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UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS IN ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE:

THE ROLE OF IDENTITY IN ONGOING CHANGE PROCESSES

Tina Kiefer

University of British Columbia


OBHR Division, Faculty of Commerce
2053 Main Mall
Vancouver BC V6T 1Z2
Tel: 1-604-822-5020
Fax: 1-604-822-8517
Email: tina.kiefer@commerce.ubc.ca

and

Werner R Müller

University of Basel
Rosshofgasse 2
4051 Basel, Switzerland
Tel. +41 61 267 32 24
Fax +41 61 267 27 58
Email: Werner-R.Mueller@unibas.ch

Paper at the Academy of Management, Seattle, 2003

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ABSTRACT

Although change has become the norm rather than the exception, leading organizations

through fundamental change processes still poses a major challenge to management. Emotional

reactions are often viewed as one of the obstacles to successful change. In this paper we re-

conceptualize the emotional experience of change through an identity lens, guided by the question of

how and why organizational changes tend to be experienced emotionally. First we argue that

ongoing organizational changes are experienced emotionally, because they tap into identity-relevant

issues. Second, we view identity as constructed from experiences relating a person to his or her

world. We argue that organizational change alters such relationships that constitute our identity. And

third we assume that as a consequence of such disruptive changes, individuals engage in identity

work in order to incorporate ongoing emotional experiences into a coherent self. We present a study,

analyzing narratives about emotional episodes at work in a context of on-going change. From these

narratives we identify four positive and four negative identity-relevant issues, which are examined

with respect to their relationship to organizational changes and their effects on identity work. Finally,

we discuss how the notion of identity work contributes to the emotional experience of organizational

change.

KEYWORDS: Emotion, Identity, Organizational Change

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The aim of this paper is to investigate, theoretically and empirically, how and why

organizational change is an emotional experience. Understanding the dynamics of organizational

change and its difficulties has been a priority in the change literature for decades. One stream of this

literature directs our attention to the individual and social nature of humans in order to describe,

explain and overcome difficulties in change such as, for example, resistance (e.g. George & Jones,

2001; Kotter, 1995). Emotional reactions to organizational transformations are viewed as part of the

individual experience of change and thus one factor consider in attempts to understand the change

dynamics (George et al., 2001; Turnbull, 2002).

Research into organizational change has typically dealt with negative reactions to change in

terms of stress, anxiety and loss (Hogan & Overmyer-Day, 1994), with resistance due to an

individual inability or unwillingness to change or a lack of understanding the reasons for change

(Ford, Ford, & McNamara, 2002; Piderit, 2000), or with anger, frustration and guilt in connection

with survivor syndrome after downsizing (e.g. Brockner, Grover, Reed, & Dewitt, 1992).

Withdrawal, low motivation for change and a decrease in performance are seen as key negative

consequences.

Although this research has made a contribution to our understanding of the emotional

experience of organizational change, it also has a number of limitations. As Wolfram Cox (1997)

criticizes, emotional experiences of change are often characterized as problems that need to be

avoided or overcome in order to succeed with implementing change. Reacting emotionally has been

associated with negative attitudes and behaviours (e.g. Nippa, 1996). Such culturally shaped

assumptions about emotions have obscured the individual and social functions that emotions can

serve at work (Kiefer, 2002). In this paper, we view emotions not simply as negative and unwanted

by-products of organizational change, but as forming an inherent part of human experience (e.g.

Greenberg & Rhodes, 1991). We will argue that emotions have vital social and individual functions

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for organizational change processes (Callahan & McCollum, 2002), and are strongly related to the

self (Fogel, 2001). Identity theorists view this self-concept (or identity)1 as woven with threads made

from experiences relating the person to his or her world, defining who and what we are (Kraus,

1996). We assume that the experiences in fundamental and ongoing organizational changes

challenge the self in different ways (McAllister & Bigley, 2002).

This paper builds on and informs three bodies of literature, namely the literature on change,

identity and emotions at work. Its contribution lies in the theoretical integration of emotion and

identity concepts to understand the emotional experience of change. This allows overcoming the

notion of emotions as an obstacle and to focus on the individual and social functions in the process of

dealing with ongoing change. The study presented here consists of emotional narratives collected

from employees in ongoing organizational change. It contributes to the field by describing the full

range of positive and negative emotional experiences and by showing how this affects identities of

employees in ongoing change. The theoretical development and the empirical evidence presented in

this paper further have practical implications and offer a fresh view on change management in the

context of ongoing transformations.

LINKING EMOTIONS, IDENTITY AND CHANGE

In this section we outline our three main theoretical assumptions about how and why working

in organizational change is experienced emotionally. From these three assumptions we derive three

research questions, which will guide the analysis of the empirical study and the presentation of the

results.

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In this paper the terms identity and self or self-concept are used interchangeably for sake of simplicity.

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Emotions Relate to Identity

We assume that work situations provoke emotions, because they are important to us. One way

of conceptualizing this is through the notion of identity. Our theoretical framework rests on the

assumption that emotions are central to the experience of the self and vice versa. Emotions are

defined as socio-cultural patterns of experience and behaviour (Gergen, 1999). These patterns are

acquired, validated and acted out in social relationships and closely entrenched in beliefs, norms and

values (Averill, 1980; Harré, 1986). Gordon (1989) views emotion as “a way of defining a situation,

or, more accurately, of defining one’s place in a situation in terms of important values” (p. 166).

