April 9, 2009

Unspecified Change and its Effect on Morale

From a management standpoint, "change" is a powerful word.

Obama's message of a change of leadership resonated mainly because so many people were dissatisfied with the leadership that was in place at the time of the election. Analysts agreed that 2008 was a "change election" which is why John McCain tried to co-opt the idea, and probably why he thought Sarah Palin was an acceptable move.

These decisions depend heavily on people being close to miserable, and, in fact, feeling that they are on a negative trajectory. In that situation, it's easy to imagine that unspecified change is most likely to be good change.

If you're in charge of a group of people, your communication has a significant effect on morale in that group. Open communication can mitigate the feeling that your situation is beyond your control. If you tell people what's happening (in some sort of detail) they can try to deal with it, even if it's some change they're not going to like. Changes can be put into perspective; people can adjust to them rationally and emotionally.

The phrase "change is coming," on the other hand, acts like a toggle switch.

If your workforce is miserable, then they might get a sudden boost from a "change is coming" announcement that's not backed with details. They might flip from unhappy to hopeful.

If your workforce is largely content, the toggle will switch them into an undesirable state. They are likely to interpret change as a lack of stability, causing them to feel shaken up, distracted, annoyed, or frustrated. Without details, they can't know what that change means to them. They can't prepare themselves mentally, and they can't maintain a feeling of control1 over their environment, or at least the advantage of preparing to adapt to their environment.

Even in the case of the slightly unhappy employees, they have probably learned to cope with their particular dysfunctional environment. Unspecified change may make them feel like them feel like they're about to be tossed out of the frying pan of their coping mechanisms and into the fire where they are unprotected from the dysfunction.

Bottom line, I don't think unspecified change is a good thing to communicate to anyone you manage, if you want a focused and healthy workplace.

1. "Research over the last couple of decades has shown that people who feel they have no control, no autonomy over the job they do in the work place are likely to get a stress related illness."

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Posted by James at April 9, 2009 8:10 AM
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