Organizational Change: An Exploration of Change Uncertainty and Employee Well-Being

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Image reads: Organizational Change: An Exploration of Change Uncertainty and Employee Well-Being: An interview with Dr. Elaine Rabelo Neiva by Cameron Conaway

In a three-wave longitudinal study of 505, 390, and 348 respondents undergoing organizational change at a public Brazilian company, Vanessa de Fátima Nery, Kettyplyn Sanches Franco, and Elaine Rabelo Neiva (interviewed here) investigated how a host of change management factors impact both individual attitudes about the change and employee well-being.

Their study, Attributes of the Organizational Change and Its Influence on Attitudes Toward Organizational Change and Well-Being at Work: A Longitudinal Study, was published in June 2019 in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science.

The study has a range of implications for change management leaders, and it both corroborates and adds another layer to change resistance research. Resistance to change is often framed as a barrier for leaders to overcome, rather than as the fundamental human element that it is.

This study explores employee well-being and frames resistance through psychological, emotional, and even biological levels. In doing so, the critical role of planning and change management communications come to the forefront.

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Elaine Rabelo Neiva about this study. Dr. Neiva is a professor in the graduate program in Social, Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of Brasília. She’s also an editor (along with Claudio Vaz Torres and Helenides Mendonça) of Organizational Psychology and Evidence-Based Management (Springer, 2017). Let’s jump in.

CC: Dr. Neiva, before we get into the study, let’s take a step back. What did you find the most interesting about this study, and what do you believe is the single most important takeaway for change management practitioners?

ERN: The most important in this study points out that changes, even those related to risk and lack of planning, do not necessarily affect well-being at work. This study demystifies the idea that changes that are not accepted by individuals will always have an impact on how well people feel about doing their jobs. Therefore, it is necessary to find the aspects of change that can affect organizational participants’ and leader’s well-being.

CC: Change management literature frequently refers to both the attributes of change and the broader change process as a “stressing agent.” Your paper highlights how this stress can impact well-being ⁠— including potential increases in cardiovascular and mental health diseases.

In your research, what role does the overall change communication strategy play in either promoting or alleviating such stress?

ERN: Communicating change is a key factor. The form, content and frequency with which information is presented make a difference in the construction of individuals’ responses to change. It is necessary to build an argument about the need for change, and what means will be used to achieve the purposes of change. Different means and forms are necessary to communicate the change to the organization. Among the forms, there is evidence of the effectiveness of using metaphors and practical examples to understand the context and the need to change.

Communication can take on a formal or informal character, and manifest through many strategies that enable employees to perceive and give meaning to the change in progress. It is a primary function of communication to reduce resistance to change and minimize the effects of stress caused by change processes. Consulting people about their perceptions, keeping them informed, and participating in the change process is a relevant communication strategy.

CC: Key here, it seems, is for change leaders to build a psychologically safe environment that can serve as a priming mechanism for what’s to come. Your paper states that “At the beginning of a process of change in an organization, the first experiences and information about change are enough to bring about several cognitions, emotions, and feelings….”

Based on your research and experience, what steps can change leaders take to help ensure their organizational change initiative, even if it’s transformational, mindfully frames those first experiences?
ERN: Change brings us the challenge of moving from something known to something unknown, from something we are adapted to something we are not yet adapted, from something whose risk is known and measured with relative precision to something whose risk is unknown and more difficult to calculate.

So, personal transformation needs to follow this evolution; it is an educational process and can be driven by individual engagement… not only through suffering. Any and all organizational changes, from small changes to the most complex ones, need management.

After the need is identified, and the change is proposed and implemented, everyone in the organization should be engaged to achieve the proposed objectives. Management should follow-up and monitor the change process to verify if what was proposed is being effectively fulfilled, and that there is a continuity in the new procedures and behaviors acquired.

First, it is important to inform what will be accomplished, and make it clear what the reasons are for changing. This is a leadership role… the beginning of the change process until change is absorbed by the organizational culture. The construction of psychological security is essential so that everyone understands that there is a commitment by the leadership to the purposes of change.

The leader must also visualize the future (think about what may happen during the road map for change), have direct communication with their subordinates, inspire trust, seek the greatest number of employees to adhere through influence, build trusting relationships, and provide feedback and support for employees to follow the envisaged steps.

To this end, the manager needs to identify those who will be the first to be engaged in the mission of propagating adherence to changes, putting the initial actions into practice. They will be the first to make the transition, reinforced by the communication process. These individuals need to be trained and integrated into change management. Based on them, it is expected that leadership – with its creative role – contributes and improves the decisions made, boosting the internalization of the guidelines outlined in daily practice, and integrating it into the organizational culture.