Thus, emotions experienced or expressed in the work context characterize an individual’s or a

group’s position with regard to a situation or event. They serve an important social function, for

example as symbolic displays to others about one’s values, standards and expectations. On the other

hand, they also provide vital clues to one’s self, signalling how a situation is personally relevant

(Gordon, 1989; Hochschild, 1983). Emotions therefore inform the individual about the significance

of the ongoing situation or event according to that person’s values and expectations (e.g. Armon-

Jones, 1986). They do so, because they are part of a social and personal meaning system. Emotions,

such as pride or anger, are not random, but follow a logic or rule, which are culturally acquired

(Fischer, 1991; Lazarus, 1999). For example in Western culture pride is constructed as a

consequence of personally mastering a difficult task in order to achieve a goal (Frese, 1990) and

anger is characterized a “demeaning offence against me and mine” and also relates to ones goals

(Lazarus, 1999, p.217). Self-focused emotions such as guilt or shame on the other hand are

constructed around moral values, ideals and standards (Fischer, 1991; Lazarus, 1999). This means

that according to these theorists all emotions relate to the self, but in very different ways. Although

they view all emotions as relating to the self in one way or another, the extent to which emotional

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experiences may affect the self varies, daily hassles with colleagues may for example not impact on

identity as much as existential fear (Thoits, 1995).

In summary we argue that emotional experiences have at their core identity-relevant issues.

As meanings conveyed by specific emotions are socially shared, they inform us about how we (and

others) interpret a situation and how we view our own position within it. Returning to our guiding

question, we formulate assumption 1: Organizational changes are experienced emotionally when

they tap into identity-relevant issues. What kinds of issues are experienced in the context of ongoing

organizational change remains to be empirically explored, and leads us to research question 1: What

are the (emotionally experienced) identity-relevant issues experienced in the context of

organizational change?

Ongoing Change Challenges Identities

Our second assumption is concerned with the relationship between identity and organizational

change. Identity answers the question “Who am I?” (Thoits, 1991). Identity is viewed as reflexive

and relational: reflexive as it focuses on a person’s perception of (and relation to) him or herself, and

relational as the self-concept is constructed in relation to the social world which provides for the

categories and values needed to understand oneself. The relationship to one’s context constitutes the

material from which the self is constructed over time (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Gergen & Gergen,

1988). Identity theorists too view this process as closely linked to the experience and expression of

emotion (Fogel, 2001).

Work is one life domain in Western culture that provides for such identity-relevant

relationships (which includes social relationships and relationships with “objects” such as “work”)

(Albert, Ashforth, & Dutton, 2000; Kahn, 1990). This means work can help people to understand

themselves and their lives as meaningful. Not only can the work setting be a field for social

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integration through interactions and social recognition, it is also a potential field for developing a

sense of agency and competence (Hui & Lee, 2000). According to Müller & Widmer (1998)

identities at work are constituted by the relationships of the individual to the organization as a

collectivity, to the work activity and to the effects of this activity as well as to the superiors and

colleagues. At the same time, these categories have proven to be affected by organizational changes

(Hui et al., 2000; Kiefer, 2002; Schweiger & DeNisi, 1991).

Organizational change is thus likely to bring changes and challenges to identity-relevant

relationships at work, and – as argued in the previous section - such challenges are experienced

emotionally. Returning to our guiding question of how and why organizational change is emotional

we formulate assumption 2: Ongoing organizational change alters and dissolves the relationships,

which allow the person to define and identify him- or herself at work. Yet, working in an

organization in general is likely to alter such identity-relevant relationships and it remains to be

empirically explored, how organizational change is considered a relevant context. This leads us to

research question 2: How are identity-relevant issues seen to relate to ongoing organizational

changes?

Identity Work and Emotion in Change

In this section we highlight the role of identity as a constructive process in dealing with the

emotionality inherent in organizational change.

Some authors argue that because many relational settings have become heterogeneous and

unstable, the self is best understood as a patchwork of multiple identities (e.g. Hall & du Gay, 1996).

The notion of identity as an accomplished inner structure - which might be reflected and questioned

in times of individual crisis - is increasingly replaced by the idea of a succession of diverse and

maybe contradicting individual experiences and roles (Hall et al., 1996; Keupp, 1988). This requires

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a lifelong everyday process of constructing and maintaining our self (Keupp et al., 1999). Keupp et

al. therefore re-conceptualize identity from a stable pattern to a continuous process which they label

“identity work”. It describes the effort an individual makes to maintain a sense of continuity and a

plausible thread in his or her life.2 Past, present and future experiences are “integrated” into a picture

of oneself, which is constantly being negotiated.

How does the concept of identity work add to our understanding of how and why

organizational changes are emotional? Identity work offers one way of analyzing how individuals

experience, deal with and accommodate to changes. We argued earlier that change challenges

identities and that these challenges are experienced emotionally, the emotions informing us about

identity-relevant issues. With Keupp et al. (1999), we further argue that dealing with identity-

relevant issues in times of change triggers identity work.

Based on ten years of research into identity constructions and identity developments, Keupp

et al. develop four criteria, which characterize identity work: Acknowledgement, authenticity,

coherence, and agency.3

Acknowledgement means to locate oneself within the social context at work by experiencing

attention, respect, appreciation and self-esteem. Keupp et al. describe three sub-dimensions:

Attention from others (feeling perceived as human being by others), recognition in the sense of

appreciation and positive affect and self-appreciation. Feeling integrated into a social network and

having a sense of belonging is a combined form of social acknowledgement. Authenticity means a

feeling of “being true to one self” at work, feeling authentic, whole and genuine. Authenticity is

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Note that the terms “identity work” and “effort” used by Keupp et al. are somewhat misleading as they imply a
conscious process that requires hard work and concentration. Rather, the opposite is the case. The authors describe this
process as an everyday, nearly casual process, which generally does not involve conscious work.
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This concept has been developed in unawareness of the organizational behaviour literature, yet many facets of it remind
us of previous work in OB, especially in the field of organization-based self-esteem (Hui & Lee, 2000; McAllister &
Bigley, 2002) as well as engagement with work (Kahn, 1990).

