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The Evidence of Positive Change Management video transcript

For: Employers and managers Information seekers

Presentation given by Kirsten Way, Australian Catholic University, at Comcare's Mental Health Community of Practice in November 2018.

View the video of Kirsten Way's presentation.


My presentation is very different to Simon's in that it's academic and it isn't a personal story. What I'm going to be talking to you about today is building on what Simon's been speaking to you about, which is what we can do as individuals in the context of change and embedding that within an organisational context. So what leaders can be doing, what teams can be doing and what at the organisational level managers can and should be doing. I'll quickly talk about the current context and then the person in the organisational system and these are the main categories of research that I'm going to be talking about.

Organisational change is a massive field. In our org psych master's program, there's whole units just on organisational change that run a whole semester for organisational psychologists. So 20 minutes of this is going to be whirlwind. I'm just going to go through the big ticket items for you. So the categories of change, key models of emergent change, what the literature tells us about individual differences in responding to change, the importance of diagnosis and strategies and change sustainability. And my personal research interest is around the role of leaders and line managers and job crafting.

Then we're going to talk about what to do, like what do you do with this information as practitioners? In terms of the general context, it's everywhere. I'm sure you all agree and the literature certainly says that the pace of change is greater than it's ever been. It comes in all shapes and sizes.

This is a report that just came out this year saying 96% of the global C-suite are planning organisational redesign, but they don't really feel that they're very agile for change. Then this statistic that's been bandied around for a very long time now about the high failure rate of organisational change programs. So we'll talk a bit about why that might be the case as well.

This is something that I always like to put up front whenever I'm talking about these issues, because of my experience as a practitioner working in the field of health and safety for a very long time, specialising in mental health. So more and more we've got a very strong focus on individual mental health and what people are bringing into the workplace in terms of community based prevalence of mental health. Whilst there's small pockets, we're still nowhere near in the place where line managers and managers are saying, "Well that might be the case, but what's the contribution of what we're doing in our work, but that may be contributing to people's ill health?" And we know that organisational change is a particular risk factor for poor mental health.

We need to get to a place where that's the first thing managers and senior managers are asking when they're talking about mental health. Not only what can we do to build coping skills and resilience in individuals and how can individuals respond, but what can we do to better design and manage the work so we're not creating the risk?

There's a couple of recent cases about that. Jill mentioned a few, [Telco's] seemed to loom large. This is one that's come out of France. It's been going through the courts for a very long time. But the Telco there tried to institute a very big organisational change and the CEO and a number of senior managers, they're on trial. There was over 30 staff members who died by suicide that directly said it was as a result of the way the change was implemented. He was quoted saying things like, "We're going to make this change, and if people have to leave, they'll either leave through the door or through the window." So he was very, very direct and forceful and not using good change management processes in the way that change was implemented and is on trial because of it.

This is another one again, a Telco in Australia, and this was again a Four Corners special, looking at some of the changes that was [inaudible 00:04:37]. So a little while ago now, but again, looking at the very real implications for workers when change isn't managed properly. It can have big consequences for people. We're not talking necessarily about only people being discomforted, although there is a lot of that as well. When we're talking about mental health in organisational change and interventions for change, we do need to think about it in the context of focusing on those big ticket issues.

The question that you asked before, Gretchen, I do think we need to be aware that it's not about ensuring that people don't experience discomfort in any way, shape, or form. Change is going to happen. Managers are within their rights to make these changes. They just need to use what we know about the evidence to ensure it doesn't create risks to people's mental health.

I'm going to quickly go through some of what the literature has told us over many years of looking at this about the nature of change in terms of context, and three main categories about the nature of change that we're going to go through. The first one is about the rate of occurrence, how it comes about and the scale. The rate of occurrence usually is broken down into different types of changes that discontinuous, where there's these step changes that occur with periods of peace and tranquility in between.

Anyone had that experience in the last two years in their organisational change? So major change initiative then ah, everyone stabilises and things. Major change in that initially and then it stabilises. Incremental is different parts of the organisation working on different goals often in a linear way. And continuous is what you can imagine. The literature does seem to suggest that it used to be the common knowledge that continuous change was problematic and organisations couldn't flourish if there was continuous change because they needed that time for things to settle and people needed routines and predictability. But these days the literature seems to be saying that for organisations to continue to grow and compete, that the change is continuous and that's almost the new predictability. What we can predict and what we can live with is that change is going to be happening all the time.

