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Change experience and employee reactions: developing capabilities for change
Inger G. Stensaker and Christine B. Meyer
Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration, Bergen, Norway
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore how experience with organizational change inﬂuences employees’ reactions to change. While exposure to an increasingly frequent organizational change can lead to change fatigue and cynicism, it can also generate more positive reactions to change. The authors identify experience-based change capabilities and explore conditions for developing such capabilities. Design/methodology/approach – The paper draws on qualitative interview data from two studies of reactions to planned change. The authors probe employees’ accounts of their reactions to change and show how they vary depending on employees’ level and type of experience. Findings – The ﬁndings suggest that experience provides opportunities for employees to develop their change capabilities, which leads to milder and more constructive reactions to subsequent change initiatives. However, negative experiences can lead to loyal behavior that is based on cynical attitudes. Research limitations/implications – The ﬁndings contribute by identifying experience-based capabilities among change recipients. The limitations of the study include the threat of self-selection as employees who remain in the organization may be more prone to loyal behavior. Practical implications – When employees have extensive change experience, managers must adjust their way of thinking about change. Managers need to be alert to the prominence of more loyal behavior. They should also recognize their own role in generating positive process experience, which is a precondition for developing change capabilities at the employee level. Originality/value – The study adds to the increasing focus on change recipient perspectives during change and shows how change capabilities can be developed among employees. Keywords Reactions to change, Change capabilities, Change experience, Organizational change, Change management, Employees attitudes Paper type Research paper
Personnel Review Vol. 41 No. 1, 2012 pp. 106-124 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0048-3486 DOI 10.1108/00483481211189974
Introduction The ability to manage complex and parallel changes (Pettigrew and Whipp, 1991) and the ability to predict and handle different responses to change among employees are key management challenges. An increasing pace of change is making employees more experienced with organizational change, yet little is known about how experience with change affects employee’s reactions to large-scale organizational change. A growing body of literature focuses on change recipients and the reactions to planned change by those who carry out organizational interventions initiated by others (Bartunek et al., 2006). However, although organizations frequently initiate new large-scale change projects, limited research exists regarding how reactions to change develop over time (Piderit, 2000) and the role that change experience plays. For instance, a key question is whether individuals with extensive change experience react similarly and follow the same patterns of reactions as those with little or no experience with organizational change.
Previous literature has indicated that pursuing multiple change processes can create change fatigue (Abrahamson. In particular. loyal behavior takes on two different forms. This paper is organized as follows: ﬁrst. or even burn-out (Lee and Ashforth. Illustrating and explaining different patterns of reactions as well as identifying potential change capabilities of employees who have extensive change experience constitute the main focus of our analyses. While there exists an extensive literature on change capabilities at the organizational level (Teece et al. and the ﬁndings are inconclusive (Smollan. Change experience 107 . According to Piderit (2000). reactions to change involve affective. 2003). Studies that address change capabilities tend to focus primarily on managerial change capabilities (Lopez-Cabrales et al. some with change-experienced employees and others with employees who had less change experience. We then describe our methodological approach before the ﬁndings are presented. few studies have focused on how capabilities for change are developed at the individual level. In the ﬁndings section. Gavetti. experience with multiple change processes can also provide an arena for learning. while employees with extensive change experience use less effort to resist change and show more loyal reactions to change. we present existing literature on reactions to change and discuss how learning from experience might inﬂuence reactions to change. 2000). we are interested in examining whether individuals develop change capabilities or whether there is a link between exposure to repeated change processes and more negative outcomes. 2005).. 2006). 1997). we address the inﬂuence of experience with previous organizational change on reactions to subsequent change initiatives. Employees with limited change experience exhibit strong behavioral and emotional reactions.. 2006) while research on change capabilities at the change recipient level is virtually non-existent. One of the main contributions of this study is the focus on change capabilities at the employee level. in which there is the potential to transfer experiences. given the increasing frequency of organizational change projects and hence the opportunities for learning from experience. However.. Our primary focus however is to identify experience-based capabilities for change among change recipients and probe the conditions under which change capabilities are most likely developed.In this study. 1996). cynicism (Reichers et al. 2002. Theoretical background Reactions to change A large and fragmented body of research deals with how change recipients react and respond to change. This is unfortunate. and only one of these provides opportunities for developing change capabilities. We examine the role of experience empirically based on inductive and comparative analyses of data from two studies which include a wide range of Scandinavian companies. However. 1997) and how ﬁrms can develop dynamic capabilities through learning and experience transfer (Zollo and Winter. we ﬁrst brieﬂy present and describe reactions among employees with limited versus extensive change experience. The paper concludes with implications and suggestions for future research. The empirical evidence indicating that experience with change processes can lead to more positive reactions to change is limited (Thornhill and Saunders. Our ﬁndings suggest that there are indeed distinctive differences in general patterns of reactions among employees based on their level of experience with organizational change.