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understood as a subjectively acceptable correspondence between situational behaviour and self-

concept, which means that the individual recognizes itself in its actions at work. Coherence relates to

a feeling of purpose in working life. It means understanding the world in which we work

(comprehensibility), and being able to manage it (manageability), and perceiving that one’s own

activities at work make sense (meaningfulness). Agency refers to the feelings of causality and

functionality in concrete situations at work. It means to understand oneself as the agent of an activity,

to be able to cope in working life, and to be effective and have an impact.

What role do emotions play in the identity work carried out in the context of organizational

change? Some identity theorists have suggested that negative emotions indicate threats to identity,

whereas positive emotions point to potentially identity enhancing events (Burke, 1991; Thoits,

1995). This means for Keupp’s framework, that negative emotions point to an identity work struggle,

which means negative emotional experiences should reveal a lack of acknowledgement, authenticity,

coherence, or agency. Positive emotional experiences would on the other hand characterize

“successful” identity work.

However, the relationship between emotions and identity work in everyday life is likely to be

more complex than this. For example, a new job description due to restructurings may be

experienced with great anxiety, however finding a way to master this situation might enhance the

feeling of self-efficacy.

Further, as emotions signal to us and others our position in the world, the expression of

emotion can become part of identity work itself. For example, through expressing our anger about a

pay cut we enable ourselves to defend ourselves and feel authentic. Thus, identity work includes an

element of emotion work (e.g. Fineman, 2000), “using” emotional expressions is a means of doing

identity work.

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With regard to our guiding question we formulate assumption 3: Individuals are likely to

perform identity work in order to integrate identity-relevant issues into a consistent self, which

reveals itself in the emotional experience through the presence or absence of the four criteria

acknowledgement, authenticity, coherence, or agency. The process of identity work is an emotional

as, first, the experience of identity-relevant issues is inherently emotional, and secondly, as the

expression of emotion is a means of doing identity work. The extent to which identity work becomes

visible in the context of organizational change and how the four criteria are relevant in ongoing

organizational change, remains to be empirically explored, leading to research question 3: What do

(emotionally experienced) identity-relevant issues in the context of work reveal about identity work

in ongoing organizational change?

Summary

The framework presented here answers some of the aspects of how and why change is

experienced emotionally. We theorize that many events happening in the context of organizational

changes are experienced emotionally, because they tap into identity-relevant issues. This is true for

negative as well as positive experiences. The context of organizational change is prone to challenge

identities as it potentially alters relationships that constitute our identity and that provide for the

categories needed to establish a concept or ourselves. Rather than viewing identity as a fixed entity

in adulthood, we draw on the notion of identity work to describe the ongoing process of constructing

a sense of continuity and coherence in life, in other words to describe how they integrate

(emotionally experienced) identity-relevant issues into a consistent self. It remains to be explored

what the contents of identity relevant issues in the work context are (RQ1), if and how they relate to

organizational changes (RQ2), and if and how working in the context of ongoing organizational

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change demands identity work (RQ3). These three research questions will guide through the

empirical study and its results.

THE STUDY

Background of the Study

The data discussed here are part of a larger survey, which aimed at describing the emotional

well-being of employees in the rapidly changing pharmaceutical industry. One section of the survey

was dedicated to exploring identity work with open questions.

The chemical industry in Switzerland has been undergoing radical changes in the last 10 years

moving from a very secure, stable, and employee-focused sector to a sector in which mergers and

acquisitions, out- and in-sourcing, redundancies and early retirement schemes have become common.

At the time of the study, in February 2000, no large mergers were pending, but many reorganizations

and re-structuring were taking place in all of the companies. This background matched our needs for

a research context of rapid and constant organizational change.

Method

Given the nature of our research interest, we aimed to gather qualitative data about the

emotional experiences at work during change. At the same time we were keen to cover a wide range

of different identity-relevant episodes in order to explore socially shared constructions. For this

reason we chose to include open questions in a survey. Three pilot studies were conducted to test and

improve the quantitative measures and open-ended questions.

Given our theoretical assumptions that emotions point to identity-relevant issues, we elicited

recent emotions in every-day working life by presenting a quantitative emotion checklist and asking

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participants for a narrative of the concrete event or situation that caused the most dominant of their

positive and negative emotion reported.

Emotion-checklist: We presented 14 positive and 24 negative emotions from a German

language emotion taxonomy (Schmidt-Atzert & Ströhm, 1983), modified on the bases of the pilot

results. Participants were asked to rate the terms according to how dominant the emotion felt in their

momentary every-day working life. Table A1 in the appendix shows the checklist and the

frequencies of the emotions rated as most dominant in working lives of the last two weeks. We were

interested in emotional experiences of working in the context of ongoing change, rather than

experiences directly about change. Thus we were careful to avoid triggering stereotypes about

organizational change. For this reason organizational change was never mentioned as a focus in the

covering letter nor in the questionnaire.

Eliciting emotional narratives: After rating the emotions, participants were asked to reflect on

their most dominant negative emotion and to note down a) the situation or event related to the

negative emotion b) the perceived reason or cause of this event and c) the consequences of this

emotional event. The procedure was repeated for the most dominant positive everyday emotion.

Sample: Of the 397 members of the Employee Association of the Swiss Chemical Industry

(VSAC) participating in the study, 84% noted down a positive (334) and 95% a negative (359)

emotional episode. Most respondents were male (84%), aged over 45 (65%). 38.5% reported to have

no leadership function, 33.0% rated themselves as junior manager, 22% as middle manager and 4.5%

as senior management. According to the VSAC, the sample reflects the distribution in this

population.

Context of ongoing, steady change: A change-checklist at the end of the questionnaire

confirmed that respondents had experienced several major changes over the previous six months.

