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Pluralism in perspectives on project collaboration: it’s all about attitude!

Leonie Koops1*, Marian Bosch-Rekveldt1 and Mohammad Suprapto1


Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands

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Leonie Koops, Marian Bosch-Rekveldt and Mohammad Suprapto, Department of Infrastructure Design and Management,
Technical University Delft, The Netherlands

*
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Leonie Koops, Department of Infrastructure Design and
Management, Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Delft University of Technology, Stevinweg 1, 2628 CN Delft,
The Netherlands.
Email: l.s.w.koops@tudelft.nl

Abstract

Within the current construction industry collaboration is common practice. Many different
parties are involved in the various stages of large engineering construction projects and these
different parties collaborate in teams. In this paper we compare and analyze two separate
studies, performed in the Netherlands, to gain insight into the project practitioners’ internal
frameworks on how they collaborate in project teams. Both studies used Q-methodology for
data gathering, but the first study was focused on Owner – Contractor relations and the
second study on Contractor – Contractor relations. By analyzing these studies, three different
sets of attitudes in collaboration were found: unconditional collaboration (those who don’t
need conditions, will work together anyway), conditional collaboration (those who need the
conditions in order to collaborate) and the pragmatists (those who preferably focus on getting
the job done, regardless of collaboration). The research findings support literature views that
pluralism is inherent to projects and project collaboration is about attitudes of people
involved.

Keywords: collaboration; teamwork; trust; Q-methodology.

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1. Introduction
Within the current construction industry collaboration is common practice. Over the course of
a project, many parties are involved, like clients, consultants, contractors and sub-contractors.
These parties collaborate in different projects, in several stages and under different kinds of
contractual arrangements. Large engineering and construction projects in this context are
considered multimillion euro projects, characterized as uncertain, complex, often politically
sensitive and involving a large number of stakeholders (Van Marrewijk et al., 2008). It could
be argued that sharing responsibilities and risks increases the need to collaborate (Phua and
Rowlinson, 2004) but also makes it more challenging to manage (Chan et al., 2006).

In every stage of a LECP, people employed by different firms collaborate in teams. People
with different backgrounds enter a project on temporary basis, all having their own frame of
reference. The combination of different people from several companies with specific
competencies and attitudes causes a complex situation regarding collaboration. In this paper
we compare and analyze two separate and independent studies, performed in the Netherlands,
to gain insight into the project practitioners’ perception on how they collaborate in project
teams. Both studies used Q-methodology and departed from similar sets of key literature. The
studies were performed searching for important conditions for collaboration from
practitioners’ subjective points of view but in two different settings. Study I was on the
owner-contractor collaboration and Study II on contractor-contractor collaboration. The
results of Study II are published in the International Journal of Project Management
(Suprapto et al., 2015b). Despite some differences in research settings, the results show
interesting similarities, of course with context specific differences.

This paper is structured as follows. First, we discuss the concept of collaboration in inter-firm
project teams. Second, we systematically present and compare the results of two different
studies on inter-firm project team collaboration. Finally, we discuss the practical and
theoretical implications of our findings.

2. Team Collaboration in Projects


Large engineering and construction projects (LECPs) are becoming more complex (Berends,
2007; Bosch-Rekveldt et al., 2011a; Koppenjan et al., 2010; Miller and Lessard, 2000) and
are therefore almost always realized in some sort of inter firm collaboration. Literature
suggests common performance problems in LECPs are mainly caused by inadequate inter-
firm collaboration and lack of attention to its social dynamics (Morris and Pinto, 2007; Smyth
and Pryke, 2008; Walker and Hampson, 2003b). Bresnen and Marshall (2002) highlight that
practiced collaboration quite often put too much emphasis on formal mechanisms (such as
contracts, tools and techniques). Such formalization often underplays the important social
dimensions of collaboration in practice and the dynamics of relationships between individuals
and between organizations.

