Certainty in Uncertain Times: The Human Aspect of Organisational Change

Due to rapidly and constantly changing environment, change management has become booming. Organisations must constantly adapt to customer needs in order to survive the competitive market. Rapid evolving technologies have not made it easier for organisations to move from a goods-oriented view (also known in literature as the “Goods-Dominant Logic) towards a service-oriented view (better known as the “Service-Dominant Logic” or the “Service Logic”. Constant change creates a sustainable business. Yet, many stumble upon complications. Transitions cause resistance and if implemented incorrectly cause a decrease in productivity and revenues. This article looks into the effects of change on employees and how to overcome resistance.

Changes in technology and the global balance in power, together with the increasing scarcity of resources, require organisations to adapt to a new reality. The highly competitive arena of markets forces us to change our business models and operations. In order to adapt, we must change our organisations. However, this is not easy. We deal with dysfunctional systems and employees that don’t seem to understand the importance of the transition.

The consequences of change-related uncertainty
One of the reasons why employees resist the transition is uncertainty of the future. Changes at the workplace, such as culture changes, system changes, strategy changes or mergers can cause uncertainty for employees. One of the reasons for the existence of uncertainty during organisational change is because employees are afraid of losing their job, or afraid that they are unable to perform new activities.

“Uncertainty decreases work engagement, decreases productivity and increases absenteeism.”

Uncertainty has many negative consequences, not only for the employee, but also for the organisation. Examples include a decrease in work engagement, decrease in productivity and an increase in absenteeism. Furthermore, uncertainty has mental and physical side effects. It can cause anxiety, stress or even burnouts. In other words, uncertainty will lead to lower work productivity and performance. It is known that uncertainty decreases productivity. However, it is less known how to prevent or overcome this side effect of organisational change. In the next section, this will be discussed.

Dealing with uncertainty at the workplace
Since uncertainty emanates from a perceived lack of control, efforts to decrease uncertainty must focus on altering the employee’s perception of the changing environment. There are multiple ways to increase this perception of control. Below, I discuss three.

Improve the relationship with your employees
Running your own organisation or business unit, it may feel like you never have time. Especially not for small things like small talk with your employees. However, research shows that investing in the relationship with your employees, for example through short conversations, can decrease uncertainty of employees. One way to prevent change-related uncertainty is establishing a good relationship between a manager and his/her subordinates. Employees who have a good relationship with their boss put more effort and more time into their work, feel more responsible and have more commitment towards the organisation. In order to increase the quality of the relationship between a manager and his/her subordinates it is important to create an open communication flow. There are multiple strategies to create this.

  1. Hold regular staff meetings
  2. Initiate personal meetings to discuss feedback and doubts about change
  3. Be available and be open for feedback and communication
  4. Create an atmosphere that promotes an open communication flow

Involve all employees in the organisation of the transition by giving them responsibilities
Another possibility to decrease uncertainty is to give some responsibility to the employees. In order to do so, the responsibility should be related to the transition. It can be a small responsibility or big. The aim is to force them to be involved in the transition. This way employees will be less uncertain about their new activities or losing their job because they get familiar with the new situation. The responsibilities depend on the employee’s task description. Given is a list of examples of tasks that can be divided to employees categorized by the type of transition:

  • New IT structure/ new process:
    • Getting familiar with the new structure and teaching other employees
    • Giving workshops about the new IT structure within the company
    • Dividing the new tasks related to the new IT structure like inserting new information, deleting old information, maintenance of the new IT structure and controlling if everything is correct.
  • Merger/ culture change:
    • Preparing the merger/culture change
    • Creating a description of new and old functions
    • Defining mutual or new core values
    • Organising workshops about how these core values are seen in everyday business
  • Organisational structure
    • Creating a description of new functions
    • Communicating the tasks and descriptions of the new functions to teams
    • Managing teams
    • Being the point of contact for colleagues who are in doubt

Communicate updates about the transition regularly
The final tip to prevent resistance is to regularly update employees about the transition through one source of information. For example, one middle manager communicates one message to all employees. Within this process it is important that there is one clear message from all responsible managers in order to prevent confusion and uncertainty. This means that before communicating information to the whole organisation, all the responsible managers should agree on one message. To help creating one message it may help to apply the golden circle to the transition (why do we need to change, how are we going to implement it and what do we need to implement it?).

  1. Apply golden circle to the mission/message of the transition
  2. Agree on one message together with all responsible managers
  3. Inform updates regularly to all employees at once to avoid gossip
  4. Don’t make promises you cannot keep

When implementing change, it is important to take good care of your information flow in order to prevent resistance. The reason for this is that employees may become uncertain and cause resistance towards the change when they don’t have enough information about it. Usually, change is something scary because it is new and unknown. There are multiple ways to prevent this from happening. A few of them are having a good relationship with your employees, involving employees in the organisation and regular updates.

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