Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

Improvement Interventions: To What Extent Are They Manifestations of Social Defences?

Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

Improvement Interventions: To What Extent Are They Manifestations of Social Defences?

Article excerpt

Introduction

There seems to be a disease going around in many organisations. The symptoms which present themselves, are a stream of continual change and improvement interventions, with one initiative scarcely absorbed before the next is forced upon the organisation (Sorge & Van Witteloostuijn, 2004). The rational argument for interventions is that without change, the competitive pressures that confront organisations will lead to their downfall (Vinger & Cilliers, 2006). On the other hand, change and improvement interventions are notoriously ineffective in delivering on expectations (Griffith, 2002). So, what is the lure for leaders to continue initiating more interventions so eagerly? Clearly, something irrational is happening that warrants investigation and explanation.

Background

We live and work in a competitive environment. Compared to earlier times, work exerts more timerelated demands than ever (Welsh, 2005). Even with a working day that virtually spans twentyfour hours, seven days a week through the availability of modern electronic communication technology, time has become the scarcest resource in many organisations (Davenport & Prusak, 2000). Managers must now make decisions in a fraction of the time previously devoted to similar decisions. The pressure to act and to act quickly becomes an escalating organisational problem as the need increases to make non-programmed decisions in a global environment that is everchanging (Harvey, Novicevic, Buckley & Halbesleben, 2004).

In this volatile organisational context, maintaining the status quo is often equated to business suicide (e.g., Kotter & Schlesinger, 2008; Linklater & Kellner, 2008). The mantra 'change is the only constant' became clichéd, notwithstanding any potential truth in it. To cope with an increasingly hostile environment, organisations have turned to a growing number of improvement interventions, such as changes in strategy, structure, policies, procedures, processes and culture, Total Quality Management (TQM), re-engineering, centralisation and decentralisation, benchmarking, downsizing, and many more (Cordery, 2004; Krantz, 2010; Perkmann & Spicer, 2008; Siegal et al., 1996). Implementing interventions became universally accepted as a business imperative - it is often not the case of whether the organisation will embark on them, but rather when. Many interventions are successful; many more are costly failures, only to be followed by yet another intervention (Sorge & Van Witteloostuijn, 2004).

Is the plethora of interventions justified?

There appears to be a collective belief that interventions will lead to success (Perkmann & Spicer, 2008). However, research data across different types of interventions, consistently shows that they rarely deliver on anticipated goals. Studies of more than 500 interventions indicate failure rates between 90% and 70%, ranging from culture change efforts (Griffith, 2002; Mourier & Smith, 2001; Smith, 2003), to Total Quality Management interventions (De Cock & Hipkin, 1997; Melan, 1998; Siegal et al., 1996), Business Process Reengineering and technology change efforts (Smith, 2003; Ten Bos, 1997), mergers and acquisitions (Sorge & Van Witteloostuijn, 2004), and downsizing and restructuring interventions (Ramaswamy & Fernandez, 1997; Sahdev, 2004).

The cost of interventions is high. On the psychological front, periods of change are characterised by heightened emotional states and excessive anxiety (De Klerk, 2007). Changes are experienced traumatically with severe negative effects on the wellbeing, spirit, teamwork, performance, motivation and commitment levels (Abrahamson, 2004; De Klerk, 2007). Financial measures such as return on investment, return on equity and sales are negatively affected just by the announcement of layoffs (Ramaswamy & Fernandez, 1997; Sahdev, 2004). These figures do not even include tangible costs such as large severance packages. …

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