_CULTURE SOCIETY Management

_Focus on the Familiar

If you want people to embrace change, don’t preach change’s positive impact.

_Daan van Knippenberg

Van Knippenberg is a professor in the Lebow College of Business and academic director of the Institute of Strategic Leadership.

New research finds that, contrary to common wisdom, the more effective way for organizations to get employees to embrace change is to emphasize what will remain the same.

According to research published by LeBow College of Business Professor Daan van Knippenberg and his co-authors, people fear that after change, the organization will no longer be the organization they value and identify with. The higher the uncertainty surrounding the change, the more they anticipate such threats to the organizational identity they hold dear.

“Effective change leadership has to emphasize continuity—how what is central to ‘who we are’ as an organization will be preserved, despite the uncertainty and changes on the horizon.”

—study authors

“Change leadership that emphasizes what is good about the envisioned change and bad about the current state of affairs typically fuels these fears because it signals that changes will be fundamental and far-reaching,” they wrote. “Effective change leadership has to emphasize continuity — how what is central to ‘who we are’ as an organization will be preserved, despite the uncertainty and changes on the horizon.”
The researchers tested this theory in a survey of organizations going through change and an experimental study, the implications of which are straightforward. Unless they are able to assure people that “what defines the organization’s identity — what makes us who we are — will be preserved despite the changes, leaders may have to brace themselves for a wave of resistance,” they wrote.

The paper, co-authored by Merlijn Venus of the University of Amsterdam and Daan Stam of Erasmus University Rotterdam, was published in the Academy of Management Journal.