(2) loyally implementing change means to make the suggested changes while also attending to daily operations. Some studies focus on employee attitudes towards change (Lines. 2006).. 2004) while other studies predominantly map feelings (Perlman and Takacs. (4) paralysis means not attending to change and not being able to attend to daily operations. here it comes again) refers to distancing oneself from the change and doing a minimum of the suggested changes. and (2) constructive (likely to lead to implementation of change) or destructive (not likely to lead to implementation of change). It is often argued that resistance and reluctance to adapt to change are common reactions of humans in an organizational environment (Worrall et al. 2004) because change brings uncertainty and perceptions of uncertainty are detrimental to well-being (Elrod and Tippett. Studies on resistance have furthermore neglected to address how experience with change might inﬂuence the level of resistance. The emphasis within this literature has predominantly been on explaining reasons for resistance and ways of handling resistance (see for instance Guth and MacMillan. Indeed. which is to actively resist change for instance by making fun of the change initiative. For instance. employee resistance has been documented as the most frequent problem encountered by management when implementing change (Bovey and Hede. or behavioral intentions. (3) BOHICA (Bend over. Stensaker et al. An important point made through the literature is that resistance must be handled differently depending on its underlying reason. . 1986).. and (6) sabotaging the change initiative. 1970. 2001). behavioral components. 2002. Hirschman. While these studies serve to extend more general categorizations such as exit. Studies that examine what employees actually do in terms of behavior tend to focus on resistance to change (Guth and MacMillan. an overemphasis on negative reactions risks self-fulﬁlling prophecies. 1986). 1998. Bourantas and Nicandrou. Stensaker et al. research on reactions to change seldom covers all three components. 2006).PR 41. One recent study indicates that constructive input (voice) from employees was wrongfully perceived by management as resistance (Bryant. however. 1998. (2002) present six categories of reactions: (1) taking charge means to take active initiative to push implementation of change further. Chreim. 1993). While the research on resistance provides valuable insight and direction for managers who struggle with resistance. 2002). 1990).. Another stream of change studies has focused on developing typologies and categories of reactions to change (Mishra and Spreitzer.1 108 cognitive. or the people who support or try to implement change. (5) exiting the organization refers to voluntarily leaving the organization. The categories of reactions typically differ along two dimensions: (1) active or passive reactions. voice and loyalty. thoughts about change (Armenakis et al. they do not speciﬁcally address different dimensions of reactions (Chreim.
On a similar note. 2000). We ﬁrst apply the categories developed by Stensaker et al. Organizational change cynicism has been deﬁned as “a complex attitude that includes cognitive. either by: (1) transferring speciﬁc skills or knowledge. An interesting ﬁnding from their study is that a number of employees reported positive affective reactions to change. (2000) argue it is a learned response.. Wanous et al. 1997. Less is known about more supportive reactions among employees and differences in patterns of reactions over time. 1998). How experience affects reactions There is increasing evidence that employees react to change with cynicism.2006) is a notable exception). we develop this reaction further. Similar to Chreim (2006) we focus on general experience with large-scale organizational change rather than a speciﬁc change situation. 2000). In summary. 736). research on “survivors” of change suggests that survivors often display less commitment and loyalty to the organization (Ebadan and Winstanley.. 2003). but for different reasons. or (2) by process-based learning. for example mergers. Thornhill and Saunders (2003) found that those who felt negative about change were likely to be cynical about how they had been treated by management. while a more general applicability has not been attempted.. acquisitions. the categories appear rather static and have seldom been applied to understand or explain how reactions might shift over time or vary across different change efforts. the literature on reactions to change has predominantly been concerned with identifying and explaining negative reactions to change that act as barriers to change implementation. Past failures in organizational change have been found to breed cynicism. These employees were more likely to feel they had been listened to and treated with dignity and respect. acquisitions (Bourantas and Nicandrou. which means absorbing and applying new knowledge more efﬁciently (Schilling et al. or change that was perceived as excessive (Stensaker et al. restructuring or downsizing. 1998). Wanous et al. As many of the experienced change recipients were found to react with loyal behavior. Overall. hence they fail to sufﬁciently incorporate more ambiguous responses to change (Piderit. Change experience 109 . not caring about employees and failure to try to understand employee’s point of view (Reichers et al. this includes failure to keep people informed. 1997). affective and behavioral aspects resulting in increased beliefs of unfairness. Finally most of these studies which map different behavioral or attitudinal reactions have been tied to speciﬁc types of change: downsizing (Mishra and Spreitzer. (2002) to identify different reactions. Below we discuss how experience might affect reactions.. First we map the patterns of categories of reactions that are most common among experienced versus inexperienced change recipients.. We approach our study of experience-based capabilities in two steps. Employees learn from experience and can potentially develop change capabilities in two ways. 2005. 2008). 2002). In addition. these studies suggest that as employees gain experience with change they draw on their previous experience to interpret subsequent changes (Randall and Procter. By experience we refer to more than one previous encounter with different types of large-scale change. p. While some argue that cynicism is linked to personality disposition. feeling of distrust and related actions about and against organizations” (Bommer et al.
