Eileen Piggot-Irvine: A leader in action research

July 8, 2013
Raina Delisle
Eileen Piggot-Irvine

It was one of the best nights of Eileen Piggot-Irvine’s life.

As the Royal Roads University professor of leadership watched children with physical and mental disabilities perform a concert as part of their music therapy program, she smiled knowing that research can improve lives.

“I saw the fun and the joy and the laughter,” says Piggot-Irvine, who led a team of researchers exploring ways they could improve the goal-setting component of the program. “What they were doing was incredible. It was really lovely.”

Piggot-Irvine and her team used action research methods in their two-year study of the New Zealand music therapy program. Piggot-Irvine – who’s originally from New Zealand and joined Royal Roads in 2012 – is a leader in action research, which she describes as a “multipronged philosophy which is inclusive, collaborative, responsive and practitioner-orientated.”

There are three phases of action research, Piggot-Irvine says: reconnaissance, action and evaluation. Taking the music therapy project for example, the research team of Piggot-Irvine and the organization leaders and teachers investigated the current situation, implemented recommendations – such as using video to measure the progress of students – and evaluated the success of their efforts.

“Authentic collaboration is imperative,” Piggot-Irvine says. “If you don’t have dialogue and openness with people, from my perspective action research has not happened.”

Piggot-Irvine first learned about action research at a course when she was working in science. She recalls walking away from that course muttering to a colleague, “This is not real research.” However, upon further reflection, she came to believe action research is a rigorous and substantial process. While it’s a long way philosophically from pure science, it became a passion for Piggot-Irvine.

When she was promoted from a senior science lecturer to the manager of professional development at a post-secondary institution in 1991, she started using action research. “I became more and more fascinated with leadership because a lot of leaders came to me for advice on how to work with their staff when they had problems,” she recalls. “I used to joke that a track was being worn through the carpet to my door.”

It was an approach Piggot-Irvine coined “compassionate confrontation” that kept leaders coming back to her office for advice. “Such an approach is about not avoiding and not controlling as a leader when you need to deal with problems, but actually engaging with the other person in what I call a compassionate dialogue, which is open, honest, evidenced-based and bilateral.”

Today, Piggot-Irvine is best known for her research and work in compassionate confrontation. For her, this approach is intuitive and grew from her upfront Irish tendency. “I have a reputation for being clear with people and I’m also a compassionate person,” she says. “I was looking for something which allowed me to combine being direct with people – with confidentially and integrity – while allowing them the opportunity to buy into the process and work with someone.” 

A true leader in her field, before joining Royal Roads, Piggot-Irvine was director of the New Zealand Action Research and Review Centre, which she established in 2004. She was also formerly director of the New Zealand Principal and Leadership Centre and senior lecturer in leadership at Massey University. She directed 10 New Zealand government evaluation research contracts from 2005 to 2012, and ran a consultancy practice in leadership for a decade alongside her academic work (1997 to 2007), during which time she conducted more than 200 performance review and leadership support contracts. Her work has been recognized with awards and national fellowships in New Zealand.

Today, Piggot-Irvine is the editor of an international action research monograph series and sits on the editorial board for two international journals, Action Research Action Learning Journal and International Electronic Journal for Leadership Learning. She has published four books, multiple book chapters and approximately 50 refereed journal articles. While more publications are very likely, she is dedicated more recently to helping others publish their work.

“I get much more joy out of helping others do research and publish than I do from increasing my own publication record,” she says, adding that a recent article about the music therapy project marks the first time the other six members of Piggot-Irvine’s team have been published. Community and collaboration are cornerstones of her work.

A career highlight for Piggot-Irvine was working on leadership programs for indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands. She would now like to do a study of the long-term impact of those research projects and extend that work to include Pacific Rim countries in partnership with other Royal Roads researchers.

Piggot-Irvine says coming to Royal Roads has invigorated and inspired her and she is pleased to have found a community of likeminded people.

“I keep saying to people, ‘How did I find this place?’ I feel a complete fit with Royal Roads and the people are just outstanding. I feel at home.”