Am I the only one? How intra-team differences in change support undermine effective change
|Datum:||26 juni 2023|
Organizational change has become more than just a necessity; it is the key to organizational survival and success. Companies across industries are confronted with dynamic market conditions, disruptive technologies, and shifting customer expectations. As a result, the ability to adapt, innovate, and embrace change has become paramount.
However, navigating the complex landscape of change is no easy task. It requires organizations to not only recognize the need for change but also effectively communicate its importance and engage employees in the transformation process. Here, organizations often face significant challenges and frequently encounter mixed reactions from their employees , ranging from enthusiasm to skepticism and resistance. This inconsistency in employee responses presents a major hurdle for organizations seeking to successfully navigate the transformation process at all levels.
Existing research on change management has primarily focused on understanding individual-level responses to change , such as ‘ change championing’ (i.e., actively promoting change to others). Building on these insights, organizations that engage in systematic change monitoring typically track individual or team-aggregated levels of change championing. While such approaches can yield valuable insights into the factors influencing individual (or mean-aggregated) reactions to change, they fail to capture the collective dynamics within teams.
In particular, existing theoretical and practical approaches fail to account for scenarios where teams exhibit similar championing levels, on average, but differ significantly in the distribution of championing among their members . Our recent study  demonstrates that failing to consider these differences can lead to oversimplified assessments of team dynamics, hinder effective change implementation, and bias organizations toward inaccurate conclusions.
To illustrate the significance of championing differences within teams, let us consider two scenarios . In Team A, the championing behavior of its members is rated on a scale from one to five, with a higher value indicating stronger championing. Team A consists of five members, with three rating their championing as moderate (score 3), one as rather low (score 2), and one as rather high (score 4). On average, the team demonstrates a moderate level of championing (mean value = 3) with minimal differences among team members. In Team B, the average championing level is also moderate (mean = 3), but there are significant variations among individuals, with some displaying strong championing behavior (score 5) while others exhibit no championing at all (score 1). Team B experiences considerably higher differences in championing behavior among its members compared to Team A. These differences in championing dynamics are likely to generate distinct team dynamics and have implications for change support and implementation.
In our study on effective change implementation , we examined the interplay of change championing level and differences in a multinational company that develops and produces high-quality technology products. The focus was on a division of the company that was in the midst of implementing a strategic change initiative at the time of data collection. The aim of the initiative was to transform from a strong engineering tradition, characterized by strict processes, hierarchies, and product focus, to a more cooperative, flexible, and customer-oriented way of working. In order to translate the sometimes-abstract goals of the change into the daily behavior of the employees, the team level played a central role. From a top management point of view, the successful implementation of the change required the championing of employees within their teams. Over two measurement points and a period of 10 months, questionnaire data from 267 employees from 69 teams were collected and analyzed.
Our findings show, as expected, that higher average levels of championing within a team positively impact the implementation effectiveness of change initiatives. When team members actively champion change, they inspire and motivate others, leading to greater acceptance and successful implementation. However, the study also emphasizes the crucial role of championing agreement within teams. It reveals that when there are minor differences in championing behavior within a team, clear signals are sent about the acceptable norms of behavior, creating a strong situation where the collective effort is focused on change implementation. On the other hand, higher differences in championing behavior create ambiguity and weaken influence processes , leading to reduced collective effort and lower implementation effectiveness.
To capture the practical relevance of these results, we compared the implementation effectiveness in (a) teams with high average championing and high championing differences to (b) teams with high average championing but low championing differences (top vs bottom 10%). This comparison indicates that teams with lower championing differences yield an, on average, 40% higher implementation effectiveness 10 months later (as compared to teams with higher championing differences). The research further reveals that championing differences within teams also have a detrimental impact on individual championing behavior over time. Over the 10-month period, individuals tended to reduce their championing behavior when there were significant differences among team members’ championing, as these variations create a sense of imbalance that decreases individual motivation and commitment to champion change.
The implications of our study are significant for organizations aiming to navigate change successfully. Our findings underscore the importance of not only identifying and nurturing individual change champions but also fostering an environment where championing behavior is encouraged and differences within teams are managed effectively.
Organizations should recognize that change implementation is a team effort and that the collective activation and mobilization of team members—rather than a narrow focus on selected change catalysts—are crucial for success. By promoting open communication, providing opportunities for dialogue, and offering support and encouragement to change champions, organizations can create an atmosphere that facilitates change adoption and implementation.
In conclusion, while existing research often concentrates on individual-level change support, our findings highlight the critical role of collective activation and mutual mobilization of team members. In other words, “it takes a team to win the change”. Therefore, managers overseeing change initiatives should shift their focus from exclusively monitoring the reactions of individual employees to considering the team as a whole and the reactions of all its members.
About the author
Dr. Stefan Berger is Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Department of Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior at the Faculty of Economics and Business. His research focuses primarily on human collaboration in team and organizational settings that are dynamic, flexible, and ill-defined. Thereby, he typically applies multilevel and/or dynamic theories and methods, which represents a second focus of his work.
 Kanitz, R., Gonzalez, K., Berger, S., Reinwald, M., Huettermann, H., & Franczak, J. (2022). Am I the Only One? Consequences of Change Championing (A) symmetry on Group‐and Individual‐Level Change Outcomes. Journal of Organizational Behavior. Online early view: https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2683