The organizations and data collected are illustrated in Table I. All interviews were semi-structured and lasted approximately 90 minutes. while at the same time taking advantage of the possibility to adjust the focus in the interviews as new insights emerged. The interviews were tape recorded and transcribed in full length with the exception of two interviews where respondents were reluctant to be recorded. A total of 30 interviews were thereby conducted in the ﬁrst study. Sampling and interview questions were informed by a pilot study. Their task was to describe and discuss. insights gained in the ﬁrst study contributed in focusing the subsequent study. 2002). we attempted to develop cumulative insights which is facilitated by similar research questions (Lozeau et al. We therefore chose to ﬁrst conduct a multiple case study. Methodology Studying more general patterns of reactions required a need to incorporate various types of change and different organizational contexts. Four banking institutions (targeting change experienced employees) and four insurance companies (targeting less experienced employees) were sampled. We base our understanding of employee change capabilities on the dictionary deﬁnition of capabilities as: the qualities. The complete data set consists of 50 interviews at various organizational levels in ten Scandinavian companies.1 The second step of our study involves identifying potential change capabilities. Insights from the pilot study lead us to believe that employee experience could be important for understanding reactions to change. Since deregulation in the middle of 1980s it has been undergoing major changes with technological innovations. 110 . both in terms of target organizations and the questions that were asked (Langley. based on their personal experience with large-scale change. 20 change recipients were interviewed: ten in a pharmaceutical company and ten in a postal services company. 2009). We interviewed 22 organizational members at various levels in 2004/2005 asking both about reactions and different ways of managing change.PR 41. The two studies were consecutively designed to supply insights on change recipient reactions to change and how employees contribute (or not) to an organizations capacity to implement a multitude of planned changes. In our ﬁrst study. organizations within the ﬁnancial service industry were targeted. substantial downsizing. An additional eight interviews were conducted in 2006 within two of the banks probing further employee reactions to change. Although the design follows a replication logic. A total of 30 topand middle managers worked in focus groups of four or ﬁve participants. which was later followed by an additional comparative case study. Like previous research based on a series of studies.. We used an interview guide that was based on the review of theory and the pilot study. A pilot study was ﬁrst conducted in an executive MBA program. and a large number of mergers and acquisitions with following organizational restructuring. In the second study we targeted other industries that had gone through dramatic changes within the last decade in order to compare reactions among change experienced employees across industries. abilities or features that can be used or developed in the context of organizational change. how they and others in their organization reacted to frequent organizational change. We therefore attempted to select organizations which to various degrees had pursued frequent large-scale planned change.
Nordea. Oil and energy. Four banks and four insurance companies: DnBNor. Storebrand In-depth interviews and analyses of how organizations can develop a capacity for change based on change management practices and reactions to change 2004 30 11 15 2004-2006 4 26 In-depth interviews and comparative analyses of reactions to change and the role of change experience in organizations that have been through mergers.Pilot Study A wide range of companies from various industries. telecommunications. health care. Data collection . ﬁnancial services Focus group study of middle managers who participated in an executive MBA program Pharmaceutical industry: AstraZeneca Postal services industry: Posten Study 1 Study 2 Total Industry and ﬁrms Type of study/data Financial Services Sector.g. Vital Gjensidige. Handelsbanken. restructuring and downsizing 2007 0 20 2 (þ accounts from 18 experienced) 18 4 46 (þ30 pilot) 13 (þ 18) 33 Timing Top managers Total number of change recipients Less experienced change recipients Experienced change recipients Change experience 111 Table I. e. TrygVesta.. Sparebanken Vest.
