Permeable and Cohesive Boundaries Between Relational Systems of Work and Family

Guy Sack, M.A., Management Fellow (2013-2015)

Boston University Questrom School of Business

Department of Organizational Behavior



This paper is a proposal for a socio-semiotic ethnography of organizational boundaries. Two seemingly opposing forces, organizational permeability and systemic relational cohesion, will be examined. The extant literature on both of these phenomena are reviewed, revealing a gap in our current understanding of individuals’ experiences navigating the boundaries between meaning systems representing qualitative differences between “work” and “family” relationships. Next, I will sketch three phases of data collection. The first phase of data collection will show the transition process of a family firm, in which the growth of the organization required the founder’s wife to leave her job to come home and run the family firm alongside him. The second phase of data collection will explore the organizational collaboration between the wife’s former firm and a local caregiving organization. The third phase of data collection will document the experiences of members of that same caregiving organization in navigating their own boundaries between an organizational surrogate family and their “real” families. Gathering data at all three collection sites will not only allow an examination of boundary flexing between work and family relationships in two theoretically driven areas (caregiving organizations and family firms) but will also help us understand how both of these types of boundary-disputed organizations are experienced by outside collaborators. Possible implications are discussed.



I plan to contribute to the literatures on organizational boundaries and cohesiveness in two specific types of organizations: caregiving organizations and family firms. In addition, I hope to shed new light on the micro-dynamics of inter-organizational collaboration, specifically regarding interfaces with organizations that have relatively permeable organizational boundaries.


Empirical Context

The proposed study will analyze permeability in boundary flexing in three interrelated contexts. The first is a real estate development and general contracting firm owned by a family in the greater metropolitan area of a major city in the northeastern United States. The founder recently purchased a cabinetmaking company, and his wife left her job as a producer for a local television program in order to help oversee the transition. I will refer to this family firm using the pseudonym Lewis Real Estate & Construction or “Lewis” for short, named after the Lewis family.

Prior to Mrs. Lewis’ departure from the local TV show, which I will call Building Materials, her production team carried out a yearlong collaboration with a local youth workforce development organization, known as Constructing a Future. Despite the budding literature on film and production crews, in the present study, I will keep a relatively narrow focus on boundary permeability in this specific collaboration process. Boundary spanning relationships will be the primary unit of analysis in this phase of data collection.

Constructing a Future assists youth up to age 24 who have dropped out of high school pass the GED Exam. However, this program also involves a unique model, in which youth learn building trades while earning money and providing low-income housing.   A majority of youth graduate from the program and attend college. Many of the youth in the organization have very unstable family lives, and the organization acts as a type of surrogate family for them. Much of their organizational literature speaks to a family atmosphere, and the abundance of program graduates who work at all levels of the organization (including several branch directors and board members) represent a type of paternalism related to familial succession.

A primary reason for the chosen empirical context, as well as the specific chronological order of data collection phases presented, is the pre-established relationship this researcher had developed with the Lewis family. As a means of gaining adequate access to a unique system for studying the negotiation of role-relationship boundaries, this context and order were chosen with the relatively personal nature of both the research questions and the proposed form of ethnographic study in mind. In other words, I got to know this family well by working with them in the past; I have interviewed everyone who works in their family firm during the course of my work. Due to the rapport already established with the family, I have chosen to start here as a means for learning more about negotiating relational differences between work and family contexts.

Bernthal and Insko’s (1993) study examined a similar paradox. In that study, researchers explored the relationship between cohesion and groupthink, uncovering a double-edged sword of team togetherness. This author found that some highly cohesive teams can produce poor decisions.


Boundary Permeability in Context

The boundaries between meaning systems being studied are the internal (moral/cognitive/affective) cultural boundaries that exist within individuals. I argue that the different qualities of these cognitive worlds and the qualities of the internal cultural boundaries between them drive their approaches to relationship building and maintenance, depending on context. I define cultural boundaries as the cognitive demarcations between collective meaning systems held by individuals and enacted in relationships.

Winkel and Clayton (2010) studied boundary permeability between work and family roles. These scholars take a process perspective and emphasize the ability to flex role boundaries during transitions from work to family roles and visa-versa. These scholars also note the increasing importance of family roles in this calculus.

The first phase of data collection for the proposed study would resemble this process perspective but would examine a different kind of transition. Mrs. Lewis’ transition is not a constant cycling between work and family spheres but a relatively permanent transition from a more traditional process of work/family role cycling to a “family-work”/”family-family” type of role cycling.

