Employee Reactions to Organizational Change. How Change Agents can Overcome Resistance to Change
Table of Contents
2 Employees Reactions to an Organizational Change
3 Resistance to Change
3.1 Definitions of Resistance to Change
3.2 Reasons for Resistance to Change
3.3 Forms of Resistance to Change
3.4 Positive Aspects of Resistance to Change
4 The Role of the Change Agent in Overcoming Resistance to Change
4.1 Information Dissemination
4.2 Crafting a Vision
4.4 Providing Support
4.5 Other Strategies
Nowadays, organizations are continuously changing. Frequently, due to a changing business environment, companies are forced to rethink their strategic direction and structure in order to remain competitive. New government regulations, growth, increasing competition, changing customer needs and technological developments are only some of the causes for an organization to change. As change is a given in today’s organizations, managers have to think about how much there will be and how quickly it will come (London, 1988). Even in periods of stability, change occurs as people leave due to retirement, disability, or resignation. This leads to the fact that employees today are facing greater changes, at a more rapid pace, than ever before (Wanberg & Banas, 2000). In theory, organizational change is typically modelled as a three- part process (Kanter, Stein, & Jick, 2003). First, the company must recognize a need for change and must disengage from the past. In a second step, the organization creates and embraces a new vision of the future. Finally, as the new practices and structures are put in place, they must be solidified again. In practice, however, many organizational change initiatives fail. Maurer (1996) argues that employee resistance contributes to the failure of many change efforts. Even if employees as “change recipients are those who are most substantially influenced by the change and its consequences”, they only have little influence on the nature, the manner and the timing of a change implementation (Oreg, Michel, & Todnem, 2013, p. 4). As a result, resistance might evolve. Still, many researchers such as Judge, Thoresen, Pucik and Welbourne (1999) emphasize that literature on organizational change has been largely dominated by a macro, systems-oriented focus. Bovey and Hede (2001a) underline that studies on change and resistance take an organizational perspective opposed to an individual. At the heart of events, however, are employees as their reactions to organizational change initiatives determine the extent to which any change succeeds.
The fact that nowadays change is inevitable in organizations and that still many change initiatives fail, aroused my interest in the topic. Especially, I want to find out what happens when human variables are taken into account. The main goal of my thesis is to examine the role of a change agent. What strategies can he or she use to overcome resistance as a major employee reaction to organizational change?
Having this question in mind, the first part of my thesis focuses on employees’ reactions to organizational change. Based on literature, explicit affective, cognitive as well as behavioral reactions are covered. In the following, resistance to change as a major response to organizational change efforts will be examined. After providing an overview of “resistance to change” definitions, reasons that lead to resistance will be underlined. The next section will shed light on how employees can express resistance to change. Beside resistant behaviors, also indifferent and acceptance behaviors as possible reactions to change, are dealt with. To conclude this part of my thesis, positive aspects of resistance will be highlighted briefly.
After explaining the concept of resistance to change, the main part of my thesis focuses on the role of a change agent. First, the importance of such agents in companies nowadays will be explained. Afterwards, several strategies for successfully managing organizational change efforts will be discussed. This fourth chapter is structured in the sequence of a change process. Consequently, information dissemination will be discussed as a first approach as only employees provided with information can understand the need for change. As a next step, change agents are advised to craft a vision that specifies both goals and a future direction of the company. Involving employees already at this time in the change process is of utmost importance. Thus, participation as a third strategy will be covered subsequently. Both forms and consequences of employee involvement are provided. Offering support and further strategies as means to use several points in time during change, are discussed in the last part of this work. A short conclusion will finally sum up the most important findings and insights and will provide an outlook for further research.
2 Employees Reactions to an Organizational Change
The following chapter will shed light on employees’ explicit reactions to organizational change. It is based on Oreg, Vakola and Armenakis’ (2011) fundamental research as these authors covered a 60-year period of quantitative research considering approximately 700 published articles on organizational change. They developed a “Model of Change Recipient Reactions to Organizational Change” which intends to depict the relationships among antecedents, explicit reactions and consequences of organizational change. Antecedents, conceptualized as reasons for reactions, involve variables that predict either change recipients explicit reactions, or the indirect, and often longer-term consequences of change. Having briefly summarized the main connections between the three variables, this chap ter will now focus on employees’ reactions to change. Oreg et al. (2011) classified these reactions into affective, cognitive, and behavioral reactions. Explicit reactions pertain directly to how change recipients feel (affect), what they think (cognition), or what they intend to do (behavior) in response to the change.
A first set of studies focused on change recipients’ affective reactions including positive and negative reactions. All people affected by change experience some emotional turmoil (Kotter & Schlesinger, 1979). Change can be received with excitement and happiness or anger and fear (Vakola, Tsaousis, & Nikolaou, 2004). Beside stress as an employee reaction to change (Amiot, Terry, Jimmieson, & Callan, 2006), O’Neill and Lenn (1995) dealt with further negative emotional reactions such as anger and anxiety. For instance, change recipients are concerned with the success of strategies and possible consequences such as losing their job in case of a strategy failure. Employees may also have positive affective reactions to organizational change. In their study, O’Neill and Lenn (1995) observed middle managers having hope for a better future. They expressed not only faith in themselves but also in the organization and seemed convinced that the organization could improve its market condition. Mossholder, Settoon, Armenakis and Harris (2000) argued that as soon as employees appear emotionally ready for change, organizations should time their transformation efforts in order to capitalize on the positive emotional state of employees.