we asked the respondents in both studies to ﬁrst describe which large-scale changes had been pursued in their organization within the past 10-15 years. we allowed the respondents to speak freely about their own and their colleagues’ reactions to change. .1 112 In identifying different reactions we draw primarily on the interview data from change recipients (middle management and employees).PR 41. Based on this.others distance themselves a bit and say that this is not our responsibility. our ﬁnal material consisted of 33 accounts from experienced change recipients and 31 accounts of reactions from inexperienced change recipients. (2002). You provide your input into a black box and then you are informed about the decision (loyal reaction. later labelled compliance). we focused our data collection further using cards that were labeled with different reactions (and deﬁnitions) and asked respondents to pick the cards that best ﬁt their own and their colleagues’ reactions to two different changes (one early and one recent). later labelled acceptance). The “compliant” reaction emerged as a new category. While drawing on existing categories of reactions facilitates comparison of reactions across change initiatives and over time. In the ﬁrst study. 319). In the analysis. . We deal with whatever is decided – you become more distanced. we were able to divide our respondents into experienced versus inexperienced change recipients. and if and how these changes had affected their own work situation. In order to determine their level of experience. one limitation of these categories is that they were developed based on explanations of ways of handling excessive changes. respondents were also asked to elaborate and reﬂect on if and why experience made them react differently. As they identiﬁed reactions. . As Table I shows. p. later labelled compliance). we ﬁrst compared typical reactions described by change recipients with limited versus extensive change experience. like Saunders and Thornhill (2003). For example. We therefore also included blank cards allowing respondents to develop additional categories if necessary and to place these within the ﬁgure of different reactions. In the second study. The strongest evidence of different reactions to change appeared to be based on retrospective accounts by respondents who compared current reactions to change with previous reactions. later labeled acceptance). You just have to keep at it and do what you are supposed to be doing (loyal reaction. 2006. This can be good in a way. I ﬁnd myself increasingly doing my job without thinking. The categories may therefore be more negatively framed than in a more neutral change setting. statements that were in the ﬁrst round of coding categorized as loyal reactions included: People are very loyal – it’s a positive kind of loyalty and people are very good at adjusting (loyal reaction. We also checked for tenure and potential experience respondents may have from previous employment in other organizations. which rarely brings anything good. This is conducive with other studies of employee accounts of change where retrospective views have been found valuable for understanding how employees view and respond to subsequent changes (Chreim. Employees that had experienced more than one large-scale change process and had experience with different types of change processes were categorized as change experienced. then we categorized their reactions using the typology developed by Stensaker et al. I don’t have time for gossiping in the hallways. . In a way I just ignore thoughts about how things will go (loyal reaction.
Returning to the interview protocols and performing a wider search in these particular interviews allowed us to probe the underlying mechanisms that resulted in accepting loyal reactions. Change experience 113 . increasing own market value) are presented in the second part of the ﬁndings. an improved understanding of the need for change. but negative cognition and emotion) (Chreim. then provide empirical evidence and ﬁnally link our ﬁndings to existing research. There were much stronger reactions and more insecurity because no one had experience with such processes (Union rep. e. We therefore proceeded inductively to tease out the capabilities that our respondents appeared to describe while elaborating and reﬂecting on their own reactions. In our studies. we ﬁrst describe how change recipients with limited versus extensive change experience react to change. Our analysis suggests that change experienced employees react with more loyal behavior. 2000). increase the understanding of change. behavior. Our interest in employee level capabilities emerged in this process. Separating the loyal reactions into these two categories allowed us to probe differences in employees’ experiences. The study was not designed with speciﬁc questions tied to employee capabilities. and reporting of less uncertainty and ambiguity during change. the change-experienced employees who had described accepting reactions were the primary focus. where we ﬁrst describe each capability. thoughts and actions (Piderit. maintaining control.) were grouped into three change capabilities. Through this process. From active resistance to more passive and loyal reactions Our analyses suggest that the reactions to change differ based on the level of experience employees have with large-scale changes. but rather initially focused on organizational capacity and capabilities. which were labeled based on what our informants appeared to be describing. In the second part of our ﬁndings we elaborate on the capabilities that are developed and examine the conditions under which change experience generates capabilities rather than cynicism. employees with limited change experience exhibited strong emotional reactions.Our preliminary analyses showed that many of the experienced change recipients reacted loyally to organizational change. The capabilities (coping with uncertainty. We therefore distinguished between “loyal” employees by applying more ﬁne-tuned categories of reactions which include all three dimensions of reactions: feelings. DnBNor). However loyal behavior can be a result of either change capabilities or cynicism. whereas employees with extensive change experience were not frustrated by the uncertainty and insecurity of change. This step lead us to see that accepting reactions were tied to descriptions of becoming used to change. the reasons for their loyal behavior appeared to differ and the second study indicated that there might be additional constructive but passive categories. For this analysis. Two new categories were employed during analysis: acceptance (deﬁned as positive cognition. emotions) and compliance (deﬁned as positive behavior. the ﬁrst-order descriptions by the informants (becoming used to change etc. However. I was here for the ﬁrst large downsizing processes in Sparebanken NOR in 1992. Typical reactions by change experienced employees In this section.g. 2006). Our next step involved linking these statements and reﬂections to the underlying capabilities that are needed to.
