The critical incident technique reappraised: Using critical incidents to illuminate organizational practices and build theory

Gregory Bott, Dennis Tourish

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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The purpose of this paper is to offer a reconceptualization of the critical incident technique (CIT) and affirm its utility in management and organization studies.

Utilizing a case study from a leadership context, the paper applies the CIT to explore various leadership behaviours in the context of nonprofit boards in Canada. Semi-structured critical incident interviews were used to collect behavioural data from 53 participants – board chairs, board directors, and executive directors – from 18 diverse nonprofit organizations in Alberta, Canada.

While exploiting the benefits of a typicality of events, in some instances the authors were able to validate aspects of transformational leadership theory, in other instances the authors found that theory falls short in explaining the relationships between organizational actors. The authors argue that the CIT potentially offers the kind of “thick description” that is particularly useful in theory building in the field.

Research limitations/implications
Drawing on interview material, the authors suggest that incidents can be classified based on frequency of occurrence and their salience to organizational actors, and explore the utility of this distinction for broader theory building purposes.

Practical implications
Principally, the paper proposes that this method of investigation is under-utilized by organization and management researchers. Given the need for thick description in the field, the authors suggest that the approach outlined generates exceptionally rich data that can illuminate multiple organizational phenomena.

Social implications
The role of nonprofit boards is of major importance for those organizations and the clients that they serve. This paper shed new light on the leadership dynamics at the top of these organizations and therefore can help to guide improved practice by those in board and senior management positions.

The CIT is a well-established technique. However, it is timely to revisit it as a core technique in qualitative research and promote its greater use by researchers. In addition, the authors offer a novel view of incidents as typical, atypical, prototypical or archetypal of organizational phenomena that extends the analytical value of the approach in new directions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)276-300
Number of pages25
JournalQualitative Research in Organizations and Management
Issue number4
Early online date14 Nov 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 14 Nov 2016

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