5 key skills to help preserve employee trust during organisational change

Organisational change is challenging for any company and it can sometimes prompt even loyal and longstanding employees’ behaviour to worsen. Researcher Dr Charis Rice of Coventry University has studied this phenomenon and outlined some of the consequences of change and how to manage them in a blog originally published by Insider Media.

Economic, technical, social and political pressures create the need to innovate and work differently. Change presents both opportunities and challenges. While external threats related to change are often well identified by organisations, internal threats can be less well-defined.

Dr Charis Rice

Dr Charis Rice

Employees are not passive recipients of change. Change can cause breaches to previous psychological contracts, activating negative emotions including frustration, anger and fear, and requiring amendment to personal goals and aspirations. It can also create high levels of stress and uncertainty that erode individuals’ capacity to self-regulate, increasing the likelihood of accidental errors and mistakes.

Exposure to ongoing change can undermine individuals’ commitment to their employer, their identity as an employee, and their overall trust in their organisation. In this way, experiences of organisational change can form the crucible for instrumental and hostile individual and collective protest through “Counterproductive Work Behaviour”.

Counterproductive Work Behaviour (CWB)
Counterproductive Work Behaviour (CWB) ranges from small-scale indiscretions (e.g. time wasting or knowledge hiding) to serious insider threat activities (e.g. destroying systems or divulging confidential information to malicious others). In short, broken trust and CWB cost organisations time and money and jeopardises organisational security, and the safety and wellbeing of staff.

Trust dividends
In contrast, research shows that trusted organisations have distinct advantages. They have higher performance levels and lower staff turnover. Their employees also have greater job satisfaction and tend to be more co-operative and more open to sharing information with each other, including potential errors and new ideas. Organisations with high trust can leverage these positive elements during change.

Unintended consequences of change
For our research project we collected empirical data from a case study organisation undergoing change. We explored individuals’ cognitions and emotions to understand why while some employees remain engaged, loyal and trusting during change, others become disengaged, distrusting and behaved in deviant ways.

We found that change can produce four main negative impacts:

  1. It makes the work environment less predictable. Therefore, employees’ focus becomes diverted to detect what is changing, and detecting whether it is different from what they were told would occur.
  2. Changes are often poorly and inadequately communicated, with incomplete, inaccurate or untimely information provided. As a result, misunderstanding and rumours can emerge.
  3. Organisational transition usually includes leadership changes, with new and often inconsistent styles of behaviour evident, which can undermine past norms and values.
  4. In undertaking any change, there will be those who feel the process or the outcome is unfair, particularly those losing power and influence.

Five core skills for managers
Our research findings enabled us to distinguish five key skills alongside a set of positive and negative indicators to demonstrate types of behaviour that are associated with effective management of organisational change and CWB:

  • Fair and consistent. Be fair and consistent with HR procedures and managing people during times of change and stability. This will leave employees more resilient to the turbulence of organisational change and trusting in the vision of the projected change outcome.
  • Organisational citizenship. Make CWB reporting part of employee safeguarding. Reporting levels are likely to rise through creating an organisational value system in which reporting CWB, or unusual activities among colleagues, is considered a protective, rather than a punitive, measure for the potential perpetrator and others around them.
  • Communicate change initiatives transparently, consistently, regularly and collaboratively. Early dialogue and collaboration with individuals on change projects will enable employees to feel more in control of their working life, feel less vulnerable, and will reduce unpredictability. How leaders communicate about routine and novel issues provides employees with clues about their trustworthiness and that of the overall organisation.
  • Assess your environments (individual, team, organisational) for their vulnerabilities and tailor change initiatives accordingly. Change has different impacts on different individuals due to their own personal makeup and vulnerabilities, as well as the dynamics and challenges existent in any given team.
  • Lead by example. Leaders are role models for the organisation, demonstrating acceptable behaviours and morals which act as guides for employees in their everyday lives. When leaders consistently demonstrate concern for their employees and the kinds of citizenship behaviours which engender trust, employee resilience becomes enhanced in the face of change.

Assessing and mitigating the impact of organisational change on counterproductive work behaviour: An operational (dis)trust based framework by Charis Rice and Rosalind Searle was funded by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). Resources from the project to help managers and employees work through organisational change are available at www.crestresearch.ac.uk/cwb.

Rosalind Searle from the University of Glasgow also contributed to this article.

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