people were very positive (Employee.PR 41. one group of employees appeared to become prepared for and receptive to change while only a limited effort was used to resist change. . Mere experience with large-scale change processes caused employees to be accustomed to change and the sense of familiarity affected individual reactions to change. our data suggest that when individuals have experienced a number of previous change processes. This was by some described as the best way to react. DnBNor) 114 This [more recent change] was a much more positive . Experience leading to acceptance As they gained experience with organizational change. We elaborate on each of these below. especially in the hallways and behind your back. They had become used to change and developed ways of handling continuous change processes in the organization. But there’s none of that now . we draw on Chreim (2006) who distinguishes between acceptance and compliance. How change experience inﬂuences reactions . Earlier I experienced some resistance. people working against you. which both incorporate loyal behavior. while others loyally implemented change in spite of negative thoughts and feelings. the loyal reactions were not always coupled with positive cognitions and feelings about change. . Below we describe how accepting employees drew on their previous experience to facilitate their personal transition and implementation of change. they described loyal implementation of the changes. As shown in Figure 1. . Figure 1. and in terms of behavioral reactions. Some employees reacted with loyal behavior based on positive thoughts and feelings. their behavior appears more supportive of the change initiative and through their loyal behavior they contribute to successful implementation of change. This second group of loyal employees had become cynical towards change. (Employee.1 Change-experienced employees did not show the same emotional reactions. They tried to make sure that you didn’t succeed [with changes]. In order to distinguish between these two types of reactions. . While intuitively positive. AztraZeneca).
accepting employees pointed out the importance of positive previous experiences with change for developing change capabilities. but accepting employees had faith that they would pull through. or by showing and “selling” their competencies to the management.” So I guess there is some kind of protection mechanism that works as long as no one has said anything (Union rep. Accepting employees took measures to make sure that they were “ﬁt” for the future in terms of their job competency and their job performance. Accepting employees focused instead on those factors that they felt were within their realm of control. That’s very important. . now there will be changes. The uncertainty that is often described as problematic during change was reduced. which included daily operations and business as usual.I think we have become better at changing. Employees were repositioned within the ﬁrm. they perceived change as less threatening. Experiences with good ways of handling such things [as downsizing] make us trust our managers (Employee. Instead. business has to continue. (Employee. “okay. Now. DnBNor). Vesta). DnBNor) Change experience As individuals became used to change. In contrast. Posten). even if the changes are different (Employee. You don’t have time to worry . It [having change experience] is positive because change is easier to handle if you have been through it before. The quotes below suggest that positive process experience provides a sense of security and trust in management: Our people have gotten used to change. and these have been handled in a good way. . Several employees described that they had begun to view change as the “normal” situation and as a part of the contextual or external conditions with which they have limited inﬂuence: Today the reaction is more. In addition. for instance by contacting headhunters or others in the industry. This provides a great sense of security/safety. . there was something that was perceived as similar across the different types of change initiatives. Previously. Accepting employees describe a greater set of career alternatives and also explain how to go about evaluating different options. . There have been transfers. . employees learned how to handle change. 115 Experience also inﬂuenced employees’ understanding of the need for change. Employees with limited change experience struggled to understand why they needed to make changes. Those of us that have worked here a while have lived with changes for a long time and we react to change in a different way now as compared with the beginning. accepting employees seldom asked why changes were being made. I do my job as usual until someone tells me that this concerns my department. there needs to be a lot more going on in order to create a crisis (Employee. Maybe that’s what makes you function as well as you do. Finally. they focused on grasping what the newest changes were about. Nordea). Regular tasks have to be performed. Experience with change then shows that it’s not the end of the world. . It’s easier to accept that change is taking place (Union rep. because you don’t have time to think about other things . The quote below indicates that although the types of changes that were introduced varied. downsizing. AstraZeneca). Another important issue had to do with attending to one’s own professional situation. even a small adjustment was perceived as a crisis by us. . . There were still a number of unknown factors.