The second phase of data collection will similarly examine process, but instead of a relatively permanent transition process, the data collection phase focusing on the collaborative efforts of the production crew on Building Materials will emphasize a temporary crossing of boundaries: interorganizational collaboration.

The third phase of data collection will focus less on process and more on structure. I do not plan to study a temporally-bound or cyclical transition process between the work and family spheres of organizational members at Constructing a Future. I am more interested in delineating the social structural differences between work relationships and family relationships of these organizational members.


Systemic Relational Cohesion

In order to discuss relational cohesion in the context of organizational boundary permeability, it is useful to clarify the ways in which different organizational members with whom other members have relationships differ in the extent to which they embody the organization. In other words, organizational boundaries represent boundaries in members’ understandings of what it means to have different types of relationships inside and outside the organization only because the people they relate with inside the organization, to some degree, become equated with members’ concepts of the organization, itself.

For example, Eisenberger et al.‘s (2010) study of supervisor’s organizational embodiment demonstrates the differing degrees with which members view their supervisor-subordinate relationship as synonymous with their employer-employee relationships with the organization. This concept helps unpack the way boundaries between work and non-work roles correspond to the boundaries between the logonomic meaning systems that govern organizational members’ experiences of relationships, depending on whether certain relationships exist primarily within the work context or non-work context.

William Ouchi (1981) outlines the unique qualities of “Z Organizations,” that have a unique cohesion, intimacy, and closeness among their members, which he credits largely to these firms’ interrelated tendencies to have both long-term employment and low turnover. These firms inspire a clan mentality, largely by encouraging a wandering mentality that can be observed in both the high prevalence of job rotation programs and relatively slow, methodical approach to promotion decisions, in comparison with many American firms and what Ouchi terms “Type A Companies.” The clan mentality is developed through this process by increasing the asset specific human capital of its members. This means that the relationships and information developed as a result of experiencing different organizational roles is particularly helpful for the employee within the context of that firm. This creates greater investment and greater commitment from both the organization and the employee and allows for close bonds to emerge, not only within, but across departments as well, creating a sort of organizational cohesion at such firms.

Harrison, Price, and Bell (1998) explored both surface and deep-level diversity and team cohesion. They found an inverse relationship between the length group members had been together and the importance of surface vs. deep-level diversity, such that cohesion of older groups depended more on deep-level diversity, which the authors equated with attitudes.

In addition to finding direct relationships between team cohesion and several measures, such as satisfaction with the team and perception of performance, Tekleab, Quigley, and Tesluk (2009) highlighted the importance of conflict management in determining whether or not both relationship and task conflict within the team resulted in higher or lower levels of cohesion among group members. This study highlights nuances of particular aspects of ingroup “fighting” to gain cohesiveness.

Bradley, West, and Patera (2009), in their exploration of positive psychological predictors of several team-level outcomes, found that team resilience and team efficacy played the greatest role in predicting several team outcomes in established teams. In newly formed teams, on the other hand, optimism played a larger part in predicting cohesiveness. Taken together with Higgins’ (2010) work on the boundaryless career, optimism has important predictive qualities in terms of important outcomes at both the team and individual level when a new employee joins a workgroup. When the group has already been established, however, factors more specific to group members perceptions of the group’s ability to perform, such as resilience and efficacy become more important in the continued development of team cohesion.


Relationships at Work and in the Family

Dutton and Heaphy (2003) explore high quality connections (HQCs) at work. HQCs, discrete moments of life-giving relational interaction between organizational members, create a higher capacity for carrying emotional weight in the relational system. Stephens et al. (2013) similarly found that relational trust and closeness predict both individual and team level resilience through their influence over emotional carrying capacity (ECC). When trust and closeness are high, relationships are able to carry more emotional weight, and this makes it easier for relational systems to respond accordingly when faced with setbacks.

Tannen (2002) compared organizational discourses in academics to those within families. Citing his (1992) work with Kakava, this author highlights the tendency for modern Greek family members to take adversarial stances toward each other as a means of building intimacy. Any particular event in which one member disagrees with another can be interpreted as a sign of solidarity, power, or both. The boundaries of the logonomic systems of meaning, represented by the qualities of the relationships members have in the different spheres of work and family, will be the focus of the analysis.



Empirical Contexts

By collecting data at multiple organizational boundaries all within the same geopolitical environment, a number of additional insights can be drawn, based on the natural controlling mechanism of this shared environment. What this means is that many alternative explanations could be ruled out, based on the family firm, the collaborator, and the caregiving organization experiencing the same economic ups and downs that we would expect organizations in the same local area to experience, to some extent, regardless of industry.


