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Chapter 7 Organizational Structure and Change

Figure 7.1

The structures of organizations vary and influence the ease or challenge of organizational performance and change.

What’s in It for Me?

Reading this chapter will help you do the following:

  1. Define organizational structure and its basic elements.
  2. Describe matrix, boundaryless, and learning organizations.
  3. Describe why and how organizations change.
  4. Understand reasons why people resist change, and strategies for planning and executing change effectively.
  5. Build your own organizational design skills.

Figure 7.2 The P-O-L-C Framework

Creating or enhancing the structure of an organization defines managers’ Organizational Design task. Organizational design is one of the three tasks that fall into the organizing function in the planning-organizing-leading-controlling (P-O-L-C) framework. As much as individual- and team-level factors influence work attitudes and behaviors, the organization’s structure can be an even more powerful influence over employee actions.

7.1 Organizational Structure

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the roles of formalization, centralization, levels in the hierarchy, and departmentalization in employee attitudes and behaviors.
  2. Describe how the elements of organizational structure can be combined to create mechanistic and organic structures.
  3. Understand the advantages and disadvantages of mechanistic and organic structures for organizations.

Organizational structureHow individual and team work within an organization are coordinated. refers to how individual and team work within an organization are coordinated. To achieve organizational goals and objectives, individual work needs to be coordinated and managed. Structure is a valuable tool in achieving coordination, as it specifies reporting relationships (who reports to whom), delineates formal communication channels, and describes how separate actions of individuals are linked together. Organizations can function within a number of different structures, each possessing distinct advantages and disadvantages. Although any structure that is not properly managed will be plagued with issues, some organizational models are better equipped for particular environments and tasks.

Building Blocks of Structure

What exactly do we mean by organizational structure? Which elements of a company’s structure make a difference in how we behave and how work is coordinated? We will review four aspects of structure that have been frequently studied in the literature: centralization, formalization, hierarchical levels, and departmentalization. We view these four elements as the building blocks, or elements, making up a company’s structure. Then we will examine how these building blocks come together to form two different configurations of structures.


CentralizationThe degree to which decision-making authority is concentrated at higher levels in an organization. is the degree to which decision-making authority is concentrated at higher levels in an organization. In centralized companies, many important decisions are made at higher levels of the hierarchy, whereas in decentralized companies, decisions are made and problems are solved at lower levels by employees who are closer to the problem in question.

As an employee, where would you feel more comfortable and productive? If your answer is “decentralized,” you are not alone. Decentralized companies give more authority to lower-level employees, resulting in a sense of empowerment. Decisions can be made more quickly, and employees often believe that decentralized companies provide greater levels of procedural fairness to employees. Job candidates are more likely to be attracted to decentralized organizations. Because centralized organizations assign decision-making responsibility to higher-level managers, they place greater demands on the judgment capabilities of CEOs and other high-level managers.

Many companies find that the centralization of operations leads to inefficiencies in decision making. For example, in the 1980s, the industrial equipment manufacturer Caterpillar suffered the consequences of centralized decision making. At the time, all pricing decisions were made in the corporate headquarters in Peoria, Illinois. This meant that when a sales representative working in Africa wanted to give a discount on a product, they needed to check with headquarters. Headquarters did not always have accurate or timely information about the subsidiary markets to make an effective decision. As a result, Caterpillar was at a disadvantage against competitors such as the Japanese firm Komatsu. Seeking to overcome this centralization paralysis, Caterpillar underwent several dramatic rounds of reorganization in the 1990s and 2000s.Nelson, G. L., & Pasternack, B. A. (2005). Results: Keep what’s good, fix what’s wrong, and unlock great performance. New York: Crown Business.

Figure 7.3

Changing their decision-making approach to a more decentralized style has helped Caterpillar compete at the global level.

However, centralization also has its advantages. Some employees are more comfortable in an organization where their manager confidently gives instructions and makes decisions. Centralization may also lead to more efficient operations, particularly if the company is operating in a stable environment.Ambrose, M. L., & Cropanzano, R. S. (2000). The effect of organizational structure on perceptions of procedural fairness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 294–304; Miller, D., Droge, C., & Toulouse, J. (1988). Strategic process and content as mediators between organizational context and structure. Academy of Management Journal, 31, 544–569; Oldham, G. R., & Hackman, R. J. (1981). Relationships between organizational structure and employee reactions: Comparing alternative frameworks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 26, 66–83; Pierce, J. L., & Delbecq, A. L. (1977). Organization structure, individual attitudes, and innovation. Academy of Management Review, 2, 27–37; Schminke, M., Ambrose, M. L., & Cropanzano, R. S. (2000). The effect of organizational structure on perceptions of procedural fairness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 294–304; Turban, D. B., & Keon, T. L. (1993). Organizational attractiveness: An interactionist perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 184–193; Wally, S., & Baum, J. R. (1994). Personal and structural determinants of the pace of strategic decision making. Academy of Management Journal, 37, 932–956.

