When a business goes through change, the way people react depends on whether they feel in control.
Think of radical business change as a fast drive over a tricky mountain pass.
The journey might be thrilling while you’re in the driver’s seat. Sitting in the front seat with a route map guiding the driver and anticipating what’s coming up is nearly as good.
But from the passenger’s point of view the journey might be terrifying – or worse.
If you’ve ever looked down from a passenger window on a mountain pass and found you can’t see the edge of the road, you’ll have a good idea of what change management feels like from the average employee’s point of view.
We’ll stretch the metaphor further. While most of us feel it is best to have some control over the hazardous journey, we’d like to feel whoever is in the driving seat is up to the job. This isn’t just a matter of the driver having the right credentials and exuding confidence, the passengers are about to trust that person with their lives.
People’s feeling about control over their working lives goes beyond change management. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions surveyed workers and found employees in certain occupations and industries now have less control over the pace and methods of work than in the past. This lack of control is directly linked to workplace stress.
Participative management under attack
While the modern idea of participative management is under attack from all directions it remains the best way of giving employees a feeling of control over their working lives.
You might feel this is a luxury at a time when most knowledge-based industries are in recession, but this downturn will finish soon.
When that happens employers will once again struggle to find workers with key skills. Employers with enlightened human resource policies during times like these will be first out of the recession and will be positioned to keep up momentum.
Participative management says ownership plays an important part in ensuring people commit to workplace actions. Allowing people to take part in management, planning and decision-making means they’ll feel better about implementation.
This doesn’t mean management cedes its decision-making responsibility to the workers.
In most cases ordinary workers will only control a minor part of any change process. But they’ll quickly recognise being able to comment at any level is important. What’s more, being able to have control over workplace minutiae is massively better than having no control.
Happy workers are productive workers
Workers who are given more choices and power will feel happier about any process. To use the jargon, they’ll take ownership of the change.
On the other hand, if change is merely imposed as a fait accompli they’ll do their utmost to resist.
On the psychological front, workers who feel powerless and out of control will feel stressed. There’s a whole body of evidence to back this up. Stressed workers under-perform, they make errors and their absentee rate will rocket as sickness and lassitude kick-in.
But this will be the least of your worries. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter described in her 1977 book, Men And Women of the Corporation, in organisations it is not power that corrupts but powerlessness.
Mr and Mrs Jobsworth
Kanter, who is a sociologist by training, describes the way powerless people become petty and territorial. She says they become rules minded and over controlling. The British term for this kind of attitude is ‘jobsworth’, as in “I can’t do that, it’s more than my job’s worth.”
The issue here is people who lack formal control over their work put huge amounts of energy and thought into controlling the little part of the world where they are able to exercise power. One thing they do is take extraordinary measures to scotch any reforms or changes. In other words they’ll actively work against workplace change.
Two-fisted managers might rationalise none of this matters. They may remind themselves that a period of change and upheaval is a good time to turf out dead wood and end resistance.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, one driver for workplace change is to shake out poor performers and various roadblocks to progress.
However, this resistance can become so great, it undermines the change process or somehow damages the core business along the way.
Moreover, during a period of mishandled change, it is not unusual for the dead wood to stay and for key workers to decamp. Remember that, even in a time of relatively high unemployment for knowledge workers, employees who are particularly skilled and therefore valued by one company are likely to be valued by another.