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2.1. Inter-firm team working in project
From theoretical perspective, there has been many notable works on project-based
collaboration. Smyth and Pryke (Pryke and Smyth, 2006; Smyth and Pryke, 2008), for
example, propose a ‘relationship approach’ to project management. This relationship
approach focuses on a set proactive attitudes, behavior, and practices within and between
firms and people involved to induce development of collaboration in delivering successful
projects over time (Humphreys et al., 2003; Rahman and Kumaraswamy, 2005; Rowlinson
and Cheung, 2012; Smyth and Pryke, 2008).

In practice, project-based collaboration is often given various names, notably are integrated
project team, project partnering, project alliancing, long-term alliance, project joint venture,
and project supply chain management.

 Integrated project team is a single team focused on a common set of goals and objectives
delivering benefit for all concerned with no apparent boundary and operate seamlessly
(Baiden and Price, 2011). Integrated project team refers to the project team made up of
key representatives from the owner and key contractors that are involved together in
completing project (Thomas and Thomas, 2005).
 Project partnering refers to a working arrangement (management tool) formed by owner,
designer, and/or contractor and guided by the principles of mutual objectives, trust,
decision making processes, performance improvements, feedback, and joint problem
resolution (Bennet and Peace, 2006).
 Project alliancing is a formal arrangement where an owner (or owners) and one or more
contractors (including designer, main contractor, sub-contractors, and suppliers) work as
an integrated team to deliver a specific project under a contractual framework where their
commercial interests are aligned with actual project outcomes (Ross, 2003).
 Long-term alliance in projects is a formal working arrangement between owner and
contractor or consortium of contractors and key suppliers to achieve continuous
improvement and long-term mutual objectives in delivering portfolio of projects or
program (a series of projects) over a specified long-term period (5-10 years) with option
for renewal (Mayer and Teece, 2008). Formalization of the relationship can be stated
under umbrella agreement or frame agreement that allows stability and change by the
inclusion of open terms such as unit rates, repeatability gain, volume benefits, conditional
performance incentives, and review (ECI, 2003).
 Project joint venture is a special form of project alliancing. It is a new temporary entity
created with shared equity between firms for the purpose of executing a capital project
and/or operating the resulted assets (Xue et al., 2010). A project joint venture can be
formed by two or more contractors (as a consortium) to perform a project and by owner
and contractor firms to build and operating an asset (as a special purpose vehicle).
 Project supply chain management is coordination decision making and integration of key
business processes among key members involved in project-based supply chain (Cox and
Ireland, 2006). It is a management philosophy that extends traditional intra-organizational

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activities by bringing partners together with the common goal of optimization and
efficiency.

2.2. Collaborative relationships


Literature on collaborative relationships has predominantly skewed towards ‘partnering’ and
‘alliancing’ repertoires. A number of scholars advocate the superiority of ‘project partnering’
over ‘adversarial competition’ (e.g.: Bennet and Peace, 2006; Thomas and Thomas, 2005).
When a joint venture (consortium) between contractors is formed a temporary joint entity is
developed. This joint entity is the contractual partner for the client. In this form there is no
hierarchical relation between contractors, but it is a relationship between equal partners.
Literature on contractor-owner and contractor-subcontractor collaboration is extensive,
literature on collaborative relationships between equal contracting partners is limited.

Project partnering in general has been claimed, as long as properly implemented, to deliver
various benefits such as better ways of working, joint efforts in problem solving, sharing of
risks, and eventually more successful projects (Bennet and Peace, 2006, p20). According to
Futrell et al. (2001) the effectiveness of a partnership refers to the degree that the effort of
partners contributes to excellent partnering. Meng et al. (2011) suggest the effectiveness of
collaboration depends on the level of relationship maturity: the higher the maturity level, the
higher the effectiveness.

The success of project partnering or alliancing have been reported in different countries, for
example, in the United States (Drexler and Larson, 2000; Larson, 1995), United Kingdom
(Barlow, 2000; Black et al., 2000), Hong Kong (Bayliss et al., 2004; Chan et al., 2006), and
Australia (Walker and Hampson, 2003a; Yeung et al., 2009). However, several in-depth case
studies reveal that partnering or alliancing do not always meet the expectations (Aarseth et
al., 2012; Chan et al., 2012). Upon two project cases, Bresnan and Marshall (2002) conclude
that “partnering by itself does not necessarily solve some of the problems that it is set up and
designed to cope with [such as lack of responsiveness, contractor input into design, design-
construction coordination]… partnering is clearly no panacea…”.