In fact, organizations can suffer from extreme decentralization. For example, some analysts believe that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) experiences some problems because all its structure and systems are based on the assumption that crime needs to be investigated after it happens. Over time, this assumption led to a situation where, instead of following an overarching strategy, each FBI unit is completely decentralized and field agents determine how investigations should be pursued. It has been argued that due to the change in the nature of crimes, the FBI needs to gather accurate intelligence before a crime is committed; this requires more centralized decision making and strategy development.Brazil, J. J. (2007, April). Mission: Impossible? Fast Company, 114, 92–109.

Hitting the right balance between decentralization and centralization is a challenge for many organizations. At the Home Depot, the retail giant with over 2,000 stores across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and China, one of the major changes instituted by former CEO Bob Nardelli was to centralize most of its operations. Before Nardelli’s arrival in 2000, Home Depot store managers made a number of decisions autonomously and each store had an entrepreneurial culture. Nardelli’s changes initially saved the company a lot of money. For example, for a company of that size, centralizing purchasing operations led to big cost savings because the company could negotiate important discounts from suppliers. At the same time, many analysts think that the centralization went too far, leading to the loss of the service-oriented culture at the stores. Nardelli was ousted after seven years.Charan, R. (2006, April). Home Depot’s blueprint for culture change. Harvard Business Review, 84(4), 60–70; Marquez, J. (2007, January 15). Big bucks at door for Depot HR leader. Workforce Management, 86(1).


FormalizationThe extent to which policies, procedures, job descriptions, and rules are written and explicitly articulated. is the extent to which an organization’s policies, procedures, job descriptions, and rules are written and explicitly articulated. Formalized structures are those in which there are many written rules and regulations. These structures control employee behavior using written rules, so that employees have little autonomy to decide on a case-by-case basis. An advantage of formalization is that it makes employee behavior more predictable. Whenever a problem at work arises, employees know to turn to a handbook or a procedure guideline. Therefore, employees respond to problems in a similar way across the organization; this leads to consistency of behavior.

While formalization reduces ambiguity and provides direction to employees, it is not without disadvantages. A high degree of formalization may actually lead to reduced innovativeness because employees are used to behaving in a certain manner. In fact, strategic decision making in such organizations often occurs only when there is a crisis. A formalized structure is associated with reduced motivation and job satisfaction as well as a slower pace of decision making.Fredrickson, J. W. (1986). The strategic decision process and organizational structure. Academy of Management Review, 11, 280–297; Oldham, G. R., & Hackman, R. J. (1981). Relationships between organizational structure and employee reactions: Comparing alternative frameworks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 26, 66–83; Pierce, J. L., & Delbecq, A. L. (1977). Organization structure, individual attitudes, and innovation. Academy of Management Review, 2, 27–37; Wally, S., & Baum, R. J. (1994). Strategic decision speed and firm performance. Strategic Management Journal, 24, 1107–1129. The service industry is particularly susceptible to problems associated with high levels of formalization. Sometimes employees who are listening to a customer’s problems may need to take action, but the answer may not be specified in any procedural guidelines or rulebook. For example, while a handful of airlines such as Southwest do a good job of empowering their employees to handle complaints, in many airlines, lower-level employees have limited power to resolve a customer problem and are constrained by stringent rules that outline a limited number of acceptable responses.

Hierarchical Levels

Another important element of a company’s structure is the number of levels it has in its hierarchy. Keeping the size of the organization constant, tall structuresOrganizations with several layers of management between frontline employees and the top level. have several layers of management between frontline employees and the top level, while flat structuresOrganizations with few layers, often with large numbers of employees reporting to a single manager. consist of only a few layers. In tall structures, the number of employees reporting to each manager tends to be smaller, resulting in greater opportunities for managers to supervise and monitor employee activities. In contrast, flat structures involve a larger number of employees reporting to each manager. In such a structure, managers will be relatively unable to provide close supervision, leading to greater levels of freedom of action for each employee.

