Getting some distance: Employee perspectives on organisational change

Whilst there is lots of research and articles about organisational change, there is little which explores change from the individual level.

Research published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior explores how individuals make sense of organisational change, in real-time and then after the fact. The researchers, Laura Gover and Linda Duxbury, examined how consistent individual real-time assessments were compared to retrospective reflections once change had happened.

The research

The research was a longitudinal case study of a community hospital in Canada. The hospital had around 340 employees and underwent a ten year programme of transformational change.

Longitudinal data was gathered in a variety of ways including in-depth interviews with 26 people at three separate points; an organisation-wide survey with follow-up interviews with volunteers at three points.

The researchers focused on a particular period (2009 to 2013) comparing employees’ real-time assessments during organisational change with retrospective sensemaking after the change had happened.

Real-time assessments were assessed in respect of the cognitive bias people exhibited. Cognitive bias are the mental shortcuts that help people to simplify information. It can be influenced by social pressure, individual motivations, emotions and ability.

Retrospective sensemaking is the process that people use to try and understand a situation after the fact. Past research suggests that retrospective sensemaking of organisational change is likely to be different from the actual event.

The findings

Retrospective sensemaking of organisational change over time

  • Around a quarter of the participants felt that their work environment had not changed over time.
  • There were mixed views on whether turnover was for the better or the worse for the hospital. And there was a split on whether the new chief executive had made things better or worse.
  • There was more agreement that relationships had improved, that people were generally more positive, that the physical environment had improved and that overall focus and direction had improved.
  • Around half of participants felt the work environment had changed for the better, with 25% stating there was no change and 25% saying things had got worse.

Real-time assessments

  • Around 30% of participants’ satisfaction scores stayed the same at each of the three time periods.
  • The consistent group – where their retrospective sensemaking was consistent with their real-time assessments – were either less likely to use mental models when evaluating the change, or they used the same mental model retrospectively that they did in real-time.
  • The inconsistent group was larger than the consistent group and was split in two. Those who changed from negative real-time to positive retrospective and those who did the opposite. The researchers suggested that the reason individuals moved from positive real-time assessments to negative retrospective views could be due to exhaustion. Those individuals who try and keep a happy face and keep others upbeat during the change then run out of steam as time goes on.

In summary, the researchers found that planned change can be a positive experience. They also found that an individual’s view of change depends very much on how they are asked and that role and tenure play a part.

Implications and solutions

Whilst the number of participants in this case study is small, the fact that it covers a fairly extensive period of time offers us an interesting insight into the impact of change over time.

At the heart of this study is the importance of evaluating change. In my experience, this is an area where many organisations fall down – failing to identify metrics early on and then not measuring at key points during and after the change has been implemented.

There are three practical things that organisations can do to not only measure the impact of change but also to learn from ahead of future changes.

  1. Clearly define the measures of success. These shouldn’t solely be financial measures. Think about measures of employee and customer experience.
  2. Once you’ve defined the metrics, then identify key checkpoints where you’ll measure them. Use a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. For qualitative, think about a mix of focus groups and one-to-one interviews. Think about how you cut your data – for example, as the researchers, role and tenure can influence people’s views at key points.
  3. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to gather qualitative data is through transition monitoring teams (TMTs). The TMT is an approach first advocated by William Bridges. It’s a great way to get views from a range of employees on how change is being managed. If leadership is genuinely listening and responding to the TMT then you should see TMT views evolve over time, becoming more positive.

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