Psychologist of Work and Organizations

Change management

One of the most difficult aspects in managing the organizational change is overcoming the employees resistance.
What can a manager do better to deal with this issue? Are there “techniques” that allow us to easily align the different expectancies between leaders and members of the organization?

According to the organizational literature, the ways to reduce the employees resistance are generally the following:

  • Rewarding and sanctioning techniques;
  • Asking the employees to participate and co-design the new process;
  • Improving and reinforcing the communication, in order to explain why the change is needed;
  • Relying on other people to persuade employees to support the change;
  • Giving inspirational speeches to gain the employees support.

Unfortunately, none of them seems to be “the solution” if taken by itself. Each solution gives varying and even contradictory results in terms of employees’ compliance to the change.
What can explain, then, these outputs? Which is the variable that makes the difference?

Most of the research demonstrates that a central role is played by the employees’ interpretation of the managers’ intents. Employees determine their manager’s trustworthiness by collecting information from the manager’s past and present behaviour.

For example, a naïve approach to organizational change suggests that asking the employees to participate in designing the change should induce them to accept it.
Unfortunately this is not true.
In fact, if in the past the relationship between supervisor and the employees has been characterized by a breach of trust and a lack of respect, the employees will tend to be suspicious. They’ll probably interpret the participatory approach of the manager as manipulative. Research shows that, in some cases, they imagine the supervisor wants to steal their ideas. In any case, employees tend to interpret the new approach as ambiguous and potentially dangerous.

On the other hand, if previous to the change there was a high quality relationship between employees and the manager, the employees tend to accept fleeting behaviour that includes reprimands or punishment. In this case, due to the goodwill thoughts toward the leader, employees consider such behaviour as a consequence of external, environmental pressures.

Different studies that analyzed the following four ways to manage people show that the “tool” itself doesn’t make a real difference. Managers can approach people in the organization through:

  • Sanctions: implies threats, punishments, withdrawal of desired rewards;
  • Legitimization: supervisors try to get employees’ support by explaining to them that the change is consistent with the organizational policies and rules;
  • Ingratiation: means to exceed in praising people for their efforts;
  • Consultation: managers ask people to provide suggestions and to participate in the design of the organizational process.

None of the above give clear and unequivocal results, though.

These ambiguous outputs are explained by another factor. The quality of the relationship between the leader and employees can explain this variability.
If there’s a high quality relationship, that can mollify or erase the employees resistance to the change. A high quality relationship is characterised by:

  • Support;
  • Mutual trust;
  • Respect;
  • Liking.

If employees enjoy a positive relationship with their supervisor, they tend to attribute the negative aspects of the change to external, situational factors. This interpretation reduces the likelihood or the intensity of resistance.

This has relevant implications for managers: if they really want to implement a change they don’t have to focus so much attention and energy on choosing the “correct tool”.
Instead, they should concentrate their effort on the prior construction of a positive and supportive relationship with their teams.