The next category is about how change comes about as a planned or emergent, and I think your example is certainly one that you've got no control over. These things come out of the blue and hit you from nowhere. In organisational change they can come from external or internal sources versus a planned change. They're the two main categories of how change comes about and the types of models, the classic models that have been used have fallen into those categories. In planned change, this is the classic ... you've probably seen this one out there, this freeze, change, refreeze. 1946 it was written and still it's used out there. It's not that it's problematic, it's been criticised. Absolutely, it's been criticised for its simplicity and that that's not the way organisations work anymore. And they don't have the luxury of big transformational changes to stop everything while they unfreeze and then make a change and then we can all start again. That's just not how it works.

These emergent theories of change have really taken off from there and are used more these days than the planned. Although, as I said, you will still see that out there. It's been slightly developed, now they talk about ice topping and Zamboni'ing and there's all these ... I'm an ice skater, people might not know what a Zamboni even is. It's a machine that cuts the ice when you're ice skating. No? Anyway, whatever. Oops, sorry.

You've probably seen this Kotter's eight stage steps about developing a vision and a strategy and establishing a sense of urgency and creating a guiding coalition. These are very much about a process model steps about how you can successfully institute a change process. The last one is about change according to scale, so how big is the change? Is it fine tuning and instrumental or is it large corporate transformational change?

Those three types of change that can occur, it's about the rate of occurrence, how it comes about and the scale of change. That's just in terms of context, how literature in org psych has thought about the types of change and therefore how we match our strategies in how we manage change. I wanted to move now to some of what the more recent literature tells us about specific areas. The first one that I wanted to talk about was individual differences. This was a really large, just came out this year, meta-analysis. You can see there are almost 20,000 workers across 73 studies looking at individual psychological resources and dispositions in change.

They found that there was an individual difference and that core self-evaluations and psychological capital ... have you heard that term? It's a relatively new construct in organisational psychology, in 2017 but it talks about these individual constructs of self-efficacy, hope, optimism, and resilience. There's been some really interesting work. It came out of America, but there's also been some really interesting work come out of Tasmania that has looked at, that this can actually occur as a group construct as well. Groups can have higher psychological capital.

And you can see some of this in some of the things Simon was talking about, can't you? If people have these things, then they have better performance and less turnover. Of course the Americans have made this into a beautiful acronym of hero, which I find it grates on me, because I think it demeans and somewhat undermines the humanity of these issues, but it helps you remember it. So hope, E for self efficacy, resilience and optimism.

There was another study in 2015, and also a meta-analysis, it had about 29,000 and they found again that there were these proactive personality predictors of change oriented behaviour, but it was strengthened if people had well-designed jobs. If they had enriching job characteristics, then that interacted with these personality factors and made them more able to cope with change. If they had jobs that had low amount of control, low amount of support, high demands, then these things weren't as strong. You can see that it's not only about the individual, it's about how that work context occurs around them.

The next thing I wanted to talk about, and this is the thing that you often see done really badly in organisational change context, is the lack of a proper diagnosis of the nature of the change and what people need. These off the shelf responses to change. If there's a good diagnosis of the change context, then the strategies to respond to the change can be more matched to what's actually needed out there. A misdiagnosis of these issues has been argued to be one of the main reasons why change fails most commonly. Organisations don't understand what it is that people need, where they are in the change journey.

If I was to give an example, it might be that if a good diagnosis is done, what's the most important thing in the change is actually that there's some really thoughtful workload planning, that certain jobs need to be redesigned. It's not about chucking out a resilience training program, it's really concrete things that can only be found if there's a proper structured diagnosis process that's done. It's very clear in the change literature, the fundamental importance of this and how badly it's often done.

Looking at what's the most effective ... so the diagnosis tells you what, in terms of how, what studies have told us about what works best is high participation and communication. You can't communicate enough in terms of a change context. You can see if there's higher participation, then there's better job satisfaction, organisational commitment, less turnover and greater performance, and again with communication.

The next big ticket issue that the literature tells us is this notion about sustainability of change. When we talk about change failing, it's that it often doesn't have the traction or reverts back to type. If you think about systems theories or systems perturbed, it will go back to its steady state. That's its natural inclination. These deep structures about what prescribes us and these things about network structures, leadership structures, narrative structures, which is the norms and myths that we tell about the organisation, the identity that we carry in our work, all these things are the things that can pull the change back to what it was.

Lastly, the psycho-dynamic structures, which is around the psychological contract. That's again where you'll see turnover. The change happens and people say, "This isn't what I signed up for. You're not meeting your end of the psychological contract in what you're asking me to do now. And so I'm just picking up my bag and ball and leaving." Because workers can leave the field in organisational change, which is very different to Simon's situation where that's not an option at all. You're dealing with people's individual agency here as well in organisational contexts.