Research indicates that flat organizations provide greater need satisfaction for employees and greater levels of self-actualization.Ghiselli, E. E., & Johnson, D. A. (1970). Need satisfaction, managerial success, and organizational structure. Personnel Psychology, 23, 569–576; Porter, L. W., & Siegel, J. (2006). Relationships of tall and flat organization structures to the satisfactions of foreign managers. Personnel Psychology, 18, 379–392. At the same time, there may be some challenges associated with flat structures. Research shows that when managers supervise a large number of employees, which is more likely to happen in flat structures, employees experience greater levels of role ambiguity—the confusion that results from being unsure of what is expected of a worker on the job.Chonko, L. B. (1982). The relationship of span of control to sales representatives’ experienced role conflict and role ambiguity. Academy of Management Journal, 25, 452–456. This is especially a disadvantage for employees who need closer guidance from their managers. Moreover, in a flat structure, advancement opportunities will be more limited because there are fewer management layers. Finally, while employees report that flat structures are better at satisfying their higher-order needs such as self-actualization, they also report that tall structures are better at satisfying security needs of employees.Porter, L. W., & Lawler, E. E. (1964). The effects of tall versus flat organization structures on managerial job satisfaction. Personnel Psychology, 17, 135–148. Because tall structures are typical of large and well-established companies, it is possible that when working in such organizations employees feel a greater sense of job security.

Figure 7.4

Companies such as IKEA, the Swedish furniture manufacturer and retailer, are successfully using flat structures within stores to build an employee attitude of job involvement and ownership.


Organizational structures differ in terms of departmentalization, which is broadly categorized as either functional or divisional.

Organizations using functional structuresStructures in which jobs are grouped based on similarity in functions. group jobs based on similarity in functions. Such structures may have departments such as marketing, manufacturing, finance, accounting, human resources, and information technology. In these structures, each person serves a specialized role and handles large volumes of transactions. For example, in a functional structure, an employee in the marketing department may serve as an event planner, planning promotional events for all the products of the company.

In organizations using divisional structuresWhen departments represent the unique products, services, customers, or geographic locations the company is serving., departments represent the unique products, services, customers, or geographic locations the company is serving. Thus each unique product or service the company is producing will have its own department. Within each department, functions such as marketing, manufacturing, and other roles are replicated. In these structures, employees act like generalists as opposed to specialists. Instead of performing specialized tasks, employees will be in charge of performing many different tasks in the service of the product. For example, a marketing employee in a company with a divisional structure may be in charge of planning promotions, coordinating relations with advertising agencies, and planning and conducting marketing research, all for the particular product line handled by his or her division.

In reality, many organizations are structured according to a mixture of functional and divisional forms. For example, if the company has multiple product lines, departmentalizing by product may increase innovativeness and reduce response times. Each of these departments may have dedicated marketing, manufacturing, and customer service employees serving the specific product; yet, the company may also find that centralizing some operations and retaining the functional structure makes sense and is more cost effective for roles such as human resources management and information technology. The same organization may also create geographic departments if it is serving different countries.

Each type of departmentalization has its advantages. Functional structures tend to be effective when an organization does not have a large number of products and services requiring special attention. When a company has a diverse product line, each product will have unique demands, deeming divisional (or product-specific) structures more useful for promptly addressing customer demands and anticipating market changes. Functional structures are more effective in stable environments that are slower to change. In contrast, organizations using product divisions are more agile and can perform better in turbulent environments. The type of employee who will succeed under each structure is also different. Research shows that when employees work in product divisions in turbulent environments, because activities are diverse and complex, their performance depends on their general mental abilities.Hollenbeck, J. R., Moon, H., Ellis, A. P. J., West, B. J., Ilgen, D. R., et al. (2002). Structural contingency theory and individual differences: Examination of external and internal person-team fit. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 599–606.

Figure 7.5 An Example of a Pharmaceutical Company with a Functional Departmentalization Structure

Figure 7.6 An Example of a Pharmaceutical Company with a Divisional Departmentalization Structure

Two Configurations: Mechanistic and Organic Structures

The different elements making up organizational structures in the form of formalization, centralization, number of levels in the hierarchy, and departmentalization often coexist. As a result, we can talk about two configurations of organizational structures, depending on how these elements are arranged.

Mechanistic structuresThose structures that resemble a bureaucracy and are highly formalized and centralized. are those that resemble a bureaucracy. These structures are highly formalized and centralized. Communication tends to follow formal channels and employees are given specific job descriptions delineating their roles and responsibilities. Mechanistic organizations are often rigid and resist change, making them unsuitable for innovativeness and taking quick action. These forms have the downside of inhibiting entrepreneurial action and discouraging the use of individual initiative on the part of employees. Not only do mechanistic structures have disadvantages for innovativeness, but they also limit individual autonomy and self-determination, which will likely lead to lower levels of intrinsic motivation on the job.Burns, T., & Stalker, M. G. (1961). The Management of innovation. London: Tavistock; Covin, J. G., & Slevin, D. P. (1988). The influence of organizational structure. Journal of Management Studies. 25, 217–234; Schollhammer, H. (1982). Internal corporate entrepreneurship. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; Sherman, J. D., & Smith, H. L. (1984). The influence of organizational structure on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Academy of Management Journal, 27, 877–885; Slevin, D. P., & Covin, J. G. (1990). Juggling entrepreneurial style and organizational structure—how to get your act together. Sloan Management Review, 31(2), 43–53.

