The Human Cost of Organisational Change

Significant organisational transformation always incurs a human cost, whether it’s drastic change to role responsibilities, loss of key colleagues to other work areas, or out of the company, or worse still, your own redundancy – it can be a very traumatic time! Of Course, organisations provide outplacement support to departing individuals, raising career confidence levels and assisting them into another job role, whilst also conveniently helping the organisation manage its corporate guilt. That’s great for those leaving, but what of the remaining employees? How can the organisation help them get back up to speed quickly, to once again proactively develop the company’s future?

Humans feel separation anxiety terribly – we’re just not as good at voicing it, like the yelps and screams of dogs and horses when their puppies or foals are weaned. It is first triggered on the announcement of any significant human changes, such as job losses of team members, or departmental restructurings and is felt deeply as emotions of helplessness, sadness, being lost and under attack come to the fore. Our most innate coping response is to deny this onslaught of negative feeling, either by diving into our work in the hope that the change will go away whilst keeping external spirits up amongst staying team members, or by going into ourselves and withdrawing from engagement, revelling in our sorrow. Either way, we are shutting off from dealing with the imminent forced separation, whether it’s from people or duties that we know and love. The anxiety impact can also be doubled by any separation reminding of a previous difficult loss, whether at work or home. This felt anxiety then peaks on the actual departure, but by this stage it may have been so ‘safely’ repressed by our coping mechanisms that it can’t be accessed, and now just feels very numb. So there it sits – inside – and we apparently move on with our new job situation and altered group. Is that OK and does it impact our work?

In his research on organisational departures, Astrachan (2004), found that the most intense separation anxiety arose from a minority of colleagues leaving – characterised by sadness and withdrawal. To cope, they quickly excluded the leaving member(s), denied the separation, and did not want to talk of their colleagues’ departures, resulting in stilted communications which negatively impacted on routine work flows for sustained periods. He posited that organisations should better manage separation as a process, to reduce the negative impact of significant human changes, and instead emphasise the positive aspects for their developing futures.

For remaining employees, whose roles are perhaps changing significantly, Astrachan (2004) recommended facilitated groupwork to openly discuss (as opposed to deny) the change - what it means to them, what it reminds them of, how it will impact them and their relationships with those leaving, and how they will act to manage these effects. He then suggested that they move on to developing a collective clarity about the future, which has been proven to greatly reduce stress and anxiety. Then, with the anxiety openly dealt with, the remaining workforce can freely move on to productively deploy their (new) roles, and develop the organisation in line with strategy.

This is similar to the 3 stage process of group endings, as recommended by Copeland (2005)

a) review of our time together and what we learnt as a group

b) understanding the emotional impact of the group ending

c) creating a vision of the future for ourselves as new separate entities

For productive work organisation, transforming managers need be aware of, and proactively manage the human impact of change. A series of facilitated and targeted groupwork sessions offers an excellent way to achieve this.

 

References:

Astrachan, J.H. (2004). Organisational Departures. The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, vol 40. No. 1, March 2004 91-110. NTL Institute

Copeland, S. (2005). Counselling Supervision in Organisations. Routledge, New York.