The last thing is about the role of the leaders and line managers in times of change. This is a competency structure that came out of the UK that said, "If leaders are good at these things, their workers will be less likely to be mentally ill." Within that you can see a whole heap of things that relate to organisational change. But if the literature that's specifically applied it to organisational change contexts is looking at these different stages in the change and what employees need in terms of sense-making around the change and what leaders can be giving in terms of sense-giving around the change.

You can see here at the exploration stage what workers need is to have information that helps with their uncertainty about what's going to be happening, concern about the job insecurity. These are things that leaders can be giving sense-giving about in terms of at the end evaluation that their role, in the future, how that changes. You can see here it gives very clear information about the important role of the leader in giving that communication and then what the nature of that communication should be.

Job crafting and change. There's been literature to suggest that people use job crafting as a mechanism to cope with change so they seek greater job resources and challenges and seek to reduce job demands. That's associated with wellbeing outcomes. If there's higher change communication and people have a proactive mindset, then they're more likely to engage in job crafting as a coping mechanism. If there's low organisational communication and they've got a prevention mindset, so a fear type mindset, they're more likely to undertake job crafting to try and prevent bad things happening to them. Does that make sense? It's just interesting that this is something that ... and this study also found that if people had low status jobs, they were less likely to be able to use this coping mechanism.

I know I've only got two minutes left. So what to do? We spoke about diagnosis and the importance of diagnosis and the importance of leaders. In terms of diagnosis, you need to have some kind of model to frame that kind of thinking. And of course, because we're talking about preventing mental illness in this context, I'm going to talk about the occupational stress model, because that's the mechanism of how organisational change creates poor mental health.

These are the main job characteristics that create a stress response and therefore mental illness, whole heap of outcomes. But change is a risk in and of itself, but it also can have an impact on all these other things. So poorly managed change can increase job demands, decrease control, decrease support, provide less role clarity, create conflict in relationships. You can see how it's kind of a meta-risk factor in that it can have an impact on all the others.

If we get good at this, this is something that just came out this year from Sam Harvey at the University of New South Wales, using a massive UK data set that they followed for years and years and years. 14% of cases of new common mental disorders could have been prevented through the elimination of job strain. This isn't a small impact that we can have here and how we do that in terms of those kinds of diagnosis and change implementation strategies, we need to take heed, in organisations, of the legal obligation to manage the risk and what is reasonably practicable under the health and safety legislation.

I won't go through this, but this is actually helpful because it says, "This is the diagnosis stage." Because you make a determination about the degree of harm from the change and the likelihood of it happening. It also tells you what you reasonably ought to know because it gives you information about what's creating the risk. Then you can match your control measures to that. There are benchmarks out there that allow you to do that and allow you to compare those risk factors to Australian norms. This is an Australian normative database and you can see here it measures all those risk factors and including change consultation. It gives you some information about how your work group or organisation is managing change compared to an Australian normative population and gives you really concrete things that you can be doing in terms of the change implementation process.

This is the flight path of some moths who think this is the moon and are flying around all crazy. I was looking for a good picture that represented change. And I thought, your mind makes sense of these things. That made perfect sense to me about why that's relevant for change when people don't know where the moon really is and therefore they're going everywhere.

So, in summary, most important thing is be proactive. Organisations can't think that a decision made by managers about a change and then the implementation of that change doesn't require a lot of really strategic thought and planning to properly respond to the change. Make sure there's a diagnosis process built in and that should inform the communication plan that involves some kind of participative process for workers. Communicate, I put that again because it's so important. Then heed changes in work design and the role of leaders. I know there was one point and I remember there was one thing I wrote on the plane on the way down, I thought, "And there's one more thing." It's those deep structures that can undo change if they're not also considered. That was quick. I'm sorry about how [inaudible] that was but thank you.

Speaker 2: Let's try this one.

Speaker 3: Okay. Thanks so much Kirsten, much appreciated. It's really, really nice actually to have a reminder of the theoretical frameworks and what the research is telling us. Because as you said this research is going on all the time. There's a lot of stuff out there which I touched on earlier of the popular psychology, some of which is well-founded, some of which maybe not so much. It's really, really nice to hear some of the more up to date thinking from a research point of view about the differences between people, what we can practically do as managers, if you're an HR practitioner, which a lot of folk here are, what we can do to support managers and what structures and frameworks and guidance we can put in place in our organisation.