Over 80% had experienced reorganizations in their department and/or their company, over 60% had

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observed or experienced layoffs and major changes in HR policies and strategies, and, almost 25%

reported they had changed jobs internally.

Data Analysis Strategy

There were several steps of data analysis, guided by our three questions of interest. Step 1

consisted of a thorough analysis of the qualitative data with the aim of establishing the identity-

relevant issues (RQ1). As outlined in the theory section, identity is understood as constructed from

the experiences relating a person to his or her world. Therefore the data was coded asking the

question: Which aspect of working in the organization do participants relate to in their episode? The

narratives were content analyzed, and more abstract categories developed over several iterations. The

analysis resulted in eight “identity-relevant issues”, which several sub-dimensions. After establishing

and defining the categories, we re-coded the data accordingly. For the coding we established a good

interrater-reliability of Cohen’s Kappa 0.81 between three raters. The sub-dimensions and the most

typical emotions related to the core issue are described in tables A3 and A4 in the appendix. The

typicality of the emotions reported in connection with the identity relevant issues were established by

frequencies and confirmed by conducting a correspondence analysis (see Figure A1 and A2 for the

results of the correspondence analysis). We continued the analysis with these eight identity-relevant

categories of core ”identity-relevant issues”, four of them negative and four positive ones.

Step 2: In order to answer the question of how identity-relevant issues are seen to relate to

ongoing organizational changes (RQ2) we analyzed these eight identity-relevant issues further

asking the question “What does the participant view as cause for the reported event?”. We examine

the narratives for perceived causes with respect to organizational changes. Similar to step 1 we

formed categories of higher abstraction in several iterations.

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Step 3: Independently of step 2, the eight identity-relevant issues were also analyzed further

with respect to identity work. We performed a content-analysis, using Keupp et al.’s four criteria as

starting point. This means we asked about the extent to which each of the 672 narratives fitted the

four criteria of successful identity work: feelings of acknowledgment, ability to act, authenticity and

coherence. Starting from the definitions in the theory section, we refined the four criteria according

to this data. The refined definitions are summarized in Table A2 in the appendix.

RESULTS

Due to the nature of the data and results we first present an overview of the main findings

along the three research questions (see Table 1). In the subsequent sections we will then present a

more in-depth description and analysis of the results that aim to illustrate our main findings.

Overview of Results

What are the identity-relevant issues experienced in the context of working in ongoing

organizational change? (RQ1). We identified four positive and four negative main categories of

identity-relevant issues showing us why and how working in the context of organizational change is

emotional. Each core identity-relevant issue includes experiences of a different quality and nature.

The first three columns in Table 1 summarize the four negative and four positive core categories of

identity-relevant issues extracted from the narratives and show the most typical emotions reported in

connection with it (see Figures A1 and A2 in the appendix, showing the results of the

correspondence analysis, linking emotions and issues). The sub-dimensions of each category are

listed in tables A3 and A4 in the appendix. The identity-relevant issues experienced in connection

with negative emotions are: Not being able to work professionally (aversion against impediments to

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work), not feeling safe and acknowledged (worry and fear about personal situation), feeling hassled

or excluded (disappointment and frustration about social relationships) and not believing in values

(disappointment, frustration, anger and mistrust about organization). Table A3 in the appendix

reveals that the majority of negatively experienced identity-relevant issues are tied to the

organization, including issues such as its strategies and policies in general and concerning

organizational changes, as well as its top management.

The bottom half of Table 1 also shows the results for the narratives related to positive

emotions. The four identity-relevant issues here are: Being challenged and professional at work (joy

and enthusiasm about being challenged at work), being acknowledged for achievements and

successes (pride about personal situation), feeling attached to colleagues and boss (liking and

thankfulness about social relationships) and believing in company (relief and hope in connection with

the organization’s future). Table A4 in the appendix shows that positive events are distributed more

evenly across the three categories working professionally, achievements and successes, attachment to

social network. Only a small minority of participants experienced the organization and its

management in terms of a positive identity-relevant issue.

How are these identity-relevant issues related to ongoing organizational changes? (RQ2).

Table 1, column 4, summarizes the main causes reported in the narratives, showing that

organizational changes and top management (which is held responsible for the changes) are blamed

for the majority of the negatively experienced identity-relevant issues. However, in general,

employees do not view the contents of change in itself as a cause for negative experiences, but the

philosophy behind the changes, the way in which they are managed or values and intentions ascribed

to management conducting the changes.

As causes for positively experienced identity-relevant issues the participants either reported

personal strengths or the close social network. None of the 334 positive narratives relate to top-

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management or the way organizational change is managed. However, narratives related to the issue

of “new challenges” do report a broad category of organizational changes as reasons for the

challenges occurring (see in-depth description of “joy about work”).

What do these identity-relevant issues in the context of work reveal about identity work in

ongoing organizational change? (RQ3). The emotional episodes contain information about the four

criteria characterizing identity work. We first summarize identity work expressed in the negative

narratives and then move on to the positive narratives.

Acknowledgement is characterized as feeling noticed and paid attention to, either by top

management, the organization or by colleagues. The employees in this sample deplore a clear lack of

acknowledgement, meaning a lack of positive attention, respect and appreciation from the

organization and its top-management for (former) achievements as well as for employees in general.

Coherence relates to a feeling of purpose in working life (meaningfulness), to understanding the

world in which we work, being able to make sense of one’s working world (comprehensibility), and

to feeling able to manage it (manageability). In the negatively experienced emotional issues,

participants describe continuous organizational changes as resulting in a lack of meaningful and

comprehensible work. The reasons here are seen to be changes that are not sustained (no continuity)

or lead to decreased work quality. Manageability is questioned through heavy workload and unclear

goals and structures, which are both seen as a result of badly managed changes. Agency refers to the

feelings of control, causality and functionality in concrete situations at work. Similar to coherence,

participants find it difficult to view themselves as effective and powerful agents in a working

environment of high insecurity, few continuities and little clarity. Authenticity refers less to actions

and more to values and standards and means a feeling of “being one self” at work, as correspondence

between situational behavior and self-concept. The participants strongly reject the values and

philosophies of the organization and its top-management by expressing anger and mistrust.