Cognitive explicit reactions refer to “recipients’ assessment of the change’s value for themselves, for the organization, or both” (Oreg et al., 2011, p. 477). Cognitive reactions include what employees believe is about the change and how they evaluate it. During organizational change, employees interpret what is going to happen, how they are perceived and what others are thinking or intending (Bovey & Hede, 2001a). Bartunek, Rousseau, Rudolph and DePalma (2006) use the term “sensemaking” and refer to what change recipients believe the change means. “Sensemaking includes, among other components, recipients’ understanding of the nature of the change that change agents espouse, the appraisal of whether implementation deviates from the articulated plan (contradictions and inconsistencies), and personal impacts of the change” (Bartunek et al., 2006, p. 186). Personal impacts influence recipients’ openness to change which is defined as the “willingness to accommodate and accept change” (Wanberg & Banas, 2000, p. 135). Some organizational members are open to change and see it as an opportunity to grow and learn. These people redefine transition-related stressors as challenges or opportunities rather than as problems or threats. In contrast to cognitive redefinition, within cognitive avoidance employees reduce stress by focusing their energies elsewhere or they simply try to avoid thinking about events to come (Moos & Billings, 1982, qtd. in Ashford, 1988).
A third set of studies focused on behavioral reactions to change conceptualized either as explicit behaviors or reported intentions of behavior (Oreg et al., 2011). One such behavioral reaction concerns employees’ coping behavior. “Steps individuals take to alter a stressor or reduce its impact” are called coping responses (Ashford, 1988, p. 21). These responses fall into three categories (Moos & Billings, 1982, qtd. in Ashford, 1988): Firstly, appraisal-focused coping includes the aforementioned concepts cognitive avoidance and cognitive redefinition: Individuals attempt to redefine the meaning of a situation. Secondly, problem-focused coping strategies are directed towards the management of a problem (Amiot et al., 2006). For instance, employees develop new skills or seek information to address the problem directly. Finally, within emotion-focused coping, employees manage the emotions aroused by the stressor. Amongst others, Bovey and Hede (2001) studied behavioral intentions to resist or support a change which will be the focus of the following chapter.
3 Resistance to Change
3.1 Definitions of Resistance to Change
The implementation of a change in an organization often elicits negative responses (Oreg, et al., 2013). Frequently, organizational change efforts run into some form of human resistance (Kotter & Schlesinger, 1979). In the majority of work on this topic, researchers have taken a view from physics and metaphorically define resistance “as a restraining force moving in the direction of maintaining the status quo” (Lewin, 1952, qtd. in, Piderit, 2000). It is a natural and normal response because change involves going from the known to the unknown (Coghlan, 1993). As it is a natural part of the change process, resistance is to be expected. Furthermore, it is an essential element for understanding any change process. Dent and Goldberg (1999) focused their research on the term resistance to change and stated that there is a widely understood meaning. They elaborate that resistance as a psychological concept is sited within the individual and it is the manager’s task is to overcome that resistance. Coghlan (1993) also underlines that resistance has its origins in an individual’s personality and therefore there is a need to understand resistance from the employees’ position.
Following the structure of employees’ reactions to organizational change described in chapter two, some researchers classified resistance as a multidimensional attitude towards change, comprising affective (feelings toward the change), cognitive (evaluations of worth and benefit of the change), and behavioral (intention to act against the change) components (Oreg, 2006). In detail: The affective component includes for instance anger and anxiety towards an organizational change. The cognitive component involves what one thinks about the change (e.g., ‘Is it necessary? Will it be beneficial?’). Finally, the behavioral component involves actions or behavioral intentions in response to the change. Employees may complain about the change or try to convince others that the change is undesirable. Resistance is viewed as a subjective and complex, tri-dimensional construct. Wittig (2012) further states that each of these dimensions can be characterized as ranging from “resistance” to “acceptance”. Considered in the aggregate, the result reflects the employee’s overall acceptance or resistance to change.
Based on past research, Piderit (2000) also revealed three different emphases in conceptualizations of resistance: as a cognitive state, as an emotional state, and as a behavior. In this view, the cognitive dimension of an attitude refers to an individual’s beliefs about the attitude object whereas the emotional dimension refers to an individual’s feelings in response to the attitude object. A change recipient’s response along the cognitive dimension might therefore range from strong positive beliefs (e.g. ‘this change is essential for the organization to succeed’) to strong negative beliefs (e.g., ‘this change could ruin the company’). Along the emotional dimension, a response ranges from strong positive emotions such as excitement or happiness to strong negative responses such as anger and fear. According to Piderit (2000), as employees are responding to a novel event, the behavioral dimension is more likely to reflect intentions than past behaviors. Thus, an employee’s response along the intentional dimension might range from positive intentions to support the change to negative intentions to oppose it.