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Is resistance to organizational change a given fact, managers have to deal with?

Datum:28 februari 2019
Auteur:Frederik Wermser
Is resistance to organizational change a given fact, managers have to deal with?
Is resistance to organizational change a given fact, managers have to deal with?

Till the current day, the insights on resistance to change postulated by Machiavelli in the 16th century (1) resonate with managers and organizational researchers alike.

“And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for this enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only the lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new. This lukewarm temper arises (...) from the incredulity of mankind, who will never admit the merit of anything new, until they have seen it proved by the event.”

Indeed, modern science has accumulated extensive evidence that employees often resist organizational change, which also shows that, as Machiavelli suspected, employees’ resistance is to a substantial part driven by their dislike of uncertainty and a fear to lose a valued status-quo (2).  

Research on mergers – one of the most extreme forms of organizational change – has established that it is often employees from the smaller, less influential merger partner that resist the merger most (3). Next to very fundamental fears (e.g. Will I lose my job?), these employees often feel that the values, formal and informal rules of their old organization, which they appreciate and internalized, are not reflected in the merged organization. Indeed, often the bigger merger partner determines how things are done and what is important. And employees of the smaller merger partner feel that they no longer work for the same organization. A valued status-quo ceases to exist.

However, Machiavelli might not be right in all cases. Recent studies indicate that employees from both merger partners can welcome a merger and the change it brings, if they see the merger as an opportunity rather than a threat (4). Not only that, employees might even be motivated to be actively involved in the change to profit from it on an individual and organizational level. For example, in a recent study, we find that employees from both merger partners, who recognize the compatibility of two the organizations, identify more with the merged organization (5).

Thus, seeing how the skills, knowledge and capabilities of two merging organizations fit together to form something bigger than the sum of theirs parts, makes employees feel more attached to the organization resulting from the merger. This suggests that employees are more likely to “… admit the merit of anything new …” than Machiavelli suspected.

In addition, our study indicates that compatibility forms the basis of another driver of identification: contribution.  Employees feel more attached to the merged organization if their work team can contribute unique and indispensable skills, knowledge or capabilities to the merged organization. Employees do not only want see that the merging organizations have “parts” that fit together – they get motivated if they are an important element in the functioning of the new organization.

These findings are important for managers in the planning and implementation phase of mergers. When evaluating possible organizations to merge with, managers should take into account in which ways organizations are complementarity and, importantly, whether employees are likely to recognize these complementarities and the opportunities they offer. Of course, this is not a process in which managers have a passive role – through clear communication about possible gains of the merger on the organizational (e.g. developing a better product) and individual (e.g. career opportunities) level they can positively influence employees’ perceptions about the merger. Subsequently, when implementing the merger, it will be the task of managers to ensure that the predicted gains do not become empty promises. For this end, they can create the right conditions for work teams to make their unique contributions (e.g. by promoting the exchange of best practices) and actively ensure the visibility of the unique contributions each team makes.

Frederik Wermser (f.l.wermser@rug.nl) is a PhD candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen, researching identities in the context of mergers.

References:

  1. Machiavelli , N. (trans. 1921). The Prince. London, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.
  2. Ullrich, J., Wieseke, J., & Dick, R. V. (2005). Continuity and change in mergers and acquisitions: A social identity case study of a German industrial merger. Journal of Management Studies, 42, 1549-1569.
  3. Giessner, S. R., Viki, G. T., Otten, S., Terry, D. , & Täuber, S. (2006). The challenge of merging: Merger patterns, premerger status, and merger support. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 339-352.
  4. Teerikangas, S. (2012). Dynamics of acquired firm pre-acquisition employee reactions. Journal of Management, 38, 599-639.
  5. Wermser, F. L., Täuber, S., Essens, P. M. J., Molleman, E. (2018). Low sense of continuity and functional indispensability as drivers of post-integration organizational identification. Academy of Management Annual Meeting Proceedings,