There’s a lot at stake with major organisational change programmes – significant investments of time, energy, and money, with the potential for failure to hit not only the bottom line but also damage to employee turnover, morale, productivity…
One of the overlooked influences on organisational change effectiveness is the impact of people’s past change experiences on their responses to current organisational change initiatives.1 As eloquently put by Pettigrew and colleagues:
“The past is alive in the present and may be shaping the future.” (p.700)
Our recent research highlights that when it comes to change, people have particularly long memories, primarily because initiatives can be highly emotional. Past experiences such as being excluded from change decisions, restructuring processes perceived as unfair, poor communication, and even just relentless exposure to numerous changes, all leave their mark. The consequence is some form of change hangover.
The key is noticing and identifying the hangovers people carry and managing each of these effectively. It’s no good sweeping the past under the rug, or stating that people should have moved on from what happened 20 years ago. Unfortunately, that’s not human nature. The reality is, the past will always affect the present, and it needs to be managed accordingly.
What types of hangover should you be looking out for?
Our findings suggest there are 5 key hangovers of change to be aware of, namely:
1. Cynicism – an untrusting attitude towards change and negative feelings of blame towards change agents. This can be born out of previous experiences when individuals were not involved in the co-creation of change and an organisational history of unsuccessful initiatives.
2. Resistance – a natural stage of the change process but can also be a hangover from a past threat response (i.e. a threat to an individual’s status, competence, autonomy, relatedness or sense of fairness). When new change comes along, these old wounds are likely to open up again, causing people to react both strongly and negatively.
3. Fatigue – the experience of stress exhaustion and burnout associated with undergoing rapid and continuous change.
4. Addiction – a hunger for the organisation to implement continuous change, deriving from external awareness of other competitors who have experienced business failure after failing to adapt.
5. Survivors – people who have experienced a large amount of organisational change and become good at moving through it without changing anything at all.
What does this mean for change leaders?
When planning your next change, it is vital to remember that people will rarely be starting off without baggage from the past, as they rarely escape a change without some form of hangover.
Given this, what’s your past experience with change? What type of hangover has it left you with? And, how might this impact your response next time change comes along?
1Bordia et al., 2011; Pettigrew, A. M., Woodman, R. W., & Cameron, K. S. (2001). Studying organizational change and development: Challenges for future research. Academy of Management Journal, 44, 697-713.