Regardless of whether partnering or alliancing is formally adopted or not, anecdotal evidence


(Berends, 2007; Bosch-Rekveldt et al., 2011b; Rahman and Kumaraswamy, 2008) suggests
that projects managed based on positive working relationships (based on mutual trust and
long-term orientation) would deliver superior outcomes. Such superior outcomes include
aligned goals and interests among parties, better communication, problem solving and dispute
handling, and better working condition among parties. The survey studies conducted by
Meng (2011) and Suprapto et al. (2015a) support that the relationship quality between project
parties positively affects the project performance.

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3. Method
3.1. Q-methodology
In this paper we compare the results of two studies into the internal frameworks of people
working in collaborative relationships in construction industry. Both studies used Q-
methodology to locate different internal perspectives on collaboration in projects.

Q-methodology is invented by psychologist-physicist William Stephenson in the 1930s as the


basis for a scientific approach to human subjectivity (Brown, 1980; Stephenson, 1953). The
difference with other often used methodologies, like surveys and questionnaires, is the degree
of subjectivity being investigated. In Q-methodology, the respondents give their responses by
evaluating all possible response items relative to each other. While in surveys, the
respondents give their responses to each question in isolation to other questions (Ten
Klooster et al., 2008).

The instrument for data collection in Q-methodology is known as Q-set – a set of statements
to be used as response items derived from a population of issues (concourse) around the topic
of interest. A number of well-informed respondents (the P-set) are asked to do Q-sorting –
rank-ordering Q-set according to the degree of importance through their own perceptions or
beliefs. To facilitate the Q-sorting process, the researcher instructs a respondent to distribute
the Q-set statements (printed on cards) on a standard scoring sheet. The scoring sheet is
usually designed to force the respondent to distribute the statements in a quasi-normal
distribution. By positioning the cards from right to the left (degree of most to least
important), the respondent simultaneously compares and rank-orders the statements relatively
to each other. For the most salient statements, statements that ranked on the extreme left and
right positions, the researcher further asks the respondent of his/her explanation in a short
interview, which allows the researcher to capture additional information. This Q-sorting
process allows the respondents to place their subjectivity to the Q-set.

The respondents’ sorting data (the Q-sorts) are then factor analyzed based on correlations
between respondents to reveal similarities or dissimilarities in their viewpoints (Brown, 1980;
McKeown and Thomas, 1988). These quantitative results are given further meaning based on
the comments made by the respondents during Q-sorting and the characteristic of the
respondents.

3.2. How Q-methodology was applied in the two studies


The characteristics of the respondents included in the P-set were different in both studies. The
P-set of Study I held 30 respondents of three different positions (project directors, project
managers and project engineers) from both owner and contractor side. The P-set of Study II
held 28 respondents of solely managers and engineers of contractors. The projects the
respondents work on were in various engineering and construction projects located
worldwide in Study I and contained large infrastructural projects in The Netherlands in Study
II.

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The Q-set of both studies were also different. Study I used 55 statements, ranked from -5 to
+5, as possible answer to the main question "In order to improve the owner-contractor
relation it is important that…". In Study II, 19 statements (+3 to -3) were used to rank
possible answers "To achieve good collaboration within a project team it is important that
…". So in exception to the research theme – collaboration in project teams – and the
methodology – Q-methodology, there were considerable differences in the P-set or Q-set
between the two studies.

The data analyses in both studies were performed using a software program PQMethod
version 2.33 (Schmolck, 2012). The factors extraction was performed based on Principal
Component and Varimax rotation. Each factor represents a group of respondents with high
correlation with each other and limited correlation with the others. Each factor was
interpreted and described using the characterizing and distinguishing statements. The
respondents’ comments were also used to enrich the qualitative interpretation of the analysis.
To avoid confusion, the terms ‘factors’ in this article are called ‘perspectives’.

