Using paradox theory to understand responses to tensions between service and training in general surgery

Jennifer Cleland, Ruby Roberts, Simon Kitto, Pia Strand, Peter Johnston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)
9 Downloads (Pure)


CONTEXT: The tension between service and training in pressured health care environments can have a detrimental impact on training quality and job satisfaction. Yet the management literature proposes that competing demands are inherent in organisational settings: it is not the demands as such that lead to negative outcomes but how people and organisations react to opposing tensions. We explored how key stakeholders responded to competing service-training demands in a surgical setting that had recently gone through a highly-publicised organisational crisis.

METHODS: This was an explanatory case study of a general surgery unit. Public documents informed the research questions and the data were triangulated with semi-structured interviews (n = 14) with key stakeholders. Data coding and analysis were initially inductive but, after the themes emerged, we used a paradox lens to group themes into four contextual dimensions: performing, organising, belonging and learning.

RESULTS: Tensions were apparent in the data, with managers, surgeons and trainees or residents in conflict with each other because of different goals or priorities and divergent perspectives on the same issue of balancing service and training (performing). This adversely impacted on relationships across and within groups (belonging, learning) and led to individuals prioritising their own goals rather than working for the 'greater good' (performing, belonging). Yet although relationships and communication improved, the approach to getting a better balance maintained the 'compartmentalisation' of training (organising) rather than acknowledging that training and service cannot be separated.

DISCUSSION: Stakeholder responses to the tensions provided temporary relief but were unlikely to lead to real change if the tension between service and training was considered to be an interdependent and persistent paradox. Reframing the service-training paradox in this way may encourage adjusting responses to create effective working partnerships. Our findings add to the body of knowledge on this topic, and will resonate with all those engaged in surgical and other postgraduate training.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)288-301
Number of pages14
JournalMedical Education
Issue number3
Early online date6 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018

Bibliographical note

We thank all those who participated in this study.

Our thanks to the Scottish Medical Education Research Consortium (SMERC) and NHS Grampian Endowments Fund for co-funding this research.


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