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Furthermore, the way they view themselves as forced to work in the context of ongoing changes, is

not in accordance with their life and work standards and values. Authenticity includes the idea of

being true to oneself, and by expressing strong negative feelings, participants find a way to remain

true to their values, despite continuing to work in such an organizational, which contradicts their

norms and standards.

However, there are not only potential threats to identity described. When adding the positive

identity-relevant issues to the picture – which are not about organizational change - we understand

how individuals succeed in identity work. The participants report a strong attachment to their close

social environment, receiving acknowledgment, respect and appreciation. Their sense of belonging to

their team is described as a powerful resource for coping with the insecurity and discontinuity. Self-

acknowledgement and a feeling of agency and coherence are found in personal success and felt

through work itself.

Insert Table 1 about here

In the next sections we show more in-depth how participants experience working in ongoing

organizational changes emotionally, and how these experiences can be interpreted within the

framework of succeeding identity work.

Negatively Experienced Identity-Relevant Issues

Not believing in organizational values

(RQ1) Anger, mistrust, disappointment and frustration over the company policies and

strategies and the perceived lack of integrity of the top-management dominate in this category. The

overwhelming majority of the reported episodes in this category is about disapproving of

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organizational strategies and policies in general as well as specifically about organizational changes

in the company:

[I experience anger and rage] when a perfectly functioning service organization (improved by projects over years),
“thanks” to the merger gets equipped with new cadre, who doesn’t know (want to know) the history and they change
EVERYTHING and actually destroy it, then this enrages me deeply. Especially the irreverence of [former]
achievements and the people who achieved them make me angry [133].

(RQ2) Persistent changes in the organization seem to be experienced as causing a lot of grief

and despair, as hardly any positive aspects are made out and the constant changes lead to much

discontinuity and unnecessary extra work:

[I feel] aversion against the constantly reoccurring restructurings. You build up something, and before you’ve
finished, the next one comes along. [337]

[I feel frustration because] momentous decisions are made without noticeable benefit. Unsuccessful mergers are
covered with further mergers. Mistakes are not recognized or admitted, I worry that the same mistakes will be made
again. [378]

Especially visible is the expressed mistrust and anger against representatives of the top-

management leading change, whom they reproach for their doubtable motives, for lacking

credibility, their perceived disdain for employees, as well as inability and egoism:

[The CEO] is after only ONE thing – profit! Power! [He] is power-ridden and has a pathological ego [298].

Top management is taking decisions that are serving more their own interests than those of the company. [318]

(RQ3) Identity work becomes very apparent here. In the reported episodes – such as the

above quote by participant 318 or 298 - participants express their inability to identify with or approve

of the way in which changes are managed and the values portrayed by the company’s management.

Participant’ sense of authenticity is strongly challenged as living and working according to personal

values seems very difficult under these circumstances. This is sometimes combined with a sense of

lack of respect and general acknowledgment for previous achievements (e.g. quote of participant

133).

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Not being able to work professionally

(RQ1) In this category of identity-relevant issues, participants mainly refer to high workload

and ineffective processes and structures. They report feeling aversion against and being fed up with

work processes that hinder carrying out the job properly and the quality of the work output is

jeopardized. Reduced quality of work, more mistakes and unnecessary increased workload are

described to be the consequences:

I feel rage because there is so much work to do, so that there is hardly time for a break or a short conversation with
colleagues […]. In the evenings I am knackered (physically) and frustrated, that means I wonder why I still work that
hard/much – it’s absolutely no fun any longer. [124]

(RQ2) The majority blames different kinds of change events such as mergers, changes in

strategy for their negative experiences with regard to their working situation. Uncoordinated, not

thought-through processes and management decisions are seen as further reasons for negative

experiences in this category:

[I am fed up with] the way tasks and work are organized. These are highly complex, because organizational changes
required incredible amount of flexibility. [The causes for this are] organizational changes and bad communication.
[147]

(RQ3) Identity work reveals itself in these episodes especially through lack of a sense of

coherence. The focus in this category lies on one’s work tasks and the issues here concern aspects of

manageability (e.g. dealing with high workload). Participants express not being able to cope with the

situation, which makes working life appear senseless (e.g. quote by 124). Further, the narratives

reveal a lack of authenticity. In this category it means that participants cannot work the way they

would like to according to their professional standards and beliefs:

It has become acceptable, to produce documents of only 80% perfection, earlier we used to work on it until it was
OK, not only nearly-good, just to save time. [110]

Changes in the work relationship are interpreted as being a threat to ones professional identity

and authenticity.

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Not feeling safe and acknowledged

(RQ1) The dominating negative issue of this category is anxiety and worry about one’s

personal situation due to “not feeling safe”, especially in connection with a potential threat to one’s

job or one’s professional future in general:

[I feel fear] since the merger my job in the HR department has been at risk several times. Now a further “re-
engineering” is on the agenda. Unclear concepts about HR management, not credible statements concerning “people-
centeredness” and badly selected, incompetent top-management [contribute to this fear]. [176].

(RQ2) The feeling of uncontrollable threat of one’s personal and professional safety and

continuity is nearly without exception attributed to endless organizational changes. Participants do

not blame organizational changes as such, but the way in which restructurings and layoffs and are

managed. The reason for participant’s anxiety is related to unclear HR strategies and not trustworthy

managers (e.g. participant 176).