Socio-semiotic Ethnography

One reason to conduct the inquiry in an ethnographic style will be due to the personal nature of the questions. Not only will I be asking relatively probing questions regarding intimate workplace relationships, but I will also be doing my best to elicit responses about personal relationships in informants family lives. In order to gain the richness of data that would be necessary to draw accurate conclusions about these areas of inquiry, it will be necessary for the researcher to spend time on-site as a participant-observer. During the early stages of the research, data collection will primarily be limited to informal conversations, observations of some staff meetings, and a good deal of memoing. Only after significant rapport has been built will more official interviews commence, and only at this time will I attempt to gain access to more intimate types of meetings, such as supervision meetings.



Semiotics are used to compare clusters of signs that exist within different conventional meaning systems, in order to draw paradigmatic metaphors, revealing insights about the underlying structure and meaning of those systems. This sentence requires some unpacking for anyone new to this approach. What is meant by conventional is that the underlying meanings of signs have been doled out in a relatively arbitrary way. That is, they only make sense in a given context because the people in that context have decided, whether implicitly or explicitly, on a shared meaning. For example, a youth worker who has biological children and uses the phrase “my kids” while speaking with a babysitter in her actual home is referring to her actual children, while the same phrase may be used in the conventional space of her work, and the meaning would be altered, in such a way that co-workers understand her to be referring to her young clients and not her real children. It is the work context and the family context that act as cues for assigning meaning to the sign, and the meaning may change, depending on the context.

Semiotics is solely an analytical strategy and must be paired with both appropriate data collection methods and a synergistic theoretical underpinning. Due to the ubiquity of sign systems under study across several disciplines, semiotics has been appropriated by a variety of scholars in different areas, but the approach is only appropriate for teasing apart certain types of organizational phenomena.


Semiotics in Organizational Boundary Research

Marlene Fiol (1989) used semiotics to analyze CEO’s letters to shareholders in order to gain insights about organizational boundaries. Utilizing a formalist approach to semiotics, Fiol used the letters to dissect the way components of organizational narratives combine to form systems of meaning.



Vanneni (2004) discusses the process of socio-semiotic ethnography. In addition to emphasizing the socio-semiotic aspects of this approach, he focuses on the critically analytic nature of the method, noting that is it ‘critically enlightened.’  Vanneni contrasts socio-semiotics with structural semiotics in that structural semiotics pertain solely to the structures of signs and signifieds, themselves, and socio-semiotics also includes the study of the interpretant, or what is interpreted. In this way, socio-semiotics takes into account both the sender and receiver of signals.

In the present study, the relational nature of my research questions is the motivation behind the use of socio-semiotics, as opposed to structural or narrative semiotics. Fiol’s study used actual text as the data collection focus, and for this reason, a narrative analysis was appropriate, but in order to tell my story from a relational perspective, a socio-semiotic method of analysis is preferred.

Socio-semiotics are rooted in the more modern, pragmatist view of semiotics made popular by Charles S. Pierce. The differences between the two, broad, overarching schools of semiotics, the Piercian model, described above, and the earlier Saussurean model, are usually not explicated in organizational research (see the footnote in Barley, 1983) because, to date, semiotics have primarily been used to answer questions of structure. Either broad model is useful in dissecting structures, but only a pragmatist-oriented socio-semiotic perspective would take into account the relational aspects of phenomena: the sending and receiving of sgnals.

Socio-semiotics will be appropriate for all three phases of data collection because, not only will it allow for an examination of relational structures, as in the Constructing a Future phase, but the social nature of the analytical technique makes it useful to track the social structuration (Giddens, 2013) processes that occur when organizational members shift the patterns of the logonomic systems representing work relationships and family relationships, respectively.



This study will be what Spradley (1980) refers to as a topic-oriented micro-ethnography. The topic-oriented piece means it will be directed specifically at organizational members’ conceptualizations of work and family relationships, as opposed to having a more broad, exploratory focus. The micro aspect of the study means that I will be keeping my analysis grounded in discrete social interactions, as opposed to examining a broader society. The ethnographic product will resemble what Van Maanen (1988) calls a ‘realist tale.’ This means that I will take a relatively dispassionate stance towards the actors in my research context. Due to the relatively fine-grained, mechanistic nature of semiotic analyses, as well as my need to bracket assumptions, a more dispassionate tone will fit the analyzed data more appropriately.

Each of the three phases of data collection will involve a process similar to that depicted in “Figure 4” from Spradley’s (1980) book on ethnography. This means that I expect my perspective on which research questions are most important to change as I complete the first phase of data collection, in preparation for the latter two phases. I expect my perspective to similarly shift between the second and third phases. I will use the ethnographic record generated from each phase to help me reformulate and refocus before each additional phase of data collection.

