Surviving Organisational Change

 ’Every now and then go away and have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer, since to remain constantly at your work will cause you to lose power and your judgment.’ Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

Today there are such high demands placed on people as they struggle to survive the frantic pace of organisational change and accelerating development that there is a danger humanity is being removed from the workforce.

People are often expected to be flexible, very hard working while tending to and taking responsibility for their own career development, and yet in many organisations, they are treated with a great deal of insensitivity. Vickers and Parris (2005).

Demoralisation, increased stress and scepticism, decreased motivation and reduced commitment to the organisation are endemic as a result of reorganisation. These are the findings of research conducted in 131 financial sector companies employing over 500,000 staff in the UK and collated from the opinions of their HR and personnel specialists (Doherty and Horsted (1995)).

However, the research was not just about the change initiatives in themselves but also a phenomenon called the ‘Survivor Syndrome’. This name has been given by personnel professionals to the assorted range of behaviours and emotions evinced by the remaining people in organisations that have downsized through natural wastage, blocked posts, early retirements, voluntary or compulsory redundancies, or a mixture of all of these. The research of Worrall and Cooper (1998) confirms that the way downsizing and redundancy programmes are handled ‘has a huge negative impact on the victims, on the people who survive it, and on the organisations within which they work’. Such organisational change initiatives cannot hope to succeed if the culture is not included in the change framework. Survivors develop a culture all of their own, which has an impact on the organisation. This means culture needs to be at the forefront when assessing the overall impact of change.

Doherty and Horsted (1995) concluded that ‘there is a dangerous mind-set, which assumes that, provided the organisational issues are dealt with, the survivors will be okay. But, as the survey results highlighted, remaining staff don’t necessarily feel quite so fortunate. The researchers went on to say that these problems, which have been described as the survivors syndrome, have arisen by the failure of organisations to distinguish between the separate processes of ‘organisational change’ (the external event) and ‘personal transition’ (the individual’s reaction to change).

People feel less valued as a result of being faced with constant worries about the next set of change initiatives that could have a negative impact on their jobs, especially if they are not kept within the communication loop. They witness their colleagues being made redundant and wonder if it will be their turn in the next downsizing exercise. People are increasingly expected to accept flexible working hours and often longer working days. They are also expected to be flexible in their work placements, which may not fit with their expectations in terms of where they want to be. Less choice, more demands on them with little or no job security, and ever decreasing expectations of reaching their potential as they lose their job and, in some cases, being made redundant two or three times or more. The emphasis on flexible employees and temporary workforces has arisen among the continuing trend in the West towards worsening job security and conditions of service. Being made redundant is one area where people are expected to be flexible and resilient (Vickers and Parria 2005).

Being flexible and resilient is small comfort when first faced with job losses. However, by ensuring employees have received proper training, obtain relevant qualifications and are fully competent in their current jobs will make their chances of employability greater, which means they will have better chances of securing their own future. People at all levels of the organisation need to be more proactive in their career development to avoid being a disposable commodity. Increasingly, they have to fend for themselves as they strive to survive in organisations subjected to increasing environmental turbulence and constant change.

Moving away from traditional organisational models has seen a decrease in employee commitment and loyalty as already mentioned. If, as Vickers and Parris (2005) assert, organisations see downsizing as a convenient way of dealing with problem workers, which in some cases may actually be people in a stagnant or frozen area of the business who want career development, and their managers do not try to help them develop into other areas. These people will likely consider whether they are better off moving to a more progressive organisation that believes in people development and sees employees in a more human light.

Managers who help and support their staff and managerial colleagues, and take care of their own self-development while creating a strong supportive environment, have the key to managerial effectiveness, as shown by the research findings of Hamlin and Reidy (2005). It was concluded from this research that the core managerial competencies required to be an effective manager within a public sector agency were those determined by the behavioural underpinning of the six positive criteria listed below, as opposed to the 10 negative criteria associated with managerial ineffectiveness, also listed below.

Positive criteria of managerial effectiveness:

• Empowerment/effective delegation and communicating widely;
• Active supportive leadership;
• Proactive management;
• Proactive team leadership;
• Active development of others (training, coaching, and mentoring);
• Managing change.

Negative criteria of managerial effectiveness:

• Tolerating poor performance/low standards;
• Uncaring, self-serving management focus;
• Autocratic/dictatorial management (lack of concern/consideration for staff);
• Exhibiting gradist behaviour;
• Narrow/parochial behaviour;
• Resistance to change;
• Lack of emotional control;
• Manipulative behaviour;
• Irrational management;
• Entrenched management thinking.

The main objective of this research was to help the Executive Head of the agency to bring about strategic change in the management culture (Reidy, 2001). This was achieved by using the empirical findings to help his managers recognise their behavioural strengths and weaknesses and to identify where change in managerial behaviour was required. The negative criteria were highly influential in bringing about change in the management culture by triggering a positive change in managerial behaviours.

‘We learn wisdom from failure, much more than from success; we often discover what we will do, by finding out what we will not do, and probably she/he who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.’ Samuel Smiles (1812-1904).

The fact that the empirical data had been based on observations of managerial behaviour by managers and non-managers within the organisation, and the findings were in their own language, helped ensure the resultant evidence-based Organisation Development (OD) tools and strategic change initiatives originating from the research were directly applicable within the organisation. Comparability studies have shown the research outlined above to be highly generalised to findings obtained from replica research carried out in other types of public sector organisations (see Hamlin, 2004).

The Hamlin and Reidy (2005) research findings are included here to help managers and staff to formulate their own strategies for avoiding survivor syndrome in their organisations.

Article Source:

Authors: Margaret Reidy and Professor R.G. Hamlin

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