(RQ3) Threats to one’s economical and social existence are a fundamental issue of identity. In

terms of identity work, employees perceive the situation as leaving them very little control, making it

impossible to have an impact on the environment and to act on their behalf. They are losing their

sense of agency. Implicitly there is also a sense of lack of acknowledgement, as the conclusion seems

to be that one is not an important or valued person in this organization (any longer).

Feeling hassled and excluded

(RQ1) The narratives in this category relate to working with colleagues in a team and to the

relationship with the immediate superior (line-manager). Anger, frustration and disappointment are

the most typical emotions in this category of narratives:

[I feel] anger about the “inability” and incompetence of others [in the team], which lead to unnecessary delays and
extra work! [211]

20
In this category many of the narratives refer to every-day hassles with teammates, which has

shown to be a common source of anger and frustration in earlier research (Fitness, 2000). Bullying

and feeling excluded is a further issue, which exceeds the notion of a daily hassle.

(RQ2) On the whole, the experiences in this category are less attributed to the context of

ongoing organizational changes and more to colleagues and line-managers. Still, organizational

change processes do get mentioned, as they are “blamed” for breaking social structures.

(RQ3) There is no clear trend in the identity work criteria for the narratives about daily

conflicts. For some it challenges their sense of authenticity, as people make clear, that they have to

be careful about what they say and how they behave and that this that this is not an environment (or

team) they like to work in. For others it is more an issue of lack of coherence and agency as conflicts

with colleagues or superiors stand in the way of common goals and being in control of situations.

The narratives about bullying on the other hand express a feeling of being excluded and pushed aside

from a group or boss. Here participants refer to their sense of belonging and integration, an aspect of

acknowledgement.

Positively Experienced Identity-Relevant Issues

In this section we describe the results of the analysis of the positive emotional episodes and

how they illustrate relationships with high potential for a sustainable self-concept.

Believing in the organization’s values.

(RQ1) Given the overwhelming amount of narratives about negative feelings directed at the

organization, it is not surprising that hardly any participants express positive feelings about their

company. A very small minority expresses a non-cynical and appreciative view of the organization.

Most narratives in this category are however related to feelings such as relief or hope:

21
The results of the employee survey was worse than those of the already bad one 2 years ago. Now it looks like they
want to investigate the situation more closely and actually understand the problem (2 years ago nothing at all
happened. This gives me hope. [206]

In this category most reasons for positive emotions can be located in the absence, avoidance

or removal of reasons for negative emotions. Participants report relief that a feared event did not

happen (e.g. another downsizing) or hope that the future will bring improvement.

(RQ2) Reasons for the emotional episodes in this category refer to the company and its

products, some refer directly to larger organizational changes.

(RQ3) This category of issues is the most difficult to interpret in terms of identity work, as

participants are anticipating and speculating about the future development of the organization or

express hope for the future. The identity-relevant issues in this category contain potential for

increasing authenticity, coherence, acknowledgment and agency in the future.

Being challenged and professional at work

(RQ1) Despite the negative feelings about much of the context of work reported earlier,

participants report positive feelings, mainly joy and enthusiasm, in connection with their actual work

tasks and jobs. Especially when their work is demanding and offers new challenges, they express

professionalism and having fun at work:

[I am enthusiastic as] in the last years I could always work on innovative projects. [I see the causes herefore] in my
commitment, self-confidence, patience, etc. [179]

Feeling enthusiastic about the work task being acknowledged for one’s work adds to people’s

perceptions of their motivation in everyday working life. These feelings are reported to be the

reasons for sticking with the company even though one does not believe in it (any longer).

22
(RQ2) In this category of narratives, but especially when satisfying work is described,

participants report their personality or personal skills as well as the nature work as main cause for

such positive experiences:

[I feel satisfaction as] after 28 years of working in an analytic area I now completely changed my working area. [this
happened due to a] new allocation after a merger. My former job had to be appointed to somebody from the sister
company. [...] I learnt a lot and was able to extend my work field constantly [215].

However, in issues about “new challenges”, external reasons, such as the boss, restructurings,

mergers, financial constraints or other side effects of organizational changes are acknowledged as

being a cause for the described experience (see quote by 215). Thus organizational changes get some

credit for creating a context that offers positive changes, but more often the perceived reasons are

“me” or “my work”.

(RQ3) Opposed to situations and events described in the negative categories, here participants

perceive themselves as feeling agency, as having an impact (e.g. by developing and implementing

new ideas) either for the benefit of one’s own situation or for the company or team in more general

terms. Also, working is seen as a source of self-acknowledgement (e.g. 179), a few refer to

acknowledgement from others.

Being acknowledged for achievements

(RQ1) The previous category of identity-relevant issues related to doing the job and the tasks,

whereas the narratives in this category are about positive outcomes of work, which make the

individual feel proud and satisfied. Most importantly participants refer to reaching goals and gaining

acknowledgement for one’s skills. Having influence over situations and processes and being

effective are described as important:

[I feel proud for] accompanying a new product, from the first test in the lab until the first production in a large-scale
enterprise. [...] Having the feeling, to have produced something new, and being the first! The successful completion

23
of projects makes me feel proud, [as well as] thankful and acknowledged by line-managers. As a consequence I feel
happier with the job, I work harder and feel more motivation and above all, more energy to cope with negative
experiences. [43]

(RQ2) All the episodes deal with feeling acknowledged by colleagues, direct line-managers

and some few by clients. Narratives in this category are not directly linked to organizational change

nor to acknowledgement by top management or the organization. The positive experiences are

mainly attributed to one-self and one’s personal skills and competence. Often it is explicitly referred

to the fact that these successes were achieved despite the problems with organizational change and

bad management.

(RQ3) The narratives in this category stress the theme of being acknowledged and appreciated

through reaching goals. However, coherence and agency are also visible. As participant 43

illustrates, reaching goals adds to a sense of coherence by adding meaning to work and oneself as

well as to a sense of agency through leaving traces and having an impact.