The above figure is from Spradley (1980).


The forms of participant observation (Spradley, 1980) I will employ in my data collection will shift from phase to phase, each phase enabling for smoother entry into the next phase. For the first phase of data collection, I have already spent one summer consulting to the Lewis family. During this assignment, however, I had little opportunity to do much observation. This time around, I plan to spend significant (15-20 hours/week) time on-site in various locations where contracting work is being carried out, in addition to the time I spend at the workshop headquarters.

In preparation for the second phase of data collection, I will engage Mrs. Lewis in an in-depth discussion of what is involved in the production of television programs, in general, as well as her former TV program, in particular. Building Materials focuses on the reconstruction and restoration of dilapidated homes. Some crewmembers work construction in front of the camera, while others perform the functions more typical of a television program, such as camera work, direction, and production. I will see which roles for which they believe me to be fit and will try anything I can get my hands on, in order to learn more about the specifics of the work. Through this process, I will gain new insights into the nature of their collaboration with Constructing a Future.

Depending on the current nature of the collaboration, I may have to adjust the representation of my study to no longer purely ethnographic because, while it will include participant observation about the general process of building and filming, it will lack participant observation taking place amidst the collaboration, itself. However, as noted, this adjustment will depend on the current nature of the collaboration.

As I enter the third phase of data collection, I will use what I have learned both in my experiences on Building Materials as well as my previous experiences in youth development work as a means to become an effective volunteer at Constructing a Future. I may teach GED classes as well as work on-site with youth, project managers, and other tradespeople, in order to understand the ins and outs of the organization.

Despite the potential utility of my experience in youth development work, this will necessitate me to bracket my assumptions about organizations such as this one. One assumption I have, both from literature (eg-Kahn, 2005) and from personal experience is a distinct schism between clinical and administrative personnel. A second, related schism exists between those who are bound to a specific headquarters building and those whose job it is to constantly enter the field and travel to and from work sites (in my work, the schism was between headquarters and group homes because we did not have work sites). Lastly, I have a soft spot for these young people. I believe strongly in the mission of the organization and cannot pretend to be impartial.

Regarding my assumptions about the former two phases of data collection, I will need to address the summer I spent working with the Lewis family in the past. However, this experience showed me how little I already knew about contract work. So, while I am a beginner here, I am not quite starting from scratch. I do already have a sense for the organization and power structure of the firm and have already learned some relevant information about the family, such as the son attending the same college as the father. I have essentially no a priori assumptions about television crews. I have seen them filming on the streets of New York City, but aside from this, I have little to guide me as of yet.


Nondirective Ethnographic Interviews

Barley (1983), in his study of the organizational and occupational cultures of funeral homes employed particularly nondirective interviewing, in order to capture, as clearly as possible, the informants’ true, lived experiences. Barley’s strategy was based on his plan to use semiotics as a way to construct metaphors for understanding the strategic use of signals in the physical spaces of funeral homes. Despite his study not actually being a true ethnography, this interview style is similar to the kind sketched by Spradley (1980). In line with this reasoning, the interviews I will conduct will allow informants a relatively large degree of latitude in exploring their respective logonomic systems of work and family, in response to open-ended questioning.

Native language (Spradley, 1980) will be a primary aspect of the focus, if I will be using a socio-semiotic analysis. Language is a primary carrier of signified content. I will start out by asking grand tour questions, but, as the above description of semiotics suggests, I will pay increased attention to structure. Interviews about contexts, specifically, will help me hone my analysis because of the explicit focus both in semiotics and in my research questions, on the importance of conventional contexts, such as work and family. Contexts embedded in the interorganizational collaboration in phase two will also be examined. The ethnographic record will include interview transcripts and notes, as well as extensive memos to be taken immediately after time spent on-site. I will use a shorthand system of markings, such as asterisks and circles, to note when I am recording different informant comments or my own thinking. Drawing pictures of the workspace in my notes will also be helpful in clarifying this aspect of the study for when I analyze my record.



Lovejoy (1991) has set a precedent for the study of cohesion by examining language. Lovejoy’s pragmatic study demonstrates the way signal senders manage information and attempt to achieve connectivity with signal receivers through extended discourse.

Golden and Giesler (2007) interviewed informants about their boundary management practices using an open ended interview protocol, in order to elicit an interpretive discourse on intentions, goals, and contexts of boundary management practices. This protocol included questions surrounding work and family circumstances, recreational activities, as well as perceptions of their own work-life relationships, among others directed more at their specific practices of interest (PDA use).