Posten). compliant reactions imply that change moves slower because employees tend to distance themselves from the changes and do only what is expected of them in terms of changes. Try to ﬁnd out why changes are being made. . but rather on how changes would affect their own personal situation. In summary. . Some employees also appeared to increasingly focus on themselves.1 Experience leading to compliance and cynicism A second group of employees behaved loyally while expressing negative thoughts and feelings about change. as well as reduce the quality assurance employees apply through their contribution and input to organizational change processes. I wanted to stay in the organization. If changes involve downsizing then you just sit by your PC and work as best as you can and try to move very quietly about. Some explained that they viewed this as the least conspicuous behavior.and I was cynical about getting information from the union representatives . In addition. In the short-term. The best thing for yourself. the consequences of each reaction are quite different. I don’t need them”. submissive and passive reactions to change are likely to negatively affect employee commitment and motivation. But when no one makes resistance. we develop theory on the change capabilities that positive process experience can generate at the employee level. Experience-based capabilities for change The ﬁndings we presented in the previous section indicate that experience tends to generate loyal reactions to change. it was not smart to do like some people who called in sick or cried and criticized and were negative. (Employee. This was particularly the case when changes involved downsizing. Vesta). compliant reactions based on bad process experience will not likely contribute in developing change capabilities. Hence loyal behavior was sometimes based on cynicism. . Below. as it created the least attention and commotion. but loyal behavior can be tied both to change capabilities and cynicism. Several of the compliant employees described that based on previous change processes they had learned not to trust management. colleagues and everyone. This might not seem so bad when compared with active resistance which appears to be more common among inexperienced change recipients. it is possible to get situations where Swedish systems that simply don’t work in Norway are implemented (Employee. AstraZeneca). Unlike the group of accepting employees. they did not focus on developing professional capabilities. We refer to these as change capabilities because they allow individuals to pursue the changes in an efﬁcient manner. Accepting employees appear to have developed three capabilities for handling continuous large-scale change processes: . Talk positive. 116 Compliant employees distanced themselves from the changes and the organization exempliﬁed by statements such as “if they don’t need me. Once that process [downsizing] started. while attending to daily operations. . Also there will be a lack of constructive input.PR 41. while both acceptance and compliance are loyal reactions that support change implementation. and the company is to comply with the changes (Employee. The dumbest thing you can do is to resist change. In the long-term however.
You just have to accept it [change] in a way – for your own sake and to be able to have an okay worklife. they are more aware of their career alternatives because they have previously identiﬁed a range of alternatives. As illustrated in the quote below. they know more about the process and recognize procedures and activities that have been initiated. When you have that experience you just don’t get as frustrated (laughs) (Union rep. Although getting used to change does not require any deliberation. Hence. It’s too exhausting to be frustrated all of the time. when linked to positive experiences. In short. It has to do with uncertainty (Middle Manager.. Experience-based change capabilities among employees . Storebrand Bank). (2003) referred to as process-based learning. (2) maintaining control. as opposed to learning speciﬁc skills or knowledge about one type of change. this familiarity. . This indicates that experience with different types of large-scale change can contribute to general process knowledge resembling what Schilling et al. draw on their previous process experience in a number of ways: they are more prepared for their own reactions. You get used to changes going on all of the time. Well-known and Figure 2. and (3) increasing their own market value (see Figure 2). Change experience 117 Experience-based coping does not require reﬂection by the individual and as such it is similar to in-deliberate learning. Posten). Employees who have been through a series of changes become used to change and recognize the process by which change was implemented. This makes it much easier to make changes. and they are quicker . deliberately or not. although the future remains uncertain. Mere experience provides a sense of familiarity and employees. reduces some of the uncertainty related to change and makes employees more prone to cope with the uncertainties of organizational change. . they are less frightened and frustrated by uncertain outcomes. the process is familiar. recognizing process similarities requires an ability to abstract across change initiatives.(1) coping with uncertainty. The process takes less time because people approach the situation more quickly with experience.
