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In times of change, feelings matter: managing emotions during organizational change

Datum:25 september 2018
Auteur:Rachel Gifford
In times of change, feelings matter: managing emotions during organizational change
In times of change, feelings matter: managing emotions during organizational change

Change is a constant part of our world, it can be exciting and innovative and it can be uncomfortable and necessary, but the fact remains that it is unavoidable. This is particularly true for companies trying to compete and survive in a complex and ever-changing market. For companies the impetus to change may come externally or internally and as the result of financial pressures, competition, new technologies, or shifting logics in the field of how to do business. Change is a critical process and may lead to negative outcomes, however, even when change is viewed positively, it still needs good management in order to be successful and avoid potential negative outcomes. During change, what are the ‘good management’ rules to follow?  

During transitionary periods, particularly during large-scale change, it is tempting for managers to focus on the change itself; planning, implementing, problem-solving, meeting deadlines. Often, change takes extra energy and effort on behalf of the leadership team but also on the employees; for example, adjusting to the new ICT software while also continuing to maintain a steady workload. The end result can be a period of increased workload, stress and fatigue for organizational members even when the change is supported.

In these situations, good management rules are to recognize and acknowledge the emotive effects of change, and make sure that the change isn’t coming at the expense of performance. It is also needed to keep an open forum for communication, engaging the employees so that they do not feel burnt out or over-worked.

Not only employees, but also management themselves may experience some resistance to change. Resistance to change is natural. It is therefore imperative that it is well addressed by a clear vision and mutual sensemaking discussions.

Addressing resistance involves in particular the management of employee emotions. As I have seen in my own research, in large scale changes employees feel a strong attachment to the old way of doing things, and in some cases even experience a threat to their identity. Feelings of loss, pain, and frustration may be expressed by some employees while others express a willingness to change and see the benefits, yielding positive emotions.

Management needs to develop advocates for the change in every group which can bring along their fellow colleagues and emphasize the positive nature of the change. Efforts can also be focused on employees who are likely to resist, for example, by arranging talks, open meetings, and conducting surveys prior to the change to gain insight into where [and why] resistance may occur. Managers should be mindful of potential divisions within and between groups, and account for the feelings of all stakeholders and groups effectively. This includes the management of emotions and feelings as well as practical issues, as a culture of negative emotions such as distrust and dissatisfaction can create bigger problems for the organization in the long run.

Good management rules are to explicitly recognize the feelings of all groups and also account for the potential tensions occurring between groups on either side of the change. Conflicts should be effectively and efficiently addressed so that after the change divisions are not embedded in the new organizational structure.

The management of change should begin early and continue throughout the change process. Even after the change has been realized negative feelings may emerge from unfulfilled expectations and will need time and attention.

In summary, some strategies and tips for management derived from the literature include the following:

  • Involvement/participation of employees in the change, this leads to higher levels of employee engagement, identification and commitment to the organization.
  • Open and ongoing communication between management and employees, including constant and clear sharing of relevant information
  • As possible, bring employees along in the change process from the very beginning. Develop forums where worries and concerns can be expressed.
  • To manage tensions, focus on team building with a core focus on [restoring] trust and creating a shared vision for the future
  • Emphasize why the change needed to happen and the benefits of the change for all stakeholders

Rachel Gifford (R.E.Gifford@rug.nl) is a PhD candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen. Her research focuses on the impact of organizational models and payment systems on group dynamics and collaborative engagement within healthcare organizations. 

Literature consulted:

Coch, L., & French, J. R. P.Jr. (1948). Overcoming resistance to change. Human Relations. 1. 512–532.

Furst, S. A., & Cable, D. M. (1993). Employee resistance to organizational change: Managerial influence tactics and leader-member exchange. Journal of Applied Psychology. 93(2). 453- 462.

Kotter, J. (2012). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Lines, R. (2004). Influence of participation in strategic change: Resistance, organizational commitment and change goal achievement. Journal of Change Management. 4(3). 193-215.

Millar, C., Hind, P., & Magala, S. (2012). Sustainability and the need for change: Organizational change and transformational vision. Journal of Organizational Change. 25. 489-500.