11 Weeks as an Action Researcher
We had been following the blue Mercedes for almost 10 minutes up and down the streets of an upscale Miami neighborhood on that hot July morning before its driver, a middle-aged man accused of swindling private investors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, slammed on the brakes bringing his car to a screeching halt.
He jumped out of the Mercedes in a fighting position—palms open with an angry sneer across his mustached face—and ran toward our driver, a TV news camera man, who’d parked just as quickly and who’d jumped out of the driver seat to capture the footage of this confrontation for the investigative story we were working on about this evasive financier, who’d refused to speak to us on camera in past requests.
I watched the violent encounter play out next to me through the backseat window as the accused financier took a few open-palm swings at the camera man trying to smack him, and I hated every second of it. I didn't want to be there, but I didn't really have a choice. So I buckled down mentally and, having experienced this level of journalistic chaos often years ago when I covered crime for newsprint, I kept calm and made sure the car door was locked. My legs grew numb and cold and limp as the adrenaline kicked in and, within seconds, the confrontation was over. The man hopped back into his car when he heard the TV reporter call to him and peeled away after making an obscene gesture at the reporter and camera, which made for TV news gold.
I wasn’t going to start this post with that story, but felt compelled to do so since it was a catalyst, or turning point, for me this summer. This moment of unadulterated chaos was the moment when my experience as a summer intern for an investigations team at a TV news station in Miami collided and clashed with the perspective I’d spent the past six years grooming as an MBA, as a doctoral student, and as a human being learning (or relearning) to live life far away from the grind and insanity of news reporting.
It was the moment when I realized how my mental models had been turned upside down in a matter of weeks and how my semblance of priority had shifted, eagerly willing to put my studies on hold for the chance of landing a full-time job as an investigations producer regardless of whether this role was "aligned" with my new (or "Saybrookian") way of thinking or not.
It was the moment that prompted an internal conflict in me that was strong enough to prompt me to quit this internship days later, which I ended up not doing after being asked to stay, flanked by the admiration and support of the investigations team.
It was the moment I knew that the only way I could finish this summer internship was by assuming the [unofficial] role of an action researcher.
In his 2007 book Action Research, Ernest T. Stringer defined action research as "a collaborative approach to inquiry or investigation that provides people with the means to take systemic action to resolve specific problems." Action research, Stringer wrote, "provides a simple yet powerful framework—look, think, act—that enables people to commence their inquiries in a straightforward manner and build greater detail into procedures as the complexity of issues increases."
I had already started to adopt this role, but it really kicked into effect after that incident.
Some dictionary somewhere must define "intern" as "crud" or "peon" because that’s essentially what I felt like at this company during my first few weeks there even though, given my past reporting experience, the reporter I worked with didn't see or treat me that way. To her, we were equals bonded by similar styles; to everyone else, we were far from it. I was never a TV news person—that’s why I studied and worked in print—but, like the newsrooms I had worked in as a print reporter, the attitudes were snarky, the sharp jabs were constant, and the teasing was very pointed.
As the newbie and the "intern," it was hell; mainly because I had forgotten that, cold as it may be, callous ribbing and teasing is the way journalists generally bond when they're not teamed up on stories, like the case I opened this post with. My inability to completely brush off the ribbing made me realize that I had lost the thick skin I’d developed as a print reporter and had to get it back quick if I wanted to survive. But I couldn’t allow myself to sink back into that way of thinking in the newsroom because those attitudes, which are pretty disrespectful, were never really me. So I took a step back and started viewing these challenging attitudes, observations, and comments as assumptions that were a reflection of the feelings generated in these individuals by the transactional culture of the organization, or what Kurt Lewin defined as behavior being the function of the person in his or her environment.
And this approach worked.
As the weeks went on, my role as crud, I mean, intern morphed. I abandoned the expectation of employment after the reporter was told that someone else had already been promised the producer job—a job that had not been filled for about nine years—despite her objections and insistence that they hire me. Once that expectation was completely abandoned, I became an observer with no real, vested interest in the company other than finishing the internship with an understanding of the harmonies and disharmonies in the work flow, much like a consultant. This gave me the opportunity to gain key insights on the transactional attitudes driving the organization and how miserable this overarching attitude was making staffers, including the reporter I'd been working with who was preparing to leave the company to join a rival station—a process I helped, or "coached," her through.
In addition to the reporter, several newsroom staffers vented to me about issues concerning their inability to communicate with management and the frustration they felt with the limitations in place. One producer—an older gentleman who’d been at the station for 30 years—looked me straight in the eye and said he was tired of being asked to take on more tasks while never having his job title upgraded or changed to reflect the amount of work he does. His earnest complaint made me want to spring into action and help him resolve his concern but, as an intern limited to a reporting team, I had zero access to management. So I could "look" and "think" the way an action researcher does, but I couldn't "act" beyond the capacity of listening and giving advice.
As a journalist, I could understand the staffers' passion driving the dedication to their jobs. (Trust me, journalists don’t take on this job for the money, they do it for the thrill of story-telling.) As an MBA, I could see the management issues that weren’t being addressed. And, as a student of organizational systems, I could see the broader effect these management problems were having on the organization's culture.
But management didn't seem to care enough to view these problems as legitimate problems. They seemed more focused on maintaining the status quo in the short-term.
The reporter's resignation in mid-August brought my internship to an abrupt, amicable, yet somewhat cinematic end in the emotional dust trail of her departure—she was given two boxes, told to pack her things, and was promptly escorted out of the building after 13 years of employment.
The aftertaste of this end—a cruel reminder of how expendable employees are nowadays—was icky to say the least. Even though I walked away from this experience empty-handed, the intrinsic value of my experience was the knowledge I gained from my observations. It was a living, breathing case study.
My application of action research to relate to the individuals I was in contact with wasn't "a panacea for all ills and [did] not resolve all problems," as Stringer wrote. But, by lending an ear and "coaching" when I could, I like to think that I provided "a means for people to ‘get a handle’ on their situations," which Stinger noted is the essence of action research.
I think I did the best I could in this experience, which forced me to merge all of my worlds together and re-evaluate them through the lived experience of others for about 11 weeks.