Recall that in the Scandinavian context. For our organization this becomes an external condition that we have to deal with. Your reactions become more constructive for yourself (Employee. so I focus on operations and business as usual.That doesn’t happen any more . AstraZeneca). such as business as usual. Employees are focusing on things that they perceive are within their realm of control. they gained increased faith in their own ability to do so. but also ﬁnd ways to maintain or take control. [Experience with change] has a positive effect. DnBNor). 1997). makes these employees feel more in control. employees deﬁne change as beyond their realm of control – hence organizational change will no longer lead to perceptions of lost control. You didn’t think it would [work out well]. because there it is not something we can ﬁght against. Externalizing change thereby allows employees to maintain a sense of self-efﬁcacy (Bandura. If you have been through this before. Previously they would become paralyzed. Our ﬁndings suggest that “accepting” employees not only reduce uncertainty by looking for similarities across change process. Change always involves some level of uncertainty. Then possibilities open up. check the market. By viewing change as an external condition. It’s more about getting to work. You perhaps get in touch with other employers. They described that as they had seen relevant others pull through and prosper in their new job. DnBNor). but then you end up enjoying your new work (Employee. but our employees are more aware of making explicit decisions themselves. accepting employees develop capabilities on how to upgrade their professional competencies. Posten). Today change has become a part of everyday work-life. . . which can reduce an individual’s sense of control (Eilam and Shamir.1 118 positively framed memories of change procedures and routines reduces the uncertainty and ambiguity and allows employees to spend less time ﬁguring out what is going on and they quickly orient themselves about the latest planned change initiative and how this might affect them. such as viewing change as an external condition and focusing on business as usual. A merger is an external thing – even if it is also internally steered. as the quote above indicates. The decision has been made and it cannot be reversed. Because of frequent organizational changes they become extremely aware of their own competencies and the ways in which these can be used in this or any other organization. . Interestingly several respondents referred to the experiences of previous colleagues who had been subject to downsizing.Many of them have witnessed colleagues who have actually gotten a better life after changing jobs (Union rep. This can create positive energy (HR Manager. Of course each individual reacts differently. Having mastered a previous change. Change capabilities among accepting employees also involved ways of dealing with fast-paced changes. You have been through it before and it worked out ﬁne. . Employees have become much better at reasoning about their options and choices . it is easier to handle . . Finally. . You can’t affect everything that comes along anyway (Employee. 2005). . .PR 41. DnBNor). most employees have not traditionally been exposed to frequent job shifts to the same extent as many other western countries. . . This in turn increases the likelihood that they will succeed in reaching their goals. We don’t have to communicate the rationale behind the change. . you know what to do.
DnBNor). Our data on compliant and cynical reactions suggests that employees with bad process experience had learned to distance themselves. then any new change process is doomed to fail . the literature on downsizing and organizational commitment suggests that several rounds of downsizing have changed how employees perceive their commitment to organizations and that the bond between employee and organization has declined (Naus et al. Learning to lay low and keep quite Compliant employees developed experience-based capabilities for handling change as well. Nordea). 2007). Hence. Although these capabilities do not fall within our deﬁnition of change capabilities as they fail to contribute in driving the change forward. 119 Some researchers question the demand on employees to be ﬂexible and argue that the relationship between managers and employees has been altered and that employees are now “expected to work longer hours. Our ﬁndings suggest that bad process experience is an important explanatory factor. it is important to understand these reactions. where employees strive to take care of themselves. Being conﬁdent about your level of competence – conﬁdent that it can be used in a number of different places (Union rep. But the ﬁrst question you ask yourself is always if this will affect me? You become egotistical (Employee.. This [previous experience] is the basis for whether or not employees will want to be a part of future change processes (Union rep. either by making use of professional advice or accepting offers for executive programs. DnBNor). Vesta). be more ﬂexible and to tolerate continual change and ambiguity” which can negatively affect employees sense of worker dignity (Cartwright and Holmes. Likewise. as the organization no longer can provide any long-term guarantees. There is evidence that “not saying the wrong things” becomes important as those people who . . employees have learned that loyal and passive reactions pay off (Bryant and Wolfram Cox. Our ambition is to provide possibilities for career development and security. lay low and keep quiet. 2006). but the possibility to develop and become attractive on the general job market (Union rep. How did you handle downsizing in the previous process? If poorly.Our most change willing employees are the ones who have experienced change – experienced being in a number of different positions and it has to do with competencies. Previous studies on reactions to change have argued that in some cases. . This is also conducive with the union representatives’ perspective. But security is not employment from age 20 to 67. accept greater responsibility. The reasons for focusing on their own professional competences may be tied to the previous point about taking control over those things that are within employees’ realm of control. Organizational history is very important. Yes you get used to changes. . while the tendency to focus on own competencies is positive for the organization. as illustrated in the second quote below. Change experience Some employees use organizational change initiatives as a deliberate way of upgrading their own competencies. perhaps at the expense of organizational needs.. 2004). it may also reﬂect a more individualized focus in organizations. it is important to bear in mind that this could be a reﬂection of a perceived need to upgrade competencies in order to be attractive for this (and other) organizations in the future and a focus on one’s own market value. However.
