RESEARCH
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When Bad Framing Leads to Bad Group Decisions and Fatal Actions

The tragic de Menezes shooting shows how commitment to certain frames can escalate and lead to bad decisions



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A complex interaction between communication, emotions, and perceived facts help us make sense and ‘frame’ a situation so we can decide how to act. New research from RSM Rotterdam School of Management considers what causes individuals in teams to commit themselves to a single, and possibly erroneous, frame, as opposed to being open to and exploring alternative framings.

This award-winning research covers the moment-by-moment interactions and communication that took place between police officers in London, who as part of a UK anti-terrorist police operation, come to mistake civilian Jean Charles de Menezes for a suicide bomber, with fatal consequences.

This detailed analysis of real-time decision-making has significant relevance in a business collective or team context. “This paper is relevant to the business community because it clarifies the complex combination of communication, emotions and materiality in real-time decision-making,” says RSM's Professor Joep Cornelissen. “By focusing on a dramatic, high-profile case it also offers insights and pointers for questions of leadership, improvisation, and effective communication within other, less challenging contexts.”

Once an idea takes hold it can be hard to shift. In his book Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark talks of the "normative power of the factual" when considering the build-up to the First World War. The pre-War alliance system, the status quo which framed collective thinking, prevented the key players from envisioning any viable alternative to the decisions that ultimately led to war.

Analysis of the tragic de Menezes case shows how commitment to certain frames builds up and escalates with a set of communicative interactions between experienced professionals. The shooting of de Menezes by police officers took place on 22 July 2005, a day after a failed terrorist bombing attempt, and two weeks after bombings by Islamist extremists in London’s public transport system killed 52 people. “The officers’ verbal communication during a time of high-alert was subtle – but crucial – in the decision-making process,” says Cornelissen. “The suspect wasn’t identified according to their protocols, but the subtle cues that they sent in their communications to one another combined with intense feelings of emotional distress convinced police officers that they were facing a terrorist suicide bomber.”

In their paper, the authors analyse how, as a basis for sensemaking and coordinated actions, individual actors in the de Menezes case framed their circumstances in communication with one another and how this affected their subsequent interpretations and actions as events unfolded. The analysis reveals, first, how the collective commitment to a framing of a civilian as a terrorist suicide bomber was built up and reinforced across episodes of collective sensemaking. Second, how the interaction between verbal communications, expressed and felt emotions, and material cues led to a contraction of meaning. This contraction stabilized and reinforced the overall framing to the exclusion of alternative interpretations.

According to Cornelissen the subtle cues and effects of communicating also happen in management. “Business leaders often also are influenced – and influence others – subconsciously through their choice of words and idioms, and at times in unforeseen ways,” he says. “Being aware of how words and expressions frame ideas and prime responses is thus a crucial skill for any manager or leader.”

The research paper co-written by: Professor Joep Cornelissen, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM); Saku Mantere, associate professor of strategy and organization at McGill University; and Eero Vaara, professor of organization and management at Aalto University School of Business won the ‘Best Published Paper Award’ for 2015 from the Organization and Management Theory Division of the Academy of Management. The award is presented to the authors of the paper that the Academy believes has made the biggest contribution to management and organizational scholarship.

The full award-winning research paper can be purchased from Wiley Online here:
The Contraction of Meaning: The Combined Effect of Communication, Emotions, and Materiality on Sensemaking in the Stockwell Shooting, Doi/10.1111/joms.12073


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