The foundation of the protocol I will use for my study will be based on these categories, except my line of questioning will vary slightly. Instead of asking about the “work-life relationship,” which is focused on a member’s interpretation of his or her relationship with the overall organization, my questions will be more focused on informant perceptions of their workplace relationships vis-à-vis their family relationships.



Observations will primarily take place at staff meetings. Large and small staff meetings may show different interaction patterns both because of the larger number of group members present and the different types of personnel who attend large and small staff meetings. For example, in the case of the third phase of data collection, large staff meetings tend to have both clinical and administrative personnel.

Once I have gained appropriate access, I will attempt to sit in on supervision meetings between managers and direct reports. I will use these observations to help sketch the logonomic systems organizational members apply in their interactions with others at work. Other gatherings, such as trainings and celebrations, will also be included in the analysis.


Caregiving Organizations and Family Firms

Caregiving Organizations

Caregiving organizations (Kahn, 2005) are defined as those in which clients are served via personal relationships between caregivers and care-seekers, such as hospitals, schools, churches, and social service agencies. Vicky Parker (2002), in her examination of workgroup-level factors and their influence on the relational work of caregiving, found that membership boundaries were a key component driving effective care delivery. Parker’s integrative view of organizations emphasizes the dual importance of workgroup boundaries for spanning relationships both across and within overall organizational boundaries. In this sense, not only do workgroup factors influence care-seekers directly but also indirectly, by allowing workgroups to more effectively use their resources in the broader organization.

Bull’s (2002) study of caregivers of elders provides a useful “control group” for thinking about the differences between work and family roles. In both situations, a person is being charged with caring for another. However, in one circumstance, the care-seeker is a family member, and in the other circumstance, the care-seeker is a client of the employer of the caregiving organization or possibly the caregiver, herself. In addition, in one circumstance, the caregiver may or may not have the support of an organization, and in the other the family member generally would not.


Family Firms

Vozikis, Weaver, and Lugouri’s (2013) study of employee evaluation criteria in family firms provides a useful point of departure. This study focused on the aspects of family culture, specifically family cohesion, that influenced human resources decision-making in a family firm. In Vozikis’ study, the definition of cohesion used is borrowed from Olson et al. (1988) and emphasizes closeness and emotional bonding among family members. These authors also cite Olson et al. in claiming that more cohesive families tend to have better delinieated boundaries between their business lives and their family lives.

The Vozikis study focused on the evaluation of prospective family members for selection into the family firm, depending on the ability levels of those prospective family members. The authors problematize the topic by pointing out that the documented failure of the majority of family firms is due largely to their embededness in two overlapping systems and the failure of most family firms to adapt their human resource practices to the tensions of this situation. Without the proper people in the proper place at the proper time (eg-when the founder dies), these firms suffer.   They found a schism between the espoused meritocracy of the decision-making structure and the enacted selection of unfit family members to hold positions within the family firm. The authors note that the small sample size and limited cultural range of their sample warrant significantly greater attention to this area of study, if valid conclusions are to be drawn and generalized.



Both types of organizations represent blurry boundaries between logonomic systems in that, like families, they have a nepotistic or paternalistic succession structure. Constructing a Future employs a relatively large percentage of its program graduates at all levels of the organization, including several members on the board of directors. In addition, family firms generally rely on the children of the founder to run the firm in a process of intergenerational turnover that often proves problematic for reasons among those discussed in the above sections regarding Vozikis’ findings about employee evaluations in family firms. Interestingly, Mr. Lewis’ son attends the same college Mr. Lewis did, suggesting that, if anything, this family would only be that much more likely to follow a similar succession pattern, the son following in the footsteps of the father.

It is worth noting that, one of the only types of organizations whose actors’ discourse has been compared with that of a family was portrayed in Tannen’s study of interactions between academics. Academia, like the two types of organizations in my study, involves a similar succession structure, in which graduates become teachers.



The first phase of data collection will reveal insights primarily for current research on family firms, in addition to the literature on cohesiveness and boundary permeability. The second phase of collection will be applied primarily to research on interorganizational collaborations, with a focus on permeability and cohesiveness.

Identity Transforming Organizations (ITO) (Greil & Rudy, 1984), such as those in the military or prison systems involve similar dynamics to caregiving organizations. This makes the third phase of data collection useful for applying lessons to ITOs. In fact, caregiving organizations are a type of ITO, but, as the prison and military examples illustrate, several type of ITOs are not caregiving organizations. However, these types of organizations will still benefit from the insights of the proposed study.



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