4. Results of both case studies


Although the Q-sets differed in number of statements, very similar themes were covered
albeit in different level of detail. Both studies extracted a concourse from scientific literature
and study I also studied popular management literature and held some exploratory interviews.
The statements in both studies referred to very different aspects of collaboration, for instance
contractual conditions, risk allocation, shared goals, informal and formal communication,
leadership, management support and team integration. Study I resulted in 4 perspectives;
representing 4 different attitudes towards the inter firm collaboration. The data analysis of
study II resulted in 3 perspectives towards collaboration within contractor-contractor
relationships.

4.1. Perspectives on owner-contractor collaboration (Study I)


Study I revealed four perspectives on inter-firm collaboration between owner and contractor.
The perspectives of Study I were labelled as shared team responsibility, execution-focused
team, joint capability and structure, and senior leadership pair.

Perspective 1: shared team responsibility. This perspective represents a view that owner-
contractor collaboration can be improved by focusing on a project team with shared
responsibility. The core argument of this perspective is that key personnel from both sides
need to be personally engaged towards a common vision, collectively feel responsible and
support each other. Consciously pre-established norms of no blame culture, openness and
honesty, and mutual respect at the inter-firm level are perceived as more effective than
contractual aspects to govern the working relationship. To this perspective, leadership is only
meaningful when it is displayed by project manager whose responsible for day-to-day project
activities and not by senior management. Owner's effort in front end development and
contractor's early involvement might be helpful but not always necessary. Certain horizontal
and vertical structures remain necessary for check-and-balance mechanisms.

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Perspective 2: execution-focused team. This perspective represents a view that owner-
contractor collaboration should be built on trust and common vision among the execution
team who actually deliver the project. The project team is primarily composed of and driven
by the contractor. Owner needs to trust contractor and acknowledge contractor’s commercial
interest on the basis of open and honest communication and established performance target.
There seems little to differentiate this perspective from Perspective 1. However, unlike
Perspective 1 that rejects the role of senior management, senior management leadership and
support are perceived as important to ensure necessary resources for the project. Also
contrary to Perspective 1, this perspective rejects the role of front-end development. Being
involved in front-end phase makes the contractor also responsible for the engineering design
and what comes later in execution phase (any changes or extra works) might be refuted by the
owner.

Perspective 3: joint capability and structure. This perspective emphasizes joint capability
and proper structure at the front-end of the project as the core elements for improving owner-
contractor relationship. This also implies strong owner role in the early phase of the projects.
The project team should be formed early from owner and contractor key personnel. Owner's
effort in front-end development and contractor's early involvement are critical to
collaborative relationship. Structure and hierarchy are crucial to establish stability of tasks,
responsibilities, and authorities as well as decision making process. With this argument,
contract plays an important role solely to structure the clarity of responsibility. Overall, this
perspective focuses on elements to form capable project team and governance structure ‘right
from the start’.

Perspective 4: senior leadership pair. This perspective emphasizes the role of senior
management leadership pair to establish the project team and shape the right working culture.
To this perspective full alignment at senior management level will set the desirable
collaborative atmosphere to the project team. Such collaborative atmosphere should be based
on respect of differences, no blame culture, and open and honest communication. Like
Perspective 3, owner's effort in front end development and contractor's early involvement are
considered helpful to set the required condition. Also structure and hierarchy are needed to
avoid chaos.

Study I also revealed 6 statements as highly important for owner-contractor collaboration


across four perspectives:
 Affective trust within project team. The relationship works on trust and trust grows on
transparency. At the end it is people who work together and deliver a project so they need
mutual trust.
 Open and honest communication. Active communication without hidden agenda on both
sides will be the basis for trust and improving the relationship.
 Shared objectives. Common objectives bind people and through this, people are prepared
to accept their responsibilities, confirm what they want to achieve, and encourage people
to take care of others.

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 No blame culture. In the face of problems and potential disputes, the parties need to solve
it as one party and focus on what they can do best. No blame culture supports openness
and in turn develops trustworthiness among parties and people in the project team.
 Social interaction. Social interaction or celebration is necessary to build trust and to
motivate people.
 Acceptance on conflicting opinions. There must be room for conflicts to understand and
solve differences in opinions. Tensions and differences in opinions allow for a
constructive discussion and mutuality.

