Could this new theoretical model could help organisations manage change better?

“…much prior research has been based on the assumption that acceptance of change is, by definition, good, whereas resistance is bad”

Researchers from Israel and the United States have developed a new theoretical model which blends emotional reactions with the level of activity taken. Whilst the model is, as yet, untested, nonetheless it is potentially another useful tool for those leading change in their organisations.

The model, published in the Academy of Management Review, aims to “develop a much more comprehensive understanding of the variety of change receipients’ behavioral responses to change events”. In particular, the researchers wanted to challenge the notion held by much organisational change rhetoric that resistance to change is automatically a bad thing.

A map for change practitioners?

The model is a circumplex made up of four quadrants:

Quadrant 1: Change acceptance (positive emotions + low activity)

This quadrant is positive and passive. Typical behaviours change leads might see here are attentive listening and “unobstructive compliance”. However, the researchers urge caution with this quadrant,

“Change acceptance will likely yield a smooth implementation of the change, but it will fail to yield meaningful feedback for change agents during planning”

Quadrant 2: Change disengagement (negative emotions + low activity)

Typically, people in this quadrant withdraw in one way or another. Whether that’s increased absence from work, doing less or making errors. The researchers suggest that another aspect of this quadrant is “acquiescent silence” – the assumption that because nothing is being said in relation to the change that the person has accepted it. In other words,

“Given the positive nature of change disengagement, however, recipients’ negative responses are not overt and therefore, may resemble change acceptance in their implications for the planning and implementation stages of the change”

Quadrant 3: Change resistance (negative emotions + high activity)

Experienced change practitioners and managers will know that people in this quadrant are more likely to use their voice to actively challenge the change. They may also do this by leaving the organisation.

Active participation in the change should be welcomed. Yet, many change practitioners and managers see it as something to ‘be handled’ or ‘be managed’. The researchers suggest that this quadrant offers rich and helpful information where,

“having a better understanding of change recipients’ objections, change agents are more likely to consider necessary revisions or improvements in the organizational change”

Quadrant 4: Change proactivity (positive emotions + high activity)

Those in this quadrant are typified as people who self-initiate, who are focused on the future and making improvements.

As with the resistance quadrant, the researchers flag up that this level of activity will add time to the change process. If you want people to participate then it’s important organisations show a preparedness to act on some of their ideas. The researchers put it best when they say,

“Such responses will also require change agents to be willing to accommodate changes in their ideas and design for change, which may be particularly challenging”

What drives emotions and the decision to act (or not)?

Underpinning this theoretical model are a number of other concepts.

First, a person will think about the change. This is known as ‘appraisal’ and has two parts.

The first part, primary appraisal, is where a person evaluates the change in relation to themselves and their goals (what does this mean for me? How relevant is this to me?) This will influence both emotional response and what action to take, if any.

The more a person trusts their organisation, believes their interests will be accounted for by change leads, and can see opportunities for meaningful participation, the more likely their primary appraisal will be positive.

Psychological distance from the change is another factor which influences primary appraisal.

Distance is made up of component parts including how real or hypothetical the change is; how near or far in terms of time; and how near or far in terms of physical proximity (i.e. is it in another part of the organisation). Unsurprisingly, the further away someone feels they are from the change, the less likely they are to take a passive stance.

Secondary appraisal, is where people assess their options and resources for responding (how will I cope?) This has a particular influence on emotional reaction.

Two factors which feed someone’s ability to cope are first, the amount of social support they have and second, their perception of the amount of control they have over what is happening. Therefore, giving people time and space to talk to and help each other during change is vital. In addition,

“participation in decision making during the change lowers perceived uncertainty, thus increasing perceived control”

Implications and ideas

While this model is untested empirically, nonetheless it gives change practitioners and leaders a helpful way to look at change from the perspective of those affected. In particular, the fact it challenges the simplistic notion that resistance is bad, providing some subtle nuances for change managers to be aware of.

Ways this model could be used include:

  • Stakeholder mapping: Experienced change leads will know the importance of taking the time to develop detailed stakeholder maps. Not only does this help with the development of subsequent communication and engagement plans but it can help with managing meetings and forums with key groups. This new theoretical model adds a further depth to traditional stakeholder maps by recognising that it isn’t about moving a person from resistance into acceptance; but rather it’s about tapping into the energy created through resistance.
  • Communication and engagement: Similar to the stakeholder map, this model can aid the development of communication and engagement strategies and plans. In particular, the model reinforces the importance of timing and relevance in galvanising action.
  • Planning: This model reiterates the importance of sufficient planning at all phases of the change. This is to allow people time to participate in a meaningful way but also allows for any amendments that might need to be made as a result of people’s ideas. Whilst this is the case for planned change, there are of course those instances where change is reactionary, caused by a crisis perhaps. This model still helps those leading such change understand how to better handle the range of emotions and responses.
  • Decision making: This links to the points about planning and engagement. As the research points out, giving people space and time to genuinely participate in the change by coming up with ideas and challenging what’s being proposed is more likely to lead to successful implementation. If, as I’ve often found with traditional, top-down, hierarchical organisations, the decisions are already made then definitely don’t go through the motions of pretending. What you can do, in this instance, is be honest and clear about what decisions have been made (and cannot be undone) and therefore, what people can do.

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