Despite these downsides, however, mechanistic structures have advantages when the environment is more stable. The main advantage of a mechanistic structure is its efficiency. Therefore, in organizations that are trying to maximize efficiency and minimize costs, mechanistic structures provide advantages. For example, McDonald’s has a famously bureaucratic structure where employee jobs are highly formalized, with clear lines of communication and specific job descriptions. This structure is an advantage for them because it allows McDonald’s to produce a uniform product around the world at minimum cost. Mechanistic structures can also be advantageous when a company is new. New businesses often suffer from a lack of structure, role ambiguity, and uncertainty. The presence of a mechanistic structure has been shown to be related to firm performance in new ventures.Sine, W. D., Mitsuhashi, H., & Kirsch, D. A. (2006). Revisiting Burns and Stalker: Formal structure and new venture performance in emerging economic sectors. Academy of Management Journal, 49, 121–132.

In contrast to mechanistic structures, organic structuresThose structures that are flexible and decentralized with low levels of formalization where communication lines are more fluid and flexible. are flexible and decentralized, with low levels of formalization. In Organizations with an organic structure, communication lines are more fluid and flexible. Employee job descriptions are broader and employees are asked to perform duties based on the specific needs of the organization at the time as well as their own expertise levels. Organic structures tend to be related to higher levels of job satisfaction on the part of employees. These structures are conducive to entrepreneurial behavior and innovativeness.Burns, T., & Stalker, M. G. (1961). The Management of Innovation. London: Tavistock; Covin, J. G., & Slevin, D. P. (1988) The influence of organizational structure. Journal of Management Studies, 25, 217–234. An example of a company that has an organic structure is the diversified technology company 3M. The company is strongly committed to decentralization. At 3M, there are close to 100 profit centers, with each division feeling like a small company. Each division manager acts autonomously and is accountable for his or her actions. As operations within each division get too big and a product created by a division becomes profitable, the operation is spun off to create a separate business unit. This is done to protect the agility of the company and the small-company atmosphere.Adair, J. (2007). Leadership for innovation: How to organize team creativity and harvest ideas. London: Kogan Page.

Key Takeaway

The degree to which a company is centralized and formalized, the number of levels in the company hierarchy, and the type of departmentalization the company uses are key elements of a company’s structure. These elements of structure affect the degree to which the company is effective and innovative as well as employee attitudes and behaviors at work. These elements come together to create mechanistic and organic structures. Mechanistic structures are rigid and bureaucratic and help companies achieve efficiency, while organic structures are decentralized, flexible, and aid companies in achieving innovativeness.


  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of decentralization?
  2. All else being equal, would you prefer to work in a tall or flat organization? Why?
  3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of departmentalization by product?

7.2 Contemporary Forms of Organizational Structures

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain what a matrix structure is and the challenges of working in a structure such as this.
  2. Define boundaryless organizations.
  3. Define learning organizations, and list the steps organizations can take to become learning organizations.

For centuries, technological advancements that affected business came in slow waves. Over 100 years passed between the invention of the first reliable steam engine and the first practical internal combustion engine. During these early days of advancement, communication would often go hand in hand with transportation. Instead of delivering mail hundreds of miles by horse, messages could be transported more quickly by train and then later by plane. Beginning in the 1900s, the tides of change began to rise much more quickly. From the telegraph to the telephone to the computer to the Internet, each advancement brought about a need for an organization’s structure to adapt and change.

Business has become global, moving into new economies and cultures. Previously nonexistent industries, such as those related to high technology, have demanded flexibility by organizations in ways never before seen. The diverse and complex nature of the current business environment has led to the emergence of several types of organizational structures. Beginning in the 1970s, management experts began to propose organizational designs that they believed were better adapted to the needs of the emerging business environment. Each structure has unique qualities to help businesses handle their particular environment.