Change-experienced employees emphasize the procedures through which changes are made (how change is implemented) and activate memories about how previous processes were managed. In summary. which tends to be characterized by lower mobility (particularly Norway and Sweden) than many of its European and North-American counter-parts. but then it has to be adjusted to the situation at hand. Morrison and Milliken (2000. but in addition. In Scandinavia there is also a propensity to voice disagreement due to the low power-distance between management and employees. The management in one organization expressed a concern about the lack of input and enthusiasm for change among some employees and therefore launched a project aiming to energize and activate employees. Managers who had experience with continuous and multiple changes had developed routines and procedures which created predictability for employees. but our data do suggest that with experience. 2004. 585). Management plays a pivotal role in generating positive change process experiences. Previous research has argued that experience-based reactions depend on relational aspects such as how managers treat employees during change (Thornhill and Saunders. such as planning and organizing the process. Poorly managed change processes on the other hand result in learning how to distance oneself from the organization. 2003). But you have a structure and a way of thinking that will help you (Top manager.PR 41. and you have to be careful not to think to that two situations are identical. employees with positive change experience appear to have developed change capabilities that make them more ﬂexible and change willing. p. Change experience allows you to capitalize on the structural capital in the organization. which appears to be reduced as employees become more experienced. but there is also a risk of more passive reactions. DnBNor). fewer people were willing to voice disagreement. Our analyses suggest that change capabilities can be developed among employees provided the processes are well-managed. You have a good idea of how this is going down. Management needs be aware of common reactions when employees have been through a multitude of planned changes over time. Our ﬁndings support this. our respondents point out the importance of structural aspects.1 120 speak up are punished. which means that you don’t need so much trial and error. This reduced uncertainty about the process and provided a sense of security and trust between employees and manager supporting and facilitating the development of employee-based capabilities for change. Conclusions and implications We have examined how experience inﬂuences employee reactions to change. the routines through which the changes were implemented had several similar features. 706) argue: “employees often feel compelled to remain silent in the face of concerns or problems”. So it won’t be exactly the same. Our ﬁndings suggest that some employees develop capabilities to cope with fast-paced . This is particularly interesting in the Scandinavian work context. while those who remain quiet beneﬁt from the changes (Bryant and Wolfram Cox. We did not ﬁnd evidence of speciﬁc beneﬁts that were provided for those who kept quiet in the organizations we studied. Although new change projects involved ambiguous and uncertain outcomes. p. Management’s role in developing employee capabilities for change We have argued that experienced employees react more loyally to change.
We attempted to reduce this limitation by including employees who had exited the organizations we studied as well. Managers play an important role in facilitating the development of employee change capabilities. maintaining control and increasing one’s own market value. Employees who remain in the organization after many fast-paced changes may be those who are prone to loyal behavior. There are some limitations to our ﬁndings. However. in focusing on general change process experience rather than a speciﬁc type of change. 2006). Bryant. alliances). or characteristics of the change process. One way in which we attempted to handle this was to probe employees about other people’s reactions as well as their own reactions. a relatively stable workforce. because their experience suggested that this was the least conspicuous way to react. However. our study supports and extends recent studies indicating that experience is an important factor for understanding reactions to change (Thornhill and Saunders. Third. or speciﬁcs about the change process. First. another group of employees implemented change in a passive manner without any enthusiasm. 2003. Thornhill and Saunders (2003) reported that experience had both negative and positive inﬂuences on change reactions and that change experienced employees felt both more secure and became more resigned. First. While one group of employees effectively implemented change by drawing on experience-based capabilities. there is a risk of undermining effects based on speciﬁcs about the change contents. but instead show loyal reactions.change initiatives. Hence the literature on negative reactions to change can only provide limited insight to reactions among change-experienced employees. These ﬁndings contribute in explaining the opposing effects of experience found in recent literature on experience and reactions. there is the issue of self-selection in our data set. such as whether the changes involved structural or cultural changes or both. We extend current insights by providing additional explanations for this dual picture. such as whether hard or soft levers were used to implement change. Finally. Previous literature has focused predominantly on explaining reactions based on personality factors. Our ﬁndings point to the important role management plays in terms of planning and organizing the change process and hence providing a familiar structure on the activities that take place during implementation of change. Previous literature has emphasized dynamic capabilities at the ﬁrm level as well as managerial capabilities for change. the type of change (e. by generating an ability to cope with the uncertainties of change. our studies mainly consisted of “survivors” of multiple change processes. Our study shows that positive experience with change can contribute to the development of change capabilities also at the employee level. Our ﬁndings make three contributions to the existing literature. Our study shows similar ﬁndings in that employees can both develop capabilities for change and cynicism towards change. Second. and power Change experience 121 . our ﬁndings indicate that not only the level of experience but also the type of experience matters for employee reactions. in a national context based on long traditions of work-place democracy. there is also a risk that employees respond what they believe is politically correct. our study identiﬁes change capabilities that are developed at the employee level. the cultural context of our studies may have inﬂuenced our ﬁndings. Second.g. Our ﬁndings suggest that experienced employees do not actively resist change. the picture is not one-sidedly positive. All of our studies took place in Scandinavia. Third. The variety in the responses suggests that employees are not only reiterating what they believe management wants to hear.
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