Reactions to Change

Embracing Organizational Change One Individual at a Time

Whether you like it or not, change in the workplace is inevitable. In some situations, change serves as an intentional means to move the organization toward continual progress. For others, change takes the form of recovery from a traumatic event caused by seemingly unforeseen circumstances. While some staff members are supportive of their organization and its decisions, others are less approving and instead express discontent. In particular when the change is unpredictable, many employees experience increased levels of uncertainty and stress (Lysova, Richardson, Khapova, & Jansen, 2015; Van den Heuvel, Demerouti, & Bakker, 2014). According to Lysova et al. (2015), employees can be broken down into one of four types of reactors to change: champions, supporters, loyal citizens, and doubters. Understanding the different ways in which people react to change can help you to support your employees or colleagues during the change process, and in turn produce optimal results for the individual and company alike. Here are examples of four employees who embody these reactor identities.

Adam, the Change Champion. Adam is an active supporter and promoter of his company’s change. Most importantly, he was even part of the change making process. He hopes to encourage his coworkers to get on board. He believes a bottom-up approach is the most effective way of achieving this. Adam is confident that by changing his own behavior and “walking the talk,” the organization as a whole can move toward progress.

Beth, the Change Supporter. Like Adam, Beth supports the change, though unlike Adam she was not part of the planning team. She believes that the change is crucial for the organization, and she understands the reasons for implementing it. She shows her support by sharing her ideas with proactive individuals like Adam who work to drive the change in the organization.

Caroline, the Loyal Citizen. Caroline is a committed employee of the company and is somewhat optimistic of the change, if only due to her loyalty to the organization. She is willing to implement change strategies when instructed by her supervisor, but she prefers not to participate beyond this level. Caroline is not as confident and active as either Adam or Beth, and needs to be guided in her sense-making process to comprehend the reasons for change.

David, the Change Doubter. David struggles with the company change. He values security and is troubled with the uncertainty of the situation. He believes the change will be ineffective, though he has little knowledge about the process and the reasons behind the implementation of the change. Since he is a low-level employee, David feels emotionally distant and un-influential. He expresses his frustration by criticizing management and those involved in the change.

An organization might employ one, some, or (most likely) all of these types of reactors to change. The question is: How do we use this knowledge to provide support for people in each of these categories and in turn produce the best possible outcome for the company? Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Recognize your employees’ or coworkers’ approach to change. Perhaps you know a champion, supporter, loyal citizen, and/or doubter in the workplace. Understanding who is around you will allow you to know to whom you need to reach out to receive or give support during this time of transition.
  2. Identify your own approach to change. Whether you’re an executive, a manager, or an individual contributor, it can be helpful to first identify your own approach to change. Are you an Adam, a Beth, a Caroline, or a David? If you consider yourself a champion or supporter, you and your organization will benefit most if you connect with loyal citizens and doubters of change. On the other hand, if you yourself identify with the loyal citizen or the change doubter, it may be beneficial to reach out to those who are more informed and involved in the change initiative to gain a better understanding of the process as well as to have the opportunity to effectively express your concerns.
  3. Establish a sense of belonging and contribution in the workplace. Social interaction and influence from colleagues can have a significant positive impact on employees’ reactions (Straatmann, Kohnke, Hattrup, & Mueller, 2016) and encourage adaptability to organizational change (Stoltz, Wolff, Monroe, Mazahre, & Farris, 2013). Supervisors are encouraged to build a sense of belonging, trust, and social support among their team.  Effective leaders are able to foster employee self-management and reflection, which in turn can facilitate adaptation to organizational change (Ven den Heuvel et al., 2014). Organizations should consider training leaders to use coaching leadership style strategies such as showing appreciation and support and creating learning opportunities for their subordinates and peers.
  4. Encourage reciprocal, genuine communication with a purpose. Examples of effective communication strategies include regular meetings, one-on-one discussion, use of social media, and signs of appreciation. Consider holding well-prepared group meetings and safe spaces for individuals to express any support or concerns. Supervisors are encouraged to talk, and more importantly listen, to their employees. Being heard not only boosts the employee’s esteem, but it also allows the employee to feel validated and influential (Van den Heuvel et al., 2014). However, organizations should only request input from employees if they are prepared to act on the recommendations, or at the very least be able to provide meaningful responses regarding why a suggestion may or may not be possible.
  5. See change as a learning opportunity. When employees are able to perceive change as a chance to learn and develop, they are more willing to accept and adapt to that change (Lysova et al., 2015). Rather than seeing change as a threat or an obstacle, help yourself and those around you to see it as an opportunity for growth.

In the end, no single person can do it all. Supporting employees in organizational change is a group effort and requires the active participation and willingness of employee and employer alike. Though change can bring challenges, when addressed appropriately it can also bring many benefits including adaptability and a stronger network of social support within the workplace. Through proper measures such as those suggested above, the benefits of change can outweigh the costs.


References

Lysova, E. I., Richardson, J., Khapova, S. N., & Jansen, P. G. (2015). Change-supportive employee behavior: A career identity explanation. Career Development International, 20, 38-62.

Stoltz, K. B., Wolff, L. A., Monroe, A. E., Mazahreh, L. G., & Farris, H. R. (2013). Adaptability in the work life task: Lifestyle, stress coping, and protean/boundaryless career attitudes. Journal of Individual Psychology, 69, 66-83.

Straatmann, T., Kohnke, O., Hattrup, K., & Mueller, K. (2016). Assessing employees’ reactions to organizational change: An integrative framework of change-specific and psychological factors. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 52, 265-295.

Van den Heuvel, M., Demerouti, E., & Bakker, A. B. (2014). How psychological resources facilitate adaptation to organizational change. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 23, 847-858.