Matrix Organizations

Matrix organizationsOrganizations that cross a traditional functional structure with a product structure. Specifically, employees reporting to department managers are also pooled together to form project or product teams. have a design that combines a traditional functional structure with a product structure. Instead of completely switching from a product-based structure, a company may use a matrix structure to balance the benefits of product-based and traditional functional structures. Specifically, employees reporting to department managers are also pooled together to form project or product teams. As a result, each person reports to a department manager as well as a project or product manager. In a matrix structure, product managers have control and say over product-related matters, while department managers have authority over matters related to company policy. Matrix structures are created in response to uncertainty and dynamism of the environment and the need to give particular attention to specific products or projects. Using the matrix structure as opposed to product departments may increase communication and cooperation among departments because project managers will need to coordinate their actions with those of department managers. In fact, research shows that matrix structure increases the frequency of informal and formal communication within the organization.Joyce, W. F. (1986). Matrix organization: A social experiment. Academy of Management Journal, 29, 536–561. Matrix structures also have the benefit of providing quick responses to technical problems and customer demands. The existence of a project manager keeps the focus on the product or service provided.

Figure 7.7

An example of a matrix structure at a software development company. Business analysts, developers, and testers each report to a functional department manager and to a project manager simultaneously.

Despite these potential benefits, matrix structures are not without costs. In a matrix, each employee reports to two or more managers. This situation is ripe for conflict. Because multiple managers are in charge of guiding the behaviors of each employee, there may be power struggles or turf wars among managers. As managers are more interdependent compared to a traditional or product-based structure, they will need to spend more effort coordinating their work. From the employee’s perspective, there is potential for interpersonal conflict with team members as well as with leaders. The presence of multiple leaders may create role ambiguity or, worse, role conflict—being given instructions or objectives that cannot all be met because they are mutually exclusive. The necessity to work with a team consisting of employees with different functional backgrounds increases the potential for task conflict at work.Ford, R. C., & Randolph, W. A. (1992). Cross-functional structures: A review and integration of matrix organization and project management. Journal of Management, 18, 267–294. Solving these problems requires a great level of patience and proactivity on the part of the employee.

The matrix structure is used in many information technology companies engaged in software development. Sportswear manufacturer Nike is another company that uses the matrix organization successfully. New product introduction is a task shared by regional managers and product managers. While product managers are in charge of deciding how to launch a product, regional managers are allowed to make modifications based on the region.Anand, N., & Daft, R. L. (2007). What is the right organization design? Organizational Dynamics, 36(4), 329–344.

Boundaryless Organizations

Boundaryless organizationAn organization that eliminates traditional barriers between departments as well as barriers between the organization and the external environment. is a term coined by Jack Welch during his tenure as CEO of GE; it refers to an organization that eliminates traditional barriers between departments as well as barriers between the organization and the external environment.Ashkenas, R., Ulrich, D., Jick, T., & Kerr, S. (1995). The Boundaryless organization: Breaking the chains of organizational structure. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Many different types of boundaryless organizations exist. One form is the modular organizationAn organization where all the nonessential functions are outsourced., in which all nonessential functions are outsourced. The idea behind this format is to retain only the value-generating and strategic functions in-house, while the rest of the operations are outsourced to many suppliers. An example of a company that does this is Toyota. By managing relationships with hundreds of suppliers, Toyota achieves efficiency and quality in its operations. Strategic alliancesA form of boundaryless design where two or more companies find an area of collaboration and combine their efforts to create a partnership that is beneficial for all parties. constitute another form of boundaryless design. In this form, similar to a joint venture, two or more companies find an area of collaboration and combine their efforts to create a partnership that is beneficial for both parties. In the process, the traditional boundaries between two competitors may be broken. As an example, Starbucks formed a highly successful partnership with PepsiCo to market its Frappuccino cold drinks. Starbucks has immediate brand-name recognition in this cold coffee drink, but its desire to capture shelf space in supermarkets required marketing savvy and experience that Starbucks did not possess at the time. By partnering with PepsiCo, Starbucks gained an important head start in the marketing and distribution of this product. Finally, boundaryless organizations may involve eliminating the barriers separating employees; these may be intangible barriers, such as traditional management layers, or actual physical barriers, such as walls between different departments. Structures such as self-managing teams create an environment where employees coordinate their efforts and change their own roles to suit the demands of the situation, as opposed to insisting that something is “not my job.”Dess, G. G., Rasheed, A. M. A., McLaughlin, K. J., & Priem, R. L. (1995). The new corporate architecture. Academy of Management Executive, 9(3), 7–18; Rosenbloom, B. (2003). Multi-channel marketing and the retail value chain. Thexis, 3, 23–26.

Learning Organizations

A learning organizationOne where acquiring knowledge and changing behavior as a result of the newly acquired knowledge is part of an organization’s design. is one whose design actively seeks to acquire knowledge and change behavior as a result of the newly acquired knowledge. In learning organizations, experimenting, learning new things, and reflecting on new knowledge are the norms. At the same time, there are many procedures and systems in place that facilitate learning at all organization levels.

