Changing the Organization
by JUDD MICHAEL and LUCINDA LAWSON
How often has your company tried to adapt to a changing environment by modifying or transforming some process or procedure? Was the change effort as efficient and successful as it should have been? It is hard to imagine any wood products company that has not had to make some significant change in the recent past. It is even harder to imagine that a company can survive without being able to change in the future.
All managers must remember that change at the organizational level will be difficult or impossible without changes at the individual (employee) level. Gaining an understanding of what leads to an employee's likelihood to change should enable us to overcome resistance more effectively. A poorly implemented change initiative can have detrimental effects on your employees and the organization. In fact, we have actually seen wood producers go out of business because of a failed change initiative.
Examples of organizational change can include adopting lean manufacturing, moving to a cellular manufacturing structure, or a cabinet producer moving from "stock" to semi-custom cabinet production. In each case, hourly employees and supervisors will be forced to adopt new behaviors, and often new attitudes, in order to make the change successful.
Over the past 10 years we have been working with wood manufacturers to investigate and predict change-related behaviors of individual production employees. Employees at numerous forest products organizations implementing behavioral changes have participated in our research. Our studies indicate several key factors to keep in mind when attempting to get employees to adopt changes. These factors can be divided into both individual employee characteristics as well as variables related to the organization itself; it is critical to recognize that both can impact the likelihood that an employee will contribute to organizational goals. Below are some of the key findings from our work.
Organizational factors driving Change Behavior
Perceived organizational support (POS) is a measure of how much an employee perceives his employer supports his own interests, career, advancement, etc. This type of support has been shown to be an important factor in how much an employee "gives back" to and supports his employer.
Our research indicates that an employee's perception of POS will have a significant impact on the likeliness of adopting a desired change. Workers who think that their employer cares about and supports them as individuals are much more likely to engage in desired behaviors. An organization can foster higher levels of perceived support with such methods as training programs, family-related leave policies, or tuition reimbursements.
The benefits for an organization that has high levels of perceived organization support among its employees go well beyond increased change behaviors. This perception can lead to a more satisfied work force that in some cases has been shown to be less likely to approve a union. Managers at all levels should strive to let their employees know that the organization really cares about them and their future.
Reward System — Many managers will understand that employees fulfill organizational requirements in order to receive rewards. These rewards may be in the form of a wage/salary increase, public recognition, or even verbal reinforcement.
Our findings, however, indicate mixed results for using rewards as a tool to promote change adoption. A significant portion of the employees in our study showed no correlation between the rewards for adopting a change and their actual change adoption. In other words, just because I think that I will get a tangible reward for changing my behavior does not necessarily mean that I will be willing to adopt that change.
This finding should make managers reconsider a change initiative that depends largely on rewards to get employees to adopt a new behavior. Managers should consider using their reward system to foster increased perceptions of organizational support, not to "buy" change.
Knowledge about the change — Individuals should learn about a change initiative when the change is formally introduced; make sure they don't hear about it through the grapevine. However, do not expect your employees to all feel the same about the content or the amount of information they have regarding the change. In all cases there will be some people who perceive a change as bad for them. Further, some individuals will perceive that the organization provides them a great deal of information, while others will perceive they've been given little or no information. It is dependent on upper management to ensure that all levels of the company are getting accurate and complete information about a change.
In general, the more someone knows about a change, the more likely he is to adopt the change. Lower levels of knowledge lead to more cynicism about the change, which may lead to limited adoption of the desired behaviors. In sum, we strongly urge managers to provide written and oral information to employees about a change. Also keep in mind that at some point information on the specific behaviors workers are expected to adopt must be provided.
Communication: source of information — Having shown the importance of providing information to employees, we also evaluated various sources of change-related information. Your employees will receive information from a wide range of sources. These can include co-workers, assistant plant managers, etc. The challenge for managers is to determine which of these sources will have the most impact on employees.
Previous research has also found that the credibility of the communicator affects the relationship between knowledge and performance of the desired behavior. In other words, an employee will adopt a change-based behavior based to some degree on who tells him about it.