4.2. Perspectives on collaboration among contractors (Study II)


Study II revealed three perspectives on inter-firm collaboration on the contractor side. These
three perspectives were labelled as the unconditional team worker, the independent
pragmatist and the conditional collaborator.

Perspective A: unconditional team worker. Thirteen respondents load significantly on the


first factor; perspective A. The respondent who defines this perspective is considered an
unconditional collaborator. Open and honest communication dominates this perspective,
where informal communication is valued more important than formal communication. As can
be derived from the interview results, generally respondents argue that it is important that
individuals move into the same direction. Though a shared objective is manifested, the
specific definition of the end goal is of subordinate importance according to the respondents.
Risk factors in general are not considered as facilitating for collaboration within this
perspective. Respondents argue that gain and pain sharing is not important, individuals do not
have to have common priorities and clarity on risk allocation is not necessary as long as
communication is open and honest and respect and understanding exists, collaboration
becomes a success.

Perspective B: independent pragmatist. A limited number of only three respondents load


on this perspective. However, their high factor scores indicate a rather specific view, which
makes this distinctive group relevant to include. Similar to the first perspective open and
honest communication is dominating but now no significant difference within importance
between informal and formal communication is manifested. This perspective is uniquely
sensitive for ‘attainable goals’. The interview results explain that this perspective needs to
have attainable goals to make the project tangible and manageable. A shared objective is
considered not necessary if project role guidelines are set sufficiently. “Not everybody has
the same objective and it is not even necessary. If the individual goals are clear, it is alright”,
a respondent said. The pragmatic attitude of this perspective cause that they place output
above collaboration.

Perspective C: conditional collaborator. This perspective represents the conditional


collaborator, having a strong focus on their internal team and own framework (nine
respondents). Like in all three perspectives open and honest communication plays an
important role, where again informal communication is valued more important that formal

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communication. Respondents in this perspective argue that good internal collaboration cannot
be harmed by an external source like the client, but gain and pain is very important. Gain and
pain need to be shared among stakeholders. This perspective also aim for a group as small as
possible with high efficiency. “The fewer human resources available, the easier to
collaborate” as one of the respondents said. Where other perspectives argue that the
repetitiveness of collaboration is unimportant, this perspective react more neutral on that
statement.

Study II revealed three statements as (un)important for collaboration in all three perspectives:
 Open and honest communication. Being open and honest in communication is
challenging, but nevertheless it is highly desirable, especially in dynamic and complex
projects.
 Atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. Empathy should exist for every
individual involved in project processes. If not, balance is harmed. Respect needs to be
established which takes time and effort from all parties.
 High technical complexity. High technical complexity, in fact, has limited influence on
collaboration.

5. Discussion
5.1. Similarities between the results of the two studies
As we compare Perspective 1 (shared team responsibility) to Perspective A (unconditional
team worker), we see that both perspectives collaborate unconditionally. The people holding
these perspectives highly value shared objectives and common vision within all participation
organizations and teams. Open and honest communication is very important to them, which is
the basis for developing trust between partners. The unconditional attitudes of these
perspectives are based on mutual trust and respect. People holding these perspectives are
willing to acknowledge differences and this enables people in the project team to understand
each other. These perspectives also need attainable goals to which everyone feels personally
engaged.

The similarity of the second perspectives from both studies – Perspective 2 (execution-
focused team) in Study I and Perspective B (independent pragmatist) in Study II – is the
internal focus of the people holding these perspectives. The purpose of the collaboration
needs to be clear. It does not matter if the collaboration is repetitive as long as the project
goals are set clear. Mutual trust and respect is also important to the people holding these
perspectives because it gives these people room for their own contribution to the result.
Personal attributions to the project result should nonetheless be recognized and awarded.