In learning organizations, experimentation and testing potentially better operational methods are encouraged. This is true not only in response to environmental threats but also as a way of identifying future opportunities. 3M is one company that institutionalized experimenting with new ideas in the form of allowing each engineer to spend one day a week working on a personal project. At IBM, learning is encouraged by taking highly successful business managers and putting them in charge of emerging business opportunities (EBOs). IBM is a company that has no difficulty coming up with new ideas, as evidenced by the number of patents it holds. Yet commercializing these ideas has been a problem in the past because of an emphasis on short-term results. To change this situation, the company began experimenting with the idea of EBOs. By setting up a structure where failure is tolerated and risk taking is encouraged, the company took a big step toward becoming a learning organization.Deutschman, A. (2005, March). Building a better skunk works. Fast Company, 92, 68–73.

Learning organizations are also good at learning from experience—their own or a competitor’s. To learn from past mistakes, companies conduct a thorough analysis of them. Some companies choose to conduct formal retrospective meetings to analyze the challenges encountered and areas for improvement. To learn from others, these companies vigorously study competitors, market leaders in different industries, clients, and customers. By benchmarking against industry best practices, they constantly look for ways of improving their own operations. Learning organizations are also good at studying customer habits to generate ideas. For example, Xerox uses anthropologists to understand and gain insights to how customers are actually using their office products.Garvin, D. A. (1993, July/August). Building a learning organization. Harvard Business Review, 71(4), 78–91. By using these techniques, learning organizations facilitate innovation and make it easier to achieve organizational change.

Key Takeaway

The changing environment of organizations creates the need for newer forms of organizing. Matrix structures are a cross between functional and product-based divisional structures. They facilitate information flow and reduce response time to customers but have challenges because each employee reports to multiple managers. Boundaryless organizations blur the boundaries between departments or the boundaries between the focal organization and others in the environment. These organizations may take the form of a modular organization, strategic alliance, or self-managing teams. Learning organizations institutionalize experimentation and benchmarking.


  1. Have you ever reported to more than one manager? What were the challenges of such a situation? As a manager, what could you do to help your subordinates who have other bosses besides yourself?
  2. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of being employed by a boundaryless organization?
  3. What can organizations do to institutionalize organizational learning? What practices and policies would aid in knowledge acquisition and retention?

7.3 Organizational Change

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the external forces creating change on the part of organizations.
  2. Understand how organizations respond to changes in the external environment.
  3. Understand why people resist change.

Why Do Organizations Change?

Organizational changeThe movement of an organization from one state of affairs to another. is the movement of an organization from one state of affairs to another. A change in the environment often requires change within the organization operating within that environment. Change in almost any aspect of a company’s operation can be met with resistance, and different cultures can have different reactions to both the change and the means to promote the change. To better facilitate necessary changes, several steps can be taken that have been proved to lower the anxiety of employees and ease the transformation process. Often, the simple act of including employees in the change process can drastically reduce opposition to new methods. In some organizations, this level of inclusion is not possible, and instead organizations can recruit a small number of opinion leaders to promote the benefits of coming changes.

Organizational change can take many forms. It may involve a change in a company’s structure, strategy, policies, procedures, technology, or culture. The change may be planned years in advance or may be forced on an organization because of a shift in the environment. Organizational change can be radical and swiftly alter the way an organization operates, or it may be incremental and slow. In any case, regardless of the type, change involves letting go of the old ways in which work is done and adjusting to new ways. Therefore, fundamentally, it is a process that involves effective people management.

Managers carrying out any of the P-O-L-C functions often find themselves faced with the need to manage organizational change effectively. Oftentimes, the planning process reveals the need for a new or improved strategy, which is then reflected in changes to tactical and operational plans. Creating a new organizational design (the organizing function) or altering the existing design entails changes that may affect from a single employee up to the entire organization, depending on the scope of the changes. Effective decision making, a Leadership task, takes into account the change-management implications of decisions, planning for the need to manage the implementation of decisions. Finally, any updates to controlling systems and processes will potentially involve changes to employees’ assigned tasks and performance assessments, which will require astute change management skills to implement. In short, change management is an important leadership skill that spans the entire range of P-O-L-C functions.

Workplace Demographics

Organizational change is often a response to changes to the environment. For example, agencies that monitor workplace demographics such as the U.S. Department of Labor and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have reported that the average age of the U.S. workforce will increase as the baby boom generation nears retirement age and the numbers of younger workers are insufficient to fill the gap.Lerman, R. I., & Schmidt, S. R. (2006). Trends and challenges for work in the 21st century. Retrieved September 10, 2008, from U.S. Department of Labor Web site, What does this mean for companies? Organizations may realize that as the workforce gets older, the types of benefits workers prefer may change. Work arrangements such as flexible work hours and job sharing may become more popular as employees remain in the workforce even after retirement. It is also possible that employees who are unhappy with their current work situation will choose to retire, resulting in a sudden loss of valuable knowledge and expertise in organizations. Therefore, organizations will have to devise strategies to retain these employees and plan for their retirement. Finally, a critical issue is finding ways of dealing with age-related stereotypes which act as barriers in the retention of these employees.


