Avoiding Identity Crises in Times of Change

My colleague Heather recently blogged about the frequency of change in organisations today and how important it is for change to be carefully planned. Obviously the planning and communication around change are paramount; otherwise employees can end up relying on informal communication (and gossip!) which has the potential to increase stress and uncertainty! This got me thinking about other important considerations around coordinating change, especially group dynamics.

While change sometimes (but not always) leads to some roles being disestablished, employees remaining in the organisation are often re-grouped and re-organised.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Social Identity Theory, social identification is the tendency for us to identify ourselves according to the social groups to which we belong. This includes the organisation and the business groups we work with, and provides us with a theoretical framework for understanding the group dynamics associated with change.  Restructuring, mergers, and other change initiatives often force employees to give up their old group identity and re-categorise themselves as members of a new organisation and or group.  This impacts on how people define themselves within the organisation.  People react differently to change. Some may accept the evolution of the organisation quite freely, whereas others may reject the new and cling to the old, despite the new structure. From a psychological perspective, new groups may fail to become a group at all, and continue to favour their prior group membership and social identity. This can result in the emergence of a “Them” versus “Us” mentality and lead employees to treat one another unfairly. In reality, the stronger these biases become, the more difficult adjustment becomes. 

How can organisations going through change overcome problematic employee attitudes as a function of changes to their identity? How can they facilitate employee adjustment to maximise the chances of successful change and transition? More effort may need to be directed at creating a new sense of group identity and de-emphasising previous group membership. Perhaps team recognition could refocus attention to a common goal? In addition to this, leadership and formal communication should provide clarity for employees and groups should be provided with opportunities to interact both formally, and informally. Even things as simple as seating arrangements (i.e., having groups sit in an interspersed manner) could make a world of difference. In the planning of change, how can we better predict what issues could arise so we can manage them more proactively?


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