Feeling attachment and belonging with team and boss

(RQ1) Despite the everyday frustrations and disappointments, these participants mainly

describe social relationships at work as a source of positive feelings. Thankfulness and liking of

colleagues and line-managers are portrayed as a refuge of belonging in turbulent times. Trust in the

team or the direct line-manager is a central theme and efficient team working and reaching goals

jointly are described as experiences that cannot easily be taken for granted:

[I feel joy about the] discussions in our core team. We understand and help each other. As a consequence not
everything is bad [248]

[I feel sympathy/liking towards my boss because] I have the feeling that my boss speaks up for his employees and
supports reasonable solutions [270]

(RQ2) The “target” of their attachment or the source of their positive feelings in this category

is never top-management or the company as such, but always more immediate social network such as

24
colleagues and line-managers. Some of the narratives relate implicitly to organizational changes in

one way or another. The core team can provide continuity and a sense of comfortable belonging,

which cannot be expected from the company (any longer).

(RQ3) These positive feelings of attachment support a succeeding identity work as a strong

sense of belonging and acknowledgment result from it. Again, this sense of belonging and

acknowledgement is sharply contrasted to other areas of experiences at work.

Discussion

Our study suggests that a number of emotional identity-relevant issues occur in ongoing

change, which are different in nature. The data does not indicate that organizational changes are

experienced negatively because of a general dislike of change or because of an inability to change,

and neither because of a lack of understanding the necessity of change. Much rather it suggests that

change is experienced negatively due to a perceived lack of respect and appreciation for previous and

ongoing achievements and for employees in general; due to finding oneself and others as mere

objects of change, unable to make sense of the continuous changes and comprehend top-

management’s strategies; due to feeling helpless and to not being able to leave traces through

working in the organization and ultimately, because of not being able to feel authentic in the

relationship with the organization.

Although the questionnaire did not explicitly ask about change, the vast majority of reported

negative episodes refer to ongoing organizational changes. Thus, organizational change is presented

as a powerful context dominating negative experiences in every-day working life in these

organizations. However, organizational changes are nearly absent when it comes to explaining

positive experiences at work. This sample rarely portrays change as presenting chances for personal

25
or organizational development. It appears that these participants in this context demarcate themselves

from the organization on one hand and focus on their close environment on the other hand.

The notion of identity work suggests one possible way to understand this demarcation and the

role of emotions in this process theoretically: By experiencing and expressing negative emotions,

such as anger about disruptions through change, identity-relevant issues come into focus. Through

the experience of such events and situations, the relationship with the organization is put in question.

As a consequence, these participants seem to de-construct the organization as an object of

identification. Drawing on Keupp et al. (1999) we argue that this demarcation is part of identity

work, performed by participants to integrate such experiences into their self-concepts. One way of

continuing to work in and for this organization and at the same time keep one’s values and self-

esteem, is to withdraw from it. Through expressing one’s aversion, disgust or worries in relation to

the development of the company, the individual has a possibility to feel authentic and take a stand.

As withdrawal means a loss of an identity-relevant relationship in the short term, one could

argue that the individual ought to move on to more constructive environments, which could mean

leaving the organization. Another possibility is, however, to shift one’s focus to other more

rewarding relationships within working life. The narratives about positive experiences at work reveal

such identity-nourishing relationships. Positive relationships with colleagues and line-managers are

described as a powerful resource in turbulent times, where a sense of belonging and acknowledgment

are important for feeling embedded. Agency and coherence is expressed in one’s relationship with

work itself.

One possible conclusion based on the notion of identity work, is that these participants find a

way to succeed in identity work by demarcating themselves from the organization and focusing on

their work and their colleagues. The experience and expression of emotions support this process, as

they inform the individual about the way in which ongoing events are relevant and through acting out

26
emotions, individuals are making their point to themselves and others. This tentative conclusion

needs further validation in future studies.

Of course, this study also has a number of limitations. The nature of this initial piece of

research did not make it necessary to aim for a representative sample nor to compare between

different organizations or groups. Also, despite instructing the participants to report concrete

experiences of the last two working weeks, the narratives are retrospective. Given the process nature

of the theoretical framework, it would be highly desirable to collect data over time and on a truly

daily basis. More research is therefore needed to explore the emotional experience of change as it

happens over time, and to examine the significance of different identity-relevant issues, in different

organizational change contexts (e.g. different organizational cultures, large multinational companies

versus small businesses).

CONCLUSIONS

In this paper we combined three bodies of literature, namely literature on change, emotion and

identity in order to explore further how and why organizational changes are experienced emotionally.

It differs from other attempts to understand and explain emotional experiences of change in two

ways:

First, it examines the emotional experience through its effects on identity and identity work.

This notion highlights relational issues in managing organizational change. It allows us to overcome

the notion of emotions as an obstacle of change and to get interested in individual and social

functions of emotions. Also, it emphasizes the benefits of looking at positive and negative

experiences in change and relating them to each other rather than merely focusing on the dark side.

27
Further the identity work notion stretches the point that working in organizational change means

dealing with changes and challenges to identity as an everyday process.

Second, this paper differs in taking into account working in ongoing organizational changes,

which is a prevalent contemporary work context. We highlighted some of the challenges in a

working context with changes that have no particular starting point or end. However, additional

research is necessary to establish if and how exactly the context of ongoing change differs from

changes which are defined as a one-off change or contexts that are described as determined by

continuity. Furthermore, patterns of identity work need to be explored in other samples in different

ongoing changes, in order to validate implications for change management. As identities are not

merely formed by the work setting, the impact of other life domains on identity work is important.