Sometimes change is motivated by rapid developments in technology. Moore’s law (a prediction by Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel) dictates that the overall complexity of computers will double every 18 months with no increase in cost.Anonymous. Moore’s Law. Retrieved September 5, 2008, from, Such change is motivating corporations to change their technology rapidly. Sometimes technology produces such profound developments that companies struggle to adapt. A recent example is from the music industry. When music CDs were first introduced in the 1980s, they were substantially more appealing than the traditional LP vinyl records. Record companies were easily able to double the prices, even though producing CDs cost a fraction of what it cost to produce LPs. For decades, record-producing companies benefited from this status quo. Yet when peer-to-peer file sharing through software such as Napster and Kazaa threatened the core of their business, companies in the music industry found themselves completely unprepared for such disruptive technological changes. Their first response was to sue the users of file-sharing software, sometimes even underage kids. They also kept looking for a technology that would make it impossible to copy a CD or DVD, which has yet to emerge. Until Apple’s iTunes came up with a new way to sell music online, it was doubtful that consumers would ever be willing to pay for music that was otherwise available for free (albeit illegally so). Only time will tell if the industry will be able to adapt to the changes forced on it.Lasica, J. D. (2005). Darknet: Hollywood’s war against the digital generation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Figure 7.8

Kurzweil expanded Moore’s law from integrated circuits to earlier transistors, vacuum tubes, relays, and electromechanical computers to show that his trend holds there as well.


Globalization is another threat and opportunity for organizations, depending on their ability to adapt to it. Because of differences in national economies and standards of living from one country to another, organizations in developed countries are finding that it is often cheaper to produce goods and deliver services in less developed countries. This has led many companies to outsource (or “offshore”) their manufacturing operations to countries such as China and Mexico. In the 1990s, knowledge work was thought to be safe from outsourcing, but in the 21st century we are also seeing many service operations moved to places with cheaper wages. For example, many companies have outsourced software development to India, with Indian companies such as Wipro and Infosys emerging as global giants. Given these changes, understanding how to manage a global workforce is a necessity. Many companies realize that outsourcing forces them to operate in an institutional environment that is radically different from what they are used to at home. Dealing with employee stress resulting from jobs being moved overseas, retraining the workforce, and learning to compete with a global workforce on a global scale are changes companies are trying to come to grips with.

Changes in the Market Conditions

Market changes may also create internal changes as companies struggle to adjust. For example, as of this writing, the airline industry in the United States is undergoing serious changes. Demand for air travel was reduced after the September 11 terrorist attacks. At the same time, the widespread use of the Internet to book plane travels made it possible to compare airline prices much more efficiently and easily, encouraging airlines to compete primarily based on cost. This strategy seems to have backfired when coupled with the dramatic increases in the cost of fuel that occurred begining in 2004. As a result, by mid-2008, airlines were cutting back on amenities that had formerly been taken for granted for decades, such as the price of a ticket including meals, beverages, and checking luggage. Some airlines, such as Delta and Northwest Airlines, merged to stay in business.

How does a change in the environment create change within an organization? Environmental change does not automatically change how business is done. Whether the organization changes or not in response to environmental challenges and threats depends on the decision makers’ reactions to what is happening in the environment.


Figure 7.9

In 1984, brothers Kurt (on the left) and Rob Widmer (on the right) founded Widmer Brothers, which has merged with another company to become the 11th largest brewery in the United States.

It is natural for once small start-up companies to grow if they are successful. An example of this growth is the evolution of the Widmer Brothers Brewing Company, which started as two brothers brewing beer in their garage to becoming the 11th largest brewery in the United States. This growth happened over time as the popularity of their key product—Hefeweizen—grew in popularity and the company had to expand to meet demand growing from the two founders to the 11th largest brewery in the United States by 2008. In 2007, Widmer Brothers merged with Redhook Ale Brewery. Anheuser-Busch continues to have a minority stake in both beer companies. So, while 50% of all new small businesses fail in their first year,Get ready. United States Small Business Association. Retrieved November 21, 2008, from those that succeed often evolve into large, complex organizations over time.