For change management to be constant within organizations, they need to create space for people to create, which will be the main fuel for new solutions and alternatives for the organization. It is important that people are not taken by surprise, being faced with something they do not understand or do not identify with. Carrying out communication from the beginning of change management is to ensure timely assimilation, acceptance of the new reality, enabling everyone to contribute.

It is also essential that, throughout the communication process, attention is paid to the coherence and consistency of the information transmitted by the different media. All channels must convey consistent messages, avoiding dissonance of understanding and actions disjointed from the intended objectives, because people only respond promptly and effectively to what is consistent. In this case, it is suggested to think about actions that prepare agents of change, evaluate the profile of these agents, and work on this desired profile with the groups of projects they take part.

An objective definition of this profile of the change agent is needed in the context of each project. The change agents chosen are those able to meet the demands of the change process. Many individuals may not feel comfortable in a role with little script and script scheduled and can spread this discomfort among their peers and other project participants.

Change agents should be specific to each specific project. So, it is necessary to identify them and identify people who present them. Being an agent of a specific change demands a change in the agent’s own behavior, as well as in their knowledge and understanding of the purposes of the change; understanding of their specific role within the organization; freedom to act; knowing how to listen, and knowing how to say no. For someone to have a proactive attitude, it is necessary to be aware of their contribution, have clarity about what is intended, and have transparency about the next steps.

CC: Based on this, I’m curious to know: What’s your opinion on urgency being the first change management principle many soon-to-be change leaders are taught to implement?

ERN: The sense of urgency is a great principle to the change process, and the golden tip consists, in my view, in how to build an argument that convinces people that it is necessary to change.

There are two important aspects: justifying what is important to the organization (what gains), and justifying what is important to individuals (what benefits and opportunities they will have).

In a recent survey, we separated the gains for the organization and the benefits and opportunities for individuals. The benefits and opportunities for individuals in this research were more powerful predictors than the gains for the organization.

Changes can be positively perceived and accepted when they eliminate rework and unnecessary routines, and also maximize opportunities of growth and development for workers. In such cases, interventions abolish boring routines and maximize opportunities of growth and development for individuals, bringing about excitement and motivation. In a successful organizational change, employees undergoing changes must be motivated and have alternative paths defined (i.e., hope) when they find obstacles, and make optimistic attributions when things go wrong, having a positive perspective to the future.

CC: There are two aspects in this paper I found particularly fascinating:

  1. the positioning of time as an independent change variable
  2. the role of discontinuous information processing

What do you believe your study illuminates or reinforces about how these two aspects relate to change management?

ERN: The study reinforces the need to include the variable time as a component of the research design. The inclusion of time sheds light on numerous possibilities for cognitive processing on the part of individuals, and questions to which extent cognitive adaptation works in favor of change or against change.

The time aspect provides data on how leaders can carry out monitoring. In some cases where individuals’ responses are quick and positive, monitoring can be done with more incentive actions, and providing conditions for the employee to follow the new behaviors required in the change program rather than always the relationships between affect and cognition change over time. The perception about the meaning of change (the “sensegiving”) varies over time but, in any case, it is interfered by the leaders involved with the process of change.

The manager’s actions are very important in the first moments. As a spokesperson for the organization, the manager can prepare the ground for the content that will be reinforced by later events.

Human cognition is oriented towards adaptation and elimination of dissonance. It is necessary to assess the extent to which the context is enabling discontinuous information processing underlying this moderating role of time. As the novelty and the uncertainty of the situation subsides, the employee’s responses become more and more habitual and oriented by automatic routines or mental and behavioral schemes. This adaptation process can be very quick, or it can be avoided by employees taking a long view of time.

CC: Let’s get into the meat of the study. Your team used 21 items to evaluate organizational change planning and degree of risk, 46 items to measure attitude toward the organizational change, and 14 items to measure well-being (each with factorial loads above .45). Can you share a glimpse into the process for how you discovered, decided upon, and ultimately categorized these items?

ERN: We used research instruments and data that already existed in the literature. All items used were extracted from other studies, and were submitted to a group of five judges (researchers and practitioners) who reviewed the quality and theoretical relevance. After the evaluation period by the judges, the items were subjected to semantic evaluation by employees of organizations, and were finally submitted to exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis. Then, the items showed enough construct validity to carry out the study. The attitudes towards changes scale already has a reduced version with only 20 items. At the time of the survey, we were only able to apply the version with 46 items.

CC: Your paper found that attitudes of change acceptance present at a greater magnitude than change skepticism. This seems to go against the grain of everything we are taught about negativity bias. Can you speak to some of the factors you believe led to this finding?

ERN: According to the psychologists’ conclusion, these factors were under the influence of the anchoring bias – for instance, just as a boat has its movements restricted to the area reached by the anchor, our choices are based on the first information we receive. That is why it is so difficult to move away from an initial impression. This is one of the more than 180 cognitive biases that condition our perception of reality.