The emotion and identity perspective on organizational change also has some practical

implications. From the study we learn that not the changes itself, but rather the way in which they

are managed are reported as causes for negative experiences. This shifts our attention from the

(fearful and resistant) employee to management and the way they implement and communicate

organizational changes. It is therefore important to understand how negative experiences are dealt

with in the organization and how this impacts on organizational change.

28
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TABLES

Table 1: Summary of results

Main focus on Identity-relevant issue Main emotions Perceived causes Identity work
NEGATIVELY EXPERIENCED IDENTITY-RELEVANT ISSUES
Work Not being able to work Aversion Organizational Lack of coherence and authenticity
professionally changes, management
Personal Not feeling safe and Fear, worry Way in which changes Lack of agency and acknowledgement
situation acknowledged are managed
Social Feeling hassled or Anger/ Colleagues, line- No clear trend, lack of sense of
relationships excluded frustration managers, sometimes belonging (for bullying)
organizational changes
Organization Not believing in values Anger/mistrust, Organizational Lack of authenticity
frustration/ changes, top-
disappointment management
POSITIVELY EXPERIENCED IDENTITY-RELEVANT ISSUES
Work Being challenged and Joy/enthusiasm Me, my work, Sense of agency and (self-)
professional organizational changes acknowledgement
Personal Being acknowledged for Pride/satisfactio Me, my skills Sense of acknowledgement (from
situation achievements n others) and coherence
Social Feeling attached Liking, Colleagues, line- Sense of belonging, acknowledgment
relationships sympathy managers by others
thankfulness
Organization Believing in values Hope, relief Organization Potential for future acknowledgement,
coherence, authenticity, agency

32
FIGURES IN APPENDIX

.6
anger/mistrust
.4 w orry
organization personal situation
.2
frust/disapp
.0
social situation
-.2
-.4
Dimension 2

-.6
aversion
-.8 Identity-relevant
w ork Main relationship
issues
-1.0
-1.2 Emotion category
-1.0 -.5 0.0 .5 1.0 1.5

Dimension 1

Figure A1: Identity relevant negative emotional relationships

1.5

1.0 w ork

joy
.5

pride
0.0 personal situation social situation

social emos
-.5
Dimension 2

hope/relief
organization
-1.0 Identity-relevant
Main Relationship
issues
-1.5 Emotion Category
-1.5 -1.0 -.5 0.0 .5 1.0 1.5 2.0

Dimension 1

Figure A2: Identity relevant positive emotional relationships

33
TABLES IN APPENDIX

Table A1: Most dominant negative and positive emotions

Negative emotions Freq. Percent Positive emotions Freq. Percent


anger/rage/aggression 72 18.8 joy/enthusiasm 152 41.2
frustration 61 15.9 pride/satisfaction 88 23.9
disappointment 42 10.9 relief 33 8.9
mistrust 41 10.7 hope/anticipation 31 8.4
dislike/aversion 36 9.4 liking 18 4.9
fear/insecurity 36 9.4 thankfulness 14 3.8
fed up 23 6.0 other positive emotion 13 3.5
worry 23 6.0 sympathy 12 3.3
listlessness 16 4.2 surprise 8 2.2
restlessness/impatience 12 3.1
sadness/longing 10 2.6
other negative emotion 9 2.3
envy/jealousy 3 0.8
Total 384 100.0 Total 369 100.0

Table A2: Definitions of the four criteria of identity work


Criteria Revised and refined definition General themes
Sense of Experiencing attention, respect, appreciation, Belonging,
acknowledgement self-esteem integration
Sense of authenticity Consonance of feeling, thinking, acting Values, standards
Sense of coherence Life is meaningful, manageable, Sense in life,
comprehensible coping
Sense of agency Feeling of causality, agency, self-efficacy, Ability to act
potential for development Development

34
Table A3: Identity-relevant issues related to negative emotions

Identity-relevant issues
(typical emotions) Sub-dimensions Freq Subtotal
Work Time pressure and work load 23
(Aversion/fed up) Work processes and structures 20
Low motivation for work 7 50 (14%)
Personal situation Job insecurity 12
(Fear/Worry) Threat of professional future 11
Lack of personal acknowledgement 11
Not satisfying personal situation 7 41 (12%)
Social relationship Problematic collaborations 24
(Anger/Mistrust) Problematic relationships with boss/colleagues 6 30 (9%)
Organization Problems with company strategy and policy 50
(Anger/mistrust and Problems with change strategy and policy 40
frustration/ Problems with payment policy 32
disappointment) Problems with organizational changes 28
Problematic top management 21
Lack of credibility of top management 20
Lack of acknowledgement for human resources 14
Lack of consistence in management actions 11
Loss of esteemed organizational culture 9
Other 2 227 (65%)
Total 348 (100%)
Note. 11 episodes were excluded in this framework, whereof 7 were not-codable due to unreadable handwriting or
too little information provided; 4 items referred to external events outside work and the organization

35
Table A4: Identity-relevant, positively experienced relationships

Identity relevant issues


(typical emotions) Sub-dimensions Freq Subtotal
Work Satisfying work tasks/job 52
(joy/enthusiasm) New challenges 28 80 (25%)
Personal situation Reaching goals 40
(pride/satisfaction) Acknowledgement by colleagues, boss, clients 24
Surviving change 14
Looking forward to retirement/leisure 7
Personal skills and competencies 6
Other 9 100 (31%)
Social relationships Positive collaborations 35
(thankful/liking) Attachment with colleagues 27
Attachment with boss 20
Successful team 6
Positive about new boss or team 5
Other 16 109 (33%)
Organization Loyalty with company 13
(hope/relief) Believing in company 9
Believing in company revenues 3
Other 10 35 (11%)
Total 324 (100%)
Note. 10 episodes were excluded in this framework, whereof 9 were not-codable due to unreadable handwriting or
too little information provided; 1 item referred to external events outside work and the organization

36