It’s the question that perplexes senior management: why do key employees leave during organisational change? Having set out the reasons for change and the benefits that will come to every employee group – and individuals, too – it is too often assumed by senior leaders that all their people, especially executives and managers, will buy in to the change process. However, periods of organisational change still tend to be those when staff turnover reaches its height.
Here I examine a 2008 study by Dr Liz Jones (Griffith University) et al, which highlights the influences on employees’ perceptions and reactions to complex organisational change.
Organisational change cuts into employee perceptions of reality
The study by Dr Liz Jones et al involved more than sixty people within an organisation that was undergoing a complex and large-scale organisational change, which included downsizing, a change of location, and implementation of multi-disciplinary teams. Those surveyed cut across all levels of the organisation.
Organisational change affects everyone in different ways and at different times, though within some groups of employees there are common denominators (both negative and positive). For example, change leaders who approach change by providing a vision and direct support to employees and model the new required behaviours are more successful in challenging resistance to change. Such sponsorship behaviour helps to build trust and commitment during a time when anxiety and tension is heightened.
One of the key issues during a period of change is that of the perception of change itself. Some employees will find it hard to adopt new processes and procedures, and adapting traditional ways of thinking is difficult when the old ways have been engrained perhaps through decades. It may be that employees perceive the change as destroying years of history and success. This results in a perception that realities are being destroyed in favour of new, untested methods that will lead to ruin. This is why change leaders need to lead by example, as positive reinforcement for the new culture.
Employees focus on negative aspects
It was found, too, that employees tend to focus on negative aspects of organisational change. This is most prevalent when change is considered large scale and all encompassing. On the other hand, when change is made incrementally, management tend to involve their people: this engagement leads to positive attitudes toward change. The message is clear:
More involvement in the process of organisational change engenders greater positivity about the change.
Three categories of employee dissatisfaction through organisational change
The study found there are three categories of issues associated with change. The first of these was emotional effects; the second, the changing process; and the final category was outcome effects. When considering the effects of change, breaking into these three categories helps change leaders to realise the impacts of change on their people.
The emotional effects of change on employees
Perhaps surprisingly, employees were keen to discuss the positive aspects of organisational change, and more so than the negatives. This was especially true where employees felt involved. However, they also spoke about the difficulties of facing change, and of the fear they held personally about downsizing and altered job responsibilities. Supervisors reported strong resistance to change among their people. Employees reported supervisors who did not react well to change.
Of all the uncertainties mentioned, job uncertainty was the most feared, though uncertainties about structure, strategy and values also played a key role in resistance to change.
The effects of changing process on employees
Employees, at all levels, expressed dissatisfaction with the process of change. In particular, angst was voiced at the perceived lack of communication and the ensuing lack of involvement in the change process. Those questioned said they had not been given enough notice, and limited ways to understand the change better.
Supervisors expressed views that they had given plenty of opportunity for discussion and fully communicated the need for change and the processes to be followed, explaining informational communications such as notice boards and telephone numbers for concerned employees to call. They also reported a lack of preparation for the management of change, and a lack of clearly defined planning.
The effects of outcomes on employees during organisational change
Of most concern to employees was the uncertainty around reductions in staff numbers and redefined job responsibilities for those that remained after the organisational change had been completed.
Who worries about what during a period of change?
The study clearly highlights the focus of concern of all involved: uncertainty. When people are uncertain of the future, they become resistant to change. They question values, become anxious about changing job roles, and are restricted in effectiveness by concerns over job losses.
Executives were typically more concerned about structural uncertainty, while supervisors and ‘shop-floor’ workers were generally more concerned about job security and promotional prospects post the change.
When it came to issues of process, all levels of employees mentioned communication as a key to alleviate uncertainty. However, executive-level staff discussed the change and its implications more fully, and together with managers and supervisors they appeared to focus more highly on the positive aspects of change. These executives also spoke about the lack of involvement in change by lower level employees.
These lower level employees highlighted the negative aspects of change communication, citing this as a key driver for resistance to change.
Executives were positive about change leadership, while supervisors held it in a negative regard (reflecting the different perceptions of the communicative process).
Executives were the group most concerned about high-level outcomes, while non-supervisors were least concerned. Executives spoke most about service improvements and job enrichment, while non-supervisors disregarded this almost completely.
Know where the problems lay to tackle them
This research showed that executives through to non-supervisors have different concerns through organisational change. Change leaders who recognise this will be better able to build strategies to retain key employees at all levels:
- Executives are most concerned about the process of change and the expected outcomes
- Supervisors are most concerned with the process of change, and how to implement towards expected outcomes
- Non-supervisory employees are more concerned with the emotional effects of change, and their focus was more negative
Having this level of knowledge of the key concerns and issues experienced by their people will enable change leaders to develop positive employee retention strategies during periods of organisational change. In my next article, I’ll look at some employee retention strategies that work during organisational change.