthropology and spent 20 years in the communications consulting industry. This resulted in ambiguity regarding my position in the research setting. I was a novice researcher and yet seen by those in the research setting as an experienced business leader who could be treated as a confidante and sounding board. It proved to be a juggling act of identities and positionalities! The only way to deal with this was through good communication with those in the research setting and my co-authors (who are my supervisors); noticing when things were feeling particularly confused and talking about it. There was also an ebb and flow around my positionality in the research setting which was important to go with so that they felt a benefit from my being there.

Your paper examines emotions in strategizing processes. Can you tell us more about how to analyze emotions in organizations?

In analyzing emotions in organizations, it’s challenging to embrace the mundane accomplishment of daily life including all the emotions helping to constitute it rather than just the sudden and striking emotional episodes that take place. It’s also challenging to focus beyond individuals and ‘their’ emotions, to think more about emotions in terms of the social and collective aspects of organizational life. In our study a key provocation to our analysis of what was happening was the definition of emotion we took from James Jasper in the social movement literature.

Jasper contends that ‘blanket statements’ regarding emotions often conflate types of feeling that have different sources and forms. The obvious emotion most people think about is reflex emotions (e.g., fear) which are those sudden, short-lived, automatic responses to specific objects or events in life. Beyond reflex emotions, Jasper argues for four other types of feeling. Bodily urges (e.g., hunger) can consume all attention until they are satisfied. Moods are longer lasting feelings that travel across situations and are not directed towards a specific object like reflex emotions. Affective commitments (e.g., love or hate) are more stable long-term feeling orientations regarding people or objects. Lastly, moral emotions (e.g., pride) are feelings regarding people, situations, or indeed ourselves, as being good or bad; they fuel action as we are repelled by disapproval and attracted towards the approval of others.

In our study, taking seriously the different types of feeling and the idea of affective commitments and moral emotions in particular, helped unlock our analysis of the strategizing process and our understanding of organizational life. It encouraged our engagement with longer-term, complex, often messy, flows of emotion within executive teams, the broader organization and how the strategizing process was working on and with them.


Again, congratulations for winning the award! If you were able to do this study again, what if anything would you do differently?

 In the early stages of the study, we were drawing conceptually from the affectivity literature. While there are many interesting ideas in that literature, the concept of affectivity proved difficult to translate into the research setting as it is not a term anyone there could identify with; practically it felt imprecise. The key was taking seriously the concepts and categories used within the research setting which led to moving from notions of affectivity to emotion. On retrospect, this was something hidden in plain sight from the start, so I wished we’d made the conceptual move quicker as the study made much more sense as soon as we did. However, as you’ll note from my next answer, I think that was all part of the research process to finding something interesting.


Finally, what advice do you have for those of the SAP community who aim to receive the award in the future?

Davide Nicolini (second author on the paper) often says: you have to get a little lost to find something interesting…but not too lost! I think embracing that idea was essential to this study and pushing the boundary; we stayed expansive – and a little lost - long enough to allow something interesting to emerge. In this case it was important to continue to get a little lost in the various literatures too, to look for clues regarding what we were seeing in the research setting. It was only once the social movement literature on emotion was encountered that what we were observing in the research setting really started to make sense, however, lots of ways of thinking were explored prior. So, to push the boundary, the advice would be to get a little lost too; keep exploring both in your research setting but also in the literature.