The third perspectives – Perspective 3 (joint capability and structure) in Study I and
Perspective C (conditional collaborator) in Study II – seem to show the attitude of people
who are willing to collaborate when the conditions are right. These people highly value clear
project role guidelines. Jointly identifying and managing risks (Study I) or at least ‘gain and

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pain sharing’ is the other common condition these people hold. So their willingness to
cooperate depends on their opinion of the balance between partners. If they agree with the
conditions, people holding this perspective are willing to cooperate. With this people one will
have to negotiate to find the right balance, before entering a good collaborative relationship.
A repetitive element in the collaborative relationship is not appreciated by this perspective.

The fourth perspective – Perspective 4 (senior leadership pair) is coming from Study I in
which the research setting was collaboration between owner and contractor. In Study II, the
respondents were questioned about their viewpoint on collaboration, leaving the joint
leadership out of sight. So it is logical the second study did not find a perspective comparable
with this perspective. The senior leadership pair perspective can also be seen as an extension
of the third perspective, which was the perspective which needs certain conditions for good
collaboration. The presence of senior leadership pair can be seen as a specific condition
which is important to these respondents.

5.2. Differences between the results of the two studies


In the previous section the similarities reveal three main attitudes towards collaboration in
general. Taking a closer look, also differences are observed which can be explained from the
different settings in which the studies took place (scope). These differences can be mainly
found in the third perspectives (Perspective 3 and Perspective C): this view values the right
conditions for good cooperation. In the owner – contractor relation these conditions are
different than the conditions for the contractor – contractor relationship. In the contractor –
contractor relationship (Study II) the important condition according to respondents holding
this perspective is gain and pain sharing. In the owner – contractor relationship it is more
about proper and sufficient front end development, joint capability, clarity about structure,
roles, and responsibilities between parties.

The first and third perspectives in both studies (unconditional and conditional cooperation)
are aware of the broader context of project. They differ, however, in attitude towards dealing
with this context. While the first perspectives are don’t need conditions to cooperate, the third
perspectives are starting with establishing the required conditions to make sure the
cooperation has the right balance. The second perspectives are either not aware of the broader
project context, or don’t care about the broader context outside their influence sphere. These
perspectives are internally focused, by which we mean focused on their own team, rather than
on the whole project team.

5.3. Theoretical implications


In the previous section we focused on the distinguishing elements which form the
perspectives. Some criteria of both Q-sets were valued neutral, where it was not expected. In
the owner-contractor relationship for instance, the statements referring to the contractual
conditions were ranked relatively in neutral positions. This suggests that contract or
contractual arrangements were perceived to have little influence on the quality of the
cooperation between owner and contractor. However, this does not eliminate the necessity of

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appropriate contractual arrangements. An appropriate contract is still necessary, but not
sufficient for collaboration in projects (Merrow, 2011).

In a similar vein, we also found from the two studies that long-term orientation or repetition
in collaboration was perceived relatively less important to the collaboration. This finding
suggests that although the importance of a long-term orientation is recognized in literature
(e.g.: Cheng et al., 2004), the practitioners have difficulties to operationalize it in practice
(Aarseth et al., 2012).

For the contractor-contractor relationship, the technical complexity did not contribute to the
quality of the cooperation. Given the increasing complexity in projects (Berends, 2007;
Bosch-Rekveldt et al., 2011a; Koppenjan et al., 2010), certain influence of project
complexity on the collaborative relation was expected, which this study not supports.

6. Concluding remarks
In this paper we compared the results of two studies of different empirical setting (owner–
contractor collaboration and contractor–contractor collaboration) but of similar goal: to reveal
internal (subjective) points of view of people working in collaborative project teams. To
achieve the goal both studies applied Q-methodology.

By analyzing two independent studies, this paper found three different sets of attitudes in
collaboration: some practitioners have an unconditional attitude towards collaboration, and
they will manage the conditions. Other practitioners need the “right” conditions to
collaborate, which can be senior management support, proper structure, clear roles and
responsibilities, and gain and pain sharing. Finally, the third category of practitioners,
pragmatists do not mind at all whether or not there are constraints as long as they were given
trust to get the job done. These research findings support the notion that pluralism is inherent
in projects (Van Marrewijk et al., 2008) and projects are about people and their mind sets
(Winch and Maytorena, 2011).

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