Our results indicate that the average production employee perceives the shift leader and plant manager as generally having high levels of credibility. In such cases these persons would be good sources of information for communicating change-related information. However, there seems to be considerable variance in the level of credibility perceived for any given person. For example, a very strong and well-respected assistant plant manager may be your best source of information. Be careful to choose communicators who are well-respected, yet believe in and understand why the change must be made.
Individual Characteristics and Change Behavior
When organizations require significant changes in employee behavior (e.g., a new team-based system), workers are unlikely to be familiar with the new procedures. When individuals have no clear expectations about appropriate behavior, personality variables are more likely to guide behavior. In our project, two personality factors were presumed to predict change behavior: conscientiousness and agreeableness.
Traits associated with conscientiousness include being thorough, organized and responsible. An employee's conscientiousness was directly related to willingness to adopt new behaviors. This should not come as a surprise: people who are more responsible and hardworking are more likely to act in the best interests of the organization.
Agreeableness is associated with being courteous, flexible, cooperative and tolerant. Individuals high on this personality factor have also been described as inclined to submit to authority. Our results indicate that persons exhibiting high levels of agreeableness are much more likely to engage in desired change-related behaviors.
Taken together, these two personality variables illustrate the importance of having proper "filters at the front door" that will attempt to determine the type of personality a prospective employee has. Many firms give standard personality tests prior to employment to get some gauge of how a person may behave once on the job. However, with job markets being extremely tight and producers struggling to find anyone who will work under what are sometimes difficult conditions, it becomes even harder to employ screening mechanisms that will limit the pool of workers.
Commitment to the organization — Organizational commitment is a positive attitude toward one's employer. Affective commitment refers to an individual's strength of identification with and involvement in a particular organization. Continuous commitment refers to an individual's strength of commitment to the organization based on the costs associated with leaving the organization. Affective commitment has been positively associated with following operational policies and procedures. Continuance commitment has been negatively associated with following policies and procedures, as well as with job-related motivation.
Our results indicate that an employee's affective commitment is a significant predictor of positive change-related behaviors. Managers should seek to increase their employees' levels of commitment to the organization by developing stronger identification with and involvement in the company. Incentive programs can offer employees clothing or other items promoting the corporate identity. Many firms sponsor sports teams made up of their own employees to increase the level of identity and commitment.
Conversely, an employee's level of continuous commitment was found to have a significant negative effect on his willingness to change. Persons who feel committed to their employer only because they believe they don't have an alternative may feel trapped. This emotion will often lead to feelings of resentment and reduce the likelihood of engaging in any number of desired behaviors.
We strongly encourage wood industry leadership to prepare for change within their organizations. Competitive forces are demanding flexibility and an ability to change in response to new threats and opportunities.
Most managers will recognize that change initiatives have a better chance of success if well thought-out and thoroughly planned for. However, they may not have realized the importance of planning for resistance at both the individual and organizational levels.
The evidence that personality variables predict change behavior is noteworthy. This does not mean that human resources offices should begin using personality variables as stand-alone selection tools. However, it does support the idea that organizations could consider using personality tests as part of the hiring process.
Highly ambiguous change initiatives may require even greater attention to plans for promotion and dissemination of information. If a technology has never been used in the mill, there may be no one to provide leadership in its training and use. Outside vendors may not be as trusted as key people within the mill. In such a situation, the mill manager will have to decide which employees would be the best candidates to be initially trained in the new process. Our suggestion is that, in addition to other characteristics such as intelligence and aptitude, the manager should also consider personality variables and the "reputation" of the employee among his or her coworkers.
Finally, one of the key things for managers to understand is that an organization's people will be crucial to the success of any change initiative. An organization should carefully consider how its people are informed about a change and who will act as key disseminators of change-related information. A change initiative that might otherwise be easily achieved may turn out to be a failure if the wrong tactics or opinion leaders are utilized.
is associate professor of Wood Products Business Management at Penn State University. Lucinda Lawson is an assistant professor of Management/Organizational Behavior Lehigh University.