Studied since the 1960s, these inclinations work in the unconscious, disturbing the way we process information and think critically. Biases are mental filters. They work as a kind of special glasses that distort reality. We are all skewed, because we all wear these glasses. We are so influenced by biases that they mute and we don’t even realize it. Only when we speak, we sink in. They are the consequence of the shortcut that our brain takes in reacting to the world. Even though they have benefits because they facilitate the processing of information, they cause losses, because they hinder the interaction with other human beings.

They are negative because they cause the brain to make mistakes that prevent a broader view of reality. If an air accident just happened in your city, for example, you will be more likely to opt for a car trip instead of an airplane trip over the next few days – even though air transport is considered the second safest in the world. Second only to the elevator.

An essential bias for understanding this cognitive power of the mind is confirmation. Because of it, you tend to remember, interpret, and research information that validates your beliefs, falling into errors of reasoning without even realizing them.

Reflect on an individual who believes in a religion: if someone tells them that the reasons for their devotion serve to give a metaphysical meaning to life, since science has already managed to explain the origin of the universe, that person will deny it. And they will probably react with anger. Once again, it is the bias giving their faces. Because of it, we also tend to ignore information that conflicts with the assumptions we make.

Someone who trusts the partner blindly, and hears that he has been betrayed, will contest adultery. After all, this accusation does not correspond to their feeling. There are more than 24 biases that work during our cognitive processing. Like the pessimism bias, the optimism bias forces us to overestimate the positive results. If attitudes of acceptance are built early in the process of change, they can be much stronger and guide actions in a more forceful way.

Change programs often fail to deal with participants in the process. It is important to think about change management in conjunction with strategic, tactical and operational planning.

CC: Let’s talk about fear. The paper states that “…the fact that individuals perceive the change process with fear does not negatively affect their well-being at work.” My initial thought here was that perhaps the study was impacted by the educational level of the respondents — many are MBAs with perhaps a greater ability to adapt within the organization or find a new role outside of it.

Can you provide any additional context on why fear played a smaller role on well-being than many may believe?

ERN: The research took place in a public company in which employees are not threatened by the possibility of dismissal, so this aspect can explain the results. Most studies of organizational change that study fear have been carried out in situations of downsizing or major restructuring.

Another important aspect concerns the nature of the changes, even to this public organization, that involved market repositioning, revitalizing the brand, operating on the stock exchange, and new shares in other Brazilian states. This may result in a bias in this sample, and may be due to the fact that the research was carried out in a public corporation where employees enjoy apparent stability and, thus, do not assimilate the threats of changes implemented in the organization.

A comparative study about the perception of changes among managers in the United Kingdom and Australia identified that organizational change is less effective in the public sector than in the private one in both countries. The educational level of the respondents may have also contributed to a deeper understanding of the process, which can reduce uncertainty and fear.

CC: I was intrigued by how even the “perception of planning” can be considered a significant organizational change attribute. What are some examples of perception signals that change management leaders should be aware they are (even if unintentionally) sending to employees?

ERN: The perception of planning can refer to a specific aspect of Brazil. The Brazilian culture does not emphasize planning in the same way as the Anglo-Saxon culture. So, many times change programs are started here without very accurate planning, sometimes with general planning guidelines which generates in participants a lot of distrust about the change proposal.

Employees are unaware of the purposes and are not sure how well that proposal has been studied and prepared by top managers. Thus, the message conveyed by many is that we need to change, without establishing trust from employees. Managers often pass the signs of “threatening situation,” lack of faith in the possibilities for change, lack of confidence in the purposes, lack of a vision, lack of consideration for employees, etc. All of these signals generate negative reactions in employees and impact responses considered “resistance.”

Resistance is not a natural response from individuals to any and all proposals for change.

Resistance is born in the context of a program poorly prepared, and poorly conducted by agents of change. In this process of disclosing the change planning step, leaders could increase their communications with main managers and change agents, as well as make consults with employees about their ideas for the organization’s future. This can approximate the employees to the planning process, and to the change effort itself.

CC: Lastly, tell us about your future change research. What are you currently interested in and working on?

ERN: I am interested in defining and measuring change management practices and the influence they have on employee’s behavior and reactions. Particularly, the interest lies in practices that depend on the area of human resources, and practices that are the responsibility of leaders and agents of change.

The challenge, in this case, is not only to define change management practices, but to identify what practices would be most effective during the change process, considering variables as time and employee’s behavior.

Organizational culture and the innovation in the organizational change context are other variables that are being studied by my research group. More information about that can be found at The site is still in Portuguese, but we are preparing an English version.


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