What change does to employees

Innovation and change is something we’re told is a good, nay even an inevitable fact of modern life.  What’s more, the pace of change is said to be quickening, and if our organizations don’t adapt, they will be swept away by nimbler competitors in a wave of creative destruction.

The rhetoric used to describe change should perhaps give us a hint at the worry it evokes within us, and indeed Nicola Machiavelli perhaps summed things up most poetically in The Prince some 500 years ago.

“There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to be a leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for enemies all those who are well off under the old order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”

What change does to us

It’s in this context that the American Psychological Association conducted a recent survey into the impact change at work has on employees.  It revealed that roughly half of all (American) workers have been affected by some kind of organizational change in the last year, and these changes appear to have had a significant impact on their wellbeing.

Workers undergoing some kind of change were much more likely to experience work-life balance issues, were more likely to feel negative towards colleagues, were twice as likely to report chronic levels of stress, and four times as likely to experience physical health issues at work.

It’s perhaps little surprise that such feelings tend to coincide with reduced job satisfaction, but those in the midst of change also reported lower levels of trust towards their employer and were over three times as likely to want to find employment elsewhere.

Now, it should be said that it isn’t so much the change itself that appears to affect us so much, but rather the perceived motivations of those imposing the change upon us.  A good number of those surveyed said they doubted the motivations of managers leading the change, with many suspecting an ulterior motive to the public lines of the organisation.  What’s more, few believed that the change would be worth it and the desired outcomes would be achieved.

“Change is inevitable in organizations, and when it happens, leadership often underestimates the impact those changes have on employees,” the authors say. “If they damage their relationship with employees, ratchet up stress levels and create a climate of negativity and cynicism in the process, managers can wind up undermining the very change efforts they’re trying to promote.”

With change both inevitable and crucial to the success both of us as individuals but also to our organisations, it’s crucial that we get better at ensuring that employees are on board with what we want to do.  It doesn’t take many disillusioned employees for disaffection to rapidly spread throughout the organisation, making not only successful change very hard, but also harming business as usual.

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