So really, really nice to hear it and particularly complementary to Simon's presentation as well from that very human perspective through to what the research is telling us about human perspectives. We've got a couple of minutes for questions for Kirsten. I might kick off just while everyone's warming up. Kirsten, do you think Australian businesses are getting more or less resilient in the face of change?

Kirsten: Is this still on?

Speaker 3: Oh you're still on.

Kirsten: I think I'm still on. Businesses versus workers I guess is ... because there's literature out there about resilience at the organisational level. I think there's certainly an aspect of that at the worker level. I do think that the pace of change and the 24/7 hour nature of work and Simon, you saying, "What did you miss out on today?" And that just made me think, "Oh, it's true." It's true. I think more and more work's impacting on people's home life and I think it's getting to a point where people are having to actively put up the boundaries between work and home a lot more and that leaders have to be good at modelling that to their workers so that they show that that's the important thing for resilience. It's about how good you are at those issues and that's expected from your leaders. It's that you're not expected to be available 24/7.

Speaker 3: Excellent. I think you've reminded me, I think I've missed packing my son's cricket gear this morning. I have a sinking feeling, so yeah, I'm in that space at the moment. Questions come from the floor here in Canberra, venue one, there's one halfway down.

Speaker 4: Thank you. Information like the Workplace Barometer is useful when you're considering foreseeability of issues in the workplace or hazards in the workplace. The nature of change in the workplace as well, what impact does that have on foreseeability of hazards? Has there been much research done in that space?

Kirsten:There's been a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of work done on poorly managed change as a predictor of poor mental health outcomes. Is that your question? Yeah, a lot. Absolute warehouse load full. I would say there's pretty much consensus about that from a scientific perspective these days.

Speaker 3: Now I'll just check there's no [inaudible] questions. Any further questions from the room here at the moment? I've got another one, Kirsten. [crosstalk] All happening out here. Kirsten, thinking about failures that you've seen in organisational change management, a bit like the comment just made before, one of the most common failures that you've seen or that you've seen either in the literature or in real time yourself, which you think have really been a direct contributor to poor mental health. So, not looking of course to name organisations, but more particular thematic issues that you have observed in your research or in your practice time and again, where you think, "Oh that is something that if they had done this differently, we could have had quite different outcomes."

Kirsten: I think three main things are the three most common things that just every time I think, "Ah, such missed opportunities." One is around senior leaders thinking they've communicated enough and thinking that everyone else in the organisation knows what they've got in their head. So really not enough time and effort put into that communication piece. That sounds like nothing, but it's really, really common.

The second really common one is the lack of a proper diagnosis. Absolutely the lack of a proper diagnosis. So to do this well, it does take time and effort. The third one is about the lack of consideration of the impacts on job design from the change. So whether that's something as simple as this person's being made redundant and now you've got two jobs, just not breaking down the workload planning and the tasks shifting that needs to happen in a structured way as a result of change.

Speaker 3: Just on diagnosis, because I think that's a really interesting point. It would seem to me that if we diagnosed wrongly, it's almost garbage in, garbage out. In a sense you go off in a particular direction which may actually not mirror the problem [crosstalk 00:27:49]. Do you have any practical tips or tools or frameworks that you would suggest people have a look at or think about when we're trying to understand the dynamics of an organisation?

Kirsten: Yeah, this is where it's very bespoke. Depending on what the change is that's being instituted, depends on what's the appropriate model to apply to that. I spoke about the occupational stress risk model today because we're talking about mental health as being the thing that we're talking about here, but it really does vary. That's the whole point of needing a diagnosis, there's no one size fits all for all the different types of change that are out there.

Speaker 3: So a very, very judicious choice of framework maybe that you use.

Kirsten:That's right.

Speaker 3:So you don't go applying some other sort of framework to a mental health problem and so on.

Kirsten:That's right, and you see that classically in terms of engagement as a proxy for-

Speaker 3:Everything.

Kirsten: Yeah, everything. That's right.

Speaker 3:Any other questions? Not at this stage in the room? All quiet, okay. Look, Kirsten, thanks so much. We've got a small gift for you. I can't let you escape just yet. I've just got to go down here to get what I'm supposed to give you. Thank you so much.

Kirsten:Thank you.

Speaker 3:Could you join with me in thanking Kirsten?

Kirsten:Thanks very much, oh thank you.

Speaker 3: Thanks so much.

Page last reviewed: 15 February 2020
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Date printed 05 Jul 2020

https://www.comcare.gov.au/about/forms-publications/transcriptions/the-evidence-of-positive-change-management-video-transcript