Poor Performance

Change can also occur if the company is performing poorly and if there is a perceived threat from the environment. In fact, poorly performing companies often find it easier to change compared with successful companies. Why? High performance actually leads to overconfidence and inertia. As a result, successful companies often keep doing what made them successful in the first place. When it comes to the relationship between company performance and organizational change, the saying “nothing fails like success” may be fitting. For example, Polaroid was the number one producer of instant films and cameras in 1994. Less than a decade later, the company filed for bankruptcy, unable to adapt to the rapid advances in one-hour photo development and digital photography technologies that were sweeping the market. Successful companies that manage to change have special practices in place to keep the organization open to changes. For example, Finnish cell phone maker Nokia finds that it is important to periodically change the perspective of key decision makers. For this purpose, they rotate heads of businesses to different posts to give them a fresh perspective. In addition to the success of a business, change in a company’s upper-level management is a motivator for change at the organization level. Research shows that long-tenured CEOs are unlikely to change their formula for success. Instead, new CEOs and new top management teams create change in a company’s culture and structure.Barnett, W. P., & Carroll, G. R. (1995). Modeling internal organizational change. Annual Review of Sociology, 21, 217–236; Boeker, W. (1997). Strategic change: The influence of managerial characteristics and organizational growth. Academy of Management Journal, 40, 152–170; Deutschman, A. (2005, March). Building a better skunk works. Fast Company, 92, 68–73.

Resistance to Change

Changing an organization is often essential for a company to remain competitive. Failure to change may influence the ability of a company to survive. Yet employees do not always welcome changes in methods. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employee resistance to change is one of the top reasons change efforts fail. In fact, reactions to organizational change may range from resistance to compliance to enthusiastic support of the change, with the latter being the exception rather than the norm.Anonymous. (December 2007). Change management: The HR strategic imperative as a business partner. HR Magazine, 52(12); Huy, Q. N. (1999). Emotional capability, emotional intelligence, and radical change. Academy of Management Review, 24, 325–345.

Figure 7.10

Reactions to change may take many forms.

Active resistanceThe most negative reaction to a proposed change attempt. is the most negative reaction to a proposed change attempt. Those who engage in active resistance may sabotage the change effort and be outspoken objectors to the new procedures. In contrast, passive resistanceBeing disturbed by changes without necessarily voicing these opinions. involves being disturbed by changes without necessarily voicing these opinions. Instead, passive resisters may dislike the change quietly, feel stressed and unhappy, and even look for a new job without necessarily bringing their concerns to the attention of decision makers. ComplianceGoing along with proposed changes with little enthusiasm., however, involves going along with proposed changes with little enthusiasm. Finally, those who show enthusiastic supportDefenders of the new way and those who actually encourage others to give support to the change effort. are defenders of the new way and actually encourage others around them to give support to the change effort as well.

To be successful, any change attempt will need to overcome resistance on the part of employees. Otherwise, the result will be loss of time and energy as well as an inability on the part of the organization to adapt to the changes in the environment and make its operations more efficient. Resistance to change also has negative consequences for the people in question. Research shows that when people react negatively to organizational change, they experience negative emotions, use sick time more often, and are more likely to voluntarily leave the company.Fugate, M., Kinicki, A. J., & Prussia, G. E. (2008). Employee coping with organizational change: An examination of alternative theoretical perspectives and models. Personnel Psychology, 61, 1–36. These negative effects can be present even when the proposed change clearly offers benefits and advantages over the status quo.

The following is a dramatic example of how resistance to change may prevent improving the status quo. Have you ever wondered why the keyboards we use are shaped the way they are? The QWERTY keyboard, named after the first six letters in the top row, was actually engineered to slow us down. When the typewriter was first invented in the 19th century, the first prototypes of the keyboard would jam if the keys right next to each other were hit at the same time. Therefore, it was important for manufacturers to slow typists down. They achieved this by putting the most commonly used letters to the left-hand side and scattering the most frequently used letters all over the keyboard. Later, the issue of letters being stuck was resolved. In fact, an alternative to the QWERTY developed in the 1930s by educational psychologist August Dvorak provides a much more efficient design and allows individuals to double traditional typing speeds. Yet the Dvorak keyboard never gained wide acceptance. The reasons? Large numbers of people resisted the change. Teachers and typists resisted because they would lose their specialized knowledge. Manufacturers resisted due to costs inherent in making the switch and the initial inefficiencies in the learning curve.Diamond, J. (2005). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York: W. W. Norton. In short, the best idea does not necessarily win, and changing people requires understanding why they resist.

Figure 7.11

Dvorak keyboard is a more efficient alternative to keyboard design. However, due to resistance from typists, teachers, manufacturers, and salespeople, a switch never occurred.

Why Do People Resist Change?

Disrupted Habits

People often resist change for the simple reason that change disrupts our habits. When you hop into your car for your