The old adage, “The more things change the more they stay the same,”captures how an organization’s leadership sometimes feel when they try to encourage employees to accept change – without success.
Research shows that most change plans fail despite the best-conceived change-management strategies. This contradicts conventional wisdom about change management.
The fact is, bringing about organizational change is not easy and in some cases apparently impossible. Why is this so?
First, it is important to understand what organizational change is. It can be anything from altering processes to reasserting treasured values and business practices through the company.
Understanding the strategies used to implement change is also crucial. A recent study reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology concluded that managers use many different strategies to encourage staff to cooperate and assist with organizational change.
The study identified four methods in which managers attempt to influence staff, with varying degrees of success:
While these kinds of techniques may not seem progressive, companies still use them to successfully implement a change. Sanctions include inducements or punishments intended to reduce or avoid staff resistance to organizational change. They range from reprimands for not complying with change directives to withholding payment, suspension, and in extreme cases, firing resistant employees.
When a manager is faced with a change mandate he or she may call upon the power of the organization to carry it out. For example, the manager may tell employees the change mandate is coming from the leadership of the organization and therefore compliance is mandatory. That senior management wants the change is the means for the manager to legitimize his or her request. Sometimes supervisors will suggest they are “the boss” and that given this role, staff must follow rules due primarily to the position held by the manager. Or the manager may stress how this change fits with organizational values, goals and plans making it a legitimate request of employees.
Consultation involves asking staff for suggestions, ideas and thoughts about the change being proffered. They may be invited to be part of the change project, be asked to offer their opinions and to help make the required changes. The changes suggested may be altered to reflect consultation with staff. In this way, employees feel involved in the changes the organization is making. Consultation reduces alienation and increases the likelihood that change will occur.
Some supervisors will heap praise and compliments on employees for the changes they make. Managers note the ideas staff bring forward and ensure that employees are recognized for their input. Rewarding staff with recognition is a common way to enable change and is recognized as a strategy in encouraging employees to make necessary shifts to suit organizational needs and interests.
But how effective are these “ingratiation” strategies? According to the article, the strategies’ utility is limited. Generally the most effective tool is consultation, but even this method can lead to few results. That’s because the key ingredient overlooked in many change-management strategies is the quality of the relationship between the manager and direct reports. Without a high-quality relationship between leader and staff member, change initiatives are likely to fail, especially when loyalty, emotional support, mutual trust and liking are missing.
It doesn’t matter what technique or strategy is used to invite, coerce, encourage or promote change: if there is no trusting relationship, change won’t happen they way the company wants it. In fact, resistance to change increases when employees distrust their managers.
For example, sanctions are viewed as draconian when the supervisor-staff relationship is of low quality. Any apparently coercive use of power to elicit change is viewed as abusive and unnecessary, thereby increasing resistance. If a more valued supervisor utilizes sanctions to enable change, the inducements are seen as due to the situation (the urgent nature of the change needed) rather than evidence of an authoritarian leader.
When legitimization strategies are used by trusted supervisors, the message that leadership backs the initiative provides comfort. But when a less-respected leader uses the same reasons for change, he/she is considered ineffectual and is not take seriously. Respect for the manager decreases and while resistance to change increases.
While consultation is often the best strategy to use when making a change, it too can backfire when used by less-than-trusted leaders. These leaders are viewed as insincere when they ask for employee help, self serving in eliciting suggestions (staff suspect they’ll steal their ideas) and opportunistic (the change is being used by the manager as a means to gain more clout).
When managers with bad reputations employ ingratiation to assist change and lower resistance, they are seen as manipulative and with ulterior motives. When a well-respected leader recognizes superior effort or publicly acknowledges an employee, staff views the praise as sincere and the manager’s appreciation as heartfelt.
It is not the techniques of change management per se that enable successful change. It is the pre-existing relationship between the leader and staff that makes or breaks a change program. Ensuring that a trusting relationship between managers and staff exists is key to reducing resistance to organizational change and bringing change to fruitio
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at email@example.com
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.