• Organizational

Learning from Those Living Through Change

Hult Ashridge’s Professor Ilze Zandvoort on supporting employees through the emotional cycles of complex change

Thursday 28 May 2020


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“Change? Aren’t things bad enough as they are?” Lord Salisbury, the Victorian Prime Minister, is supposed to have said.

Certainly, organizational change initiatives—when managed and communicated badly—can create as many problems as they solve. Mergers are regularly reported not to have delivered the benefits hoped for, and many restructuring, culture change, and digital transformation projects are wrought with difficulties, setbacks, and sometimes out-right failure.

Well-intentioned organizational change is too often accompanied by negative psychological consequences: decreases in job satisfaction, stunted collaboration, and a breakdown in trust between colleagues. It is not uncommon to see an increase in conflict, discrimination, stress, and employee turnover.

For the business world—disrupted by technological innovation, geopolitical and demographic shifts, climate change, and now a global pandemic—change is an existential necessity. Getting it right is a challenge that businesses of all types and sizes need to address now more than ever.

Our recent study Lessons Leaders Can Learn from Those Living Through Change revealed nine key priorities for senior executives and HR professionals leading change—themes drawn from the personal journeys of employees living through a major organizational change.

Responding to the Emotional Cycles of Change

Our reseach employed a bottom-up, employee-centric, approach to take a closer look at the effects of a merger process on the people involved. We applied the lenses of ‘social identity’ and ‘belonging’, and we set out to collaboratively explore a four-year restructuring of a particular organization.

We focused on employees from within the legacy organization, and followed them throughout the merger process. The study looked at three phases of employees experience during this period—or in other words the three overarching emotional cycles the staff go through, often in a messy and unpredictable manner. These are:

  • A cycle of cognitive dissonance and framing challenges characterized by asking “Is this a place I want to stay in?”
  • A cycle of prolonged change calling for cognitive agility and resilience characterized by asking “Is this a place I can survive in?”
  • A cycle of reframing, reconnecting and remaining/releasing characterized by asking “Is this a place I can thrive in?”

In order to help employees through these emotional cycles, leaders and HR professionals need to be responsive to what is happening ‘in the present moment’, and not only on managing change in a structured and planned fashion. The way employees and other stakeholders perceive the change process will have a profound effect on the eventual outcome. For this reason, leaders must pay particular attention to three aspects of their leadership:

Personal leadership: Their personal mindset, beliefs and attitudes towards the change.

Interpersonal leadership: Their ability to engage with individuals on a one-to-one basis during the change.

Public leadership: Their ability to influence the formal and/or informal practices and processes that affect the change within the wider organization.

A Nine Recommendations for Managing Complex Change
Based on our research we have developed  nine guidelines to help leaders manage complex change processes effectively:

  1. Respect the past.
  2. Create opportunities for staff to talk to each other, and to leaders, to help them make sense of the changes.
  3. Focus on the how and the what.
  4. Deal well with emotions.
  5. Ensure employees feel valued, listened to and safe.
  6. Build and maintain employee and organizational resilience.
  7. Manage employee engagement and career choices.
  8. Create an environment to establish psychological safety to help staff reconnect with their own values, a new purpose and each other.
  9. Monitor and maintain morale and commitment.

We know that people’s work is inherently connected to their sense of identity. Changes to an employee’s role in the organization, or in the purpose of that role, can threaten their sense of belonging and lead to a loosening of their connection with the organization. Scaled-up this can lead to excessive staff turnover, absenteeism, and disengaged employees who disassociate themselves from the shifting values they attribute to their changing organization.

To avoid this damaging outcome it is vital that leaders actively foster connections between employees, whether that is within formal teams or via informal social groups. This will offer a sense of belonging and connection for all—employees and the leaders themselves—as the organization around them changes and the transformation process unfolds.

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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