Creatures of habit

Insecurity – a feeling we all experience in a variety of situations in our daily lives, both personally and professionally. Insecurity is often negatively stigmatized and in organizations associated with individual weakness. People often forget that insecurity is nothing more than our built-in compass to keep us away from something unknown – that might be dangerous. Routines enable us to act efficiently and in a familiar way, both at the individual and the organization level – often with a clear understanding of why something is happening, what is happening and what the outcome will be. Routines therefore allow us to move in our comfort zone. Especially when moving out of our comfort zone is brought on by the organization itself, little is done, to signal: You may not know what we’re up to and there are all kinds of things coming, but don’t despair! There’s something good on the way.

Do you remember the last time when you were confronted with a big change and your initial reaction was: This change cannot be good. And to what extent did this attitude influence the further course of the change process?

In today’s fast-paced, pressured world, the need for cognitive coherence is more present than ever to reduce the feeling of insecurity.

A person’s emotional response to changes varies according to their need for cognitive closure, among other factors. The term cognitive closure was coined by Arie Kruglarski already in the early 1990s and refers to the idea of coherence.

Cognitive coherence implies that events and actions must leave little room for confusion or inconsistency. If this need is not met, those affected tend to express this outwardly in unsettled – or at worst in rejecting – behavior.

As a result, people tend to get hung up on even the smallest piece of information and come to conclusions too quickly. Often, in the course of events, people resist taking in new information that might alter their perception of an issue.

So how does this concept can be applied to changing organisations? I would like to draw your attention to an article from the Journal of Applied Organizational Psychology (GIO) from 2019. Author Stefan Reiss and his colleagues highlight the concept of procedural justice. An important factor determining the success of organisational change is the degree of attention that is paid to the members of the organization – considering all dimensions of organisational justice is vital for success. These four dimensions are the following:

1. Distribution justice in the sense that tasks and rewards are distributed fairly.

2. Providing an environment where members of an organization can influence outcomes and processes is procedural justice. The article utilizes the “voice” concept, which emphasizes the importance of individual input, opinions and ideas, and thus advocates the participation and active involvement of all members.

3. Respect between individuals is a component of interpersonal justice.

4. An information justice approach emphasizes the exchange of information in a timely and reliable manner.

If an organisation reflects all these 4 dimensions of organisational justice in change processes, unnecessary stress factors on the people involved in the change are reduced. By doing this, you reduce the likelihood that the change will be rejected and the strain on your own team will be lessened.  

A company getting involved with the concept also needs to determine at what point in time how communication and exchange with its members are appropriate. This will vary depending on the size and nature of the organisation itself.  Can cross-departmental, as well as individual, participation be successful in change situations? In order to answer this question,  an organisation – and its management – must know its members and, at the very least, be able to give a rough estimation of how high the degree of cognitive cohesion is among its members.

It’s not the easiest task, but it’s worthwhile.

My learning could be your learning:

1. Organisations and their management must understand their employees and know their needs, even outside of change processes.

2.  Successful organisations understand the focus on people in the change process as a necessity.

3. Bad change management can become seriously critical to business if it leads in the emotional exhaustion of its own team.

Would you like to know more about this? Here’s the content to read:

Reiss, S., Prentice, L., Schulte-Cloos, C. et al. Organisationaler Wandel als Bedrohung – von impliziter Angst zur Annäherung durch prozedurale Gerechtigkeit. Gr Interakt Org 50, 145–161 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11612-019-00469-x

Kruglanski, A. W., & Webster, D. M. (1996). Motivated closing of the mind: “Seizing” and “freezing.” Psychological Review, 103(2), 263–283. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.103.2.263

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