Living and working Business Unusual

“The only thing that is constant is change” said Greek philosopher Heraclitus and that is one cliché that we would love not to be true right now.

Organisations have been in constant flux due to digitization, changing customer demands, competition, changes within the labour force and the list can go on and on. Add coronavirus to that and everything can feel like one supreme mess.

Although it’s beginning to feel like we’ve seen the worst of this epidemic, with some countries beginning to relax their quarantine measures, it’s quite unlikely that the way we work will return to “normal”.

Implementing work from home would have revealed massive cost savings for some businesses, some companies would have discovered that they were still able to maintain levels of productivity and engagement while their staff worked flexible hours. Others would have discovered new products or services or new ways of offering products or services that did not exist prior to covid-19. All these discoveries mean that there probably will be no return to business as usual. Rather business unusual will continue, characterised by more change.

 In the midst of this, leaders have to inspire and calm their employees while also finding ways of ensuring that their businesses remain viable. In this article, we’ll examine one of the ways that leaders can keep employees inspire and calm.

To get started, let’s look at Cynicism about Organizational Change (CAOC). This is defined as “a pessimistic viewpoint about change efforts being successful because those responsible for making change are blamed for being unmotivated, incompetent or both.” (Wanous, et al., 2000). You may be familiar with the concept or have experienced employees who seem quite nonchalant about all the “exciting” new changes that are happening. Research have sought to understand what it is, its causes and its impacts in various settings.

One of the earliest research effors conducted on CAOC found that it was a learned behaviour and not a personality disposition. It was also discovered that antecedents to CAOC included: the amount of change previously experienced by the employee; the effectiveness of the supervisor as measured by items such as communication, accessibility, showing care and understanding, keeping commitments, being fair and being positive about the change etc.; and how much the employee participated in the change (Wanous, et al., 2000).

Considering that CAOC was a learned response to environmental factors, the researchers surmised that cynicism could be influenced by management, specifically, the more employees participated in change and the more effective their supervisors were in navigating the change, the less likely they were to be cynical about future change events. Another noteworthy finding was that CAOC was significantly related to decreased organisational commitment.

Nguyen, et al. (2018) conducted research among nurses which found that organisational change was positively associated with increases in workload, i.e. when change occurred, the workload of employees increased. They found that this increase in workload led to an increase in non- nursing administrative stressors, and administrative stressors were strongly linked to CAOC. Even though the research was focused on nursing, it has insights that can be used in other sectors. If change results in additional administrative work, this is likely not to be seen favorably by those who will be impacted by the increases in workload. Another finding of their research was that CAOC was negatively associated with engagement, i.e. the more CAOC the employee experienced the less engaged they were.

 One other research paper provides a final bit of insight. Brown, et al. (2015) examined the role of HR as a strategic change agent. As a strategic change agent, HR was involved in the change decision process, had all the necessary, current information regarding the change and could help employees understand the rationale for the change and how it would impact them. This type of information made employees feel valued and therefore helped them to see the change in a more positive light. The responsibilities described here are not specific to HR but could be carried by anyone appointed as a change agent. I would argue that the role of change agent is important to reduce CAOC.

These three studies have revealed a few things about CAOC:

  • Cynicism about organisational change is caused by environmental factors and not as a result of a personality characteristic
  • Employees are more likely to experience CAOC, the more they experience change
  • The behaviour of leaders contribute to or reduce CAOC
  • CAOC can reduce employee engagement and organisational commitment

So, what are the recommendations that can be taken from these papers?

  • Involve employees in the change process. Share the goals to be achieved and allow them to make recommendation on how to achieve those goals. Allow them to contribute ideas on how the change could be best implemented as well as improvements that could be made. More importantly, include their recommendations into the process. Employees are a font of information that often remains in their domain. With this information, the leadership team can make enhanced decisions.
  • Communicate clearly with employees. Ensure that they understand the rationale for the change. Don’t take it for granted that they understand or operate under the idea that the rationale is obvious. Leaders are always privy to more information than employees and therefore what is obvious to you isn’t obvious to your employees. Share successful changes, even the smallest ones. “Small wins motivate further action and are the building blocks to larger organizational transformation” (Correll, 2017). Discuss reasons for past failures. This takes the speculation out of the failure and shows employees that their leaders are able and willing to learn from mistakes, therefore engendering their trust.
  • Provide employees with more job control to effect change. They need to be provided with the resources, equipment and support systems needed to ensure that they were not overwhelmed by the change. They know what is needed to do their jobs efficiently. If there is concern that the request is outlandish, then its leadership responsibility to investigate and understand the need as well to determine its legitimacy and to work with the employee to determine an alternative where necessary.
  • Have trained change agents that sit at senior decision-making levels and have the authority to communicate with staff. Lack of information breeds fear, out of date information can make employees feel frustrated and unimportant to the process.
  • Conduct change management training among senior leaders, managers and supervisors. This is beneficial for all key stakeholders because it provides them with the skills needed to successfully manage change and directly influence CAOC.

In conclusion, continuous exposure to change results in cynicism to change but leaders have the ability to impact this by involving employees in the change process, clearly communicating small wins and explaining failures, ensuring they have the resources to implement the changes required, have trained agents that sit in senior management and have the authority to communicate current changes and managers and leaders that are trained in change management.