Navigating Organizational Change

By McKnight, Richard; Thompson, Marilyn | Training & Development Journal, December 1990 | Go to article overview

Navigating Organizational Change


McKnight, Richard, Thompson, Marilyn, Training & Development Journal


Nav igating Organizational Change

Between 75 percent and 95 percent of mergers and acquisitions disappoint company boards and officers. Three factors play a part: excessive purchase price, poor strategic fit between the integrated companies, and organizational and human resource problems.

Mergers and acquisitions--which can involve downsizing, restructuring, reorganizing, and redeploying assets all at once--show clearly how employee stress can affect the bottom line. Employee mistrust and uncertainty can cause a host of problems, including absenteeism, work slowdowns, high turnover, and perhaps most common, erosion of employee loyalty.

Mergers and acquisitions may be extreme cases, but even a single major organizational change can bring such reactions from employees. HRD specialists who must lead an organization through change need to anticipate and try to prevent the human struggles associated with it. Training and development strategies can help significantly, and ought to be included in the company's overall plan for managing change.

SmithKline Beecham, a Philadelphia-based health-care company, has included training and development strategies in its plan for managing change. The company restructured, phased out major plants, and merged with an overseas company--all in one year.

Predictably, the changes caused employee uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety. The HRD department was proactive; it approached senior management with an offer to develop a one-day trainign program called "Managing Change" for all SmithKline Beecham employees in the Philadelphia area.

The executives took to the idea immediately. They agreed that the program should help employees understand and cope with the organizational changes so that they could better contribute to the merger's success. The executives decided that participation in the program should be voluntary and that the program should involve up to 50 participants at a time from all levels of the organization. That way, skills covered in the program would be spread as widely and as quickly as possible.

We designed the training with the help of SmithKline Beecham's HRD director and vice-president of human resources. The program was offered many times over the course of nearly a year; almost 2,000 employees attended.

The assumptions and

a vision

In designing the program, we found it useful to explore our assumptions about the kinds of skills and attributes employees need to stay productive during organizational change. Dramatic organizational change requires employees to deal skillfully with ambiguity and transition, even when senior management competently manages the change. Unfortunately, most people have not developed an ability to cope effectively with change. This, like any other skill, can be learned.

But employees need more than skills to cope successfully with organizational change. An additional human attribute is needed, a quality that can help employees insulate themselves from the worst stresses of organizational change. A theorist might call it "psychological hardiness." Perhaps it's better to call it "hope" or "self-confidence" or just "a belief in oneself."

Whatever the name of this important quality, we found ourselves asking whether employees would become more hopeful or believe in themselves more because they participated in a training program. It is an elusive objective to measure, but we decided that employees can be listened to,encouraged, and supported in the context of a training program. All of those reinforce people's belief in their ability to make the best of change.

The vision that guided us throughout this project was that the program would accomplish the following four goals:

* Cultivate an appreciation for and a way of understanding and speaking about the psychological aspectsof managing transition.

* Develop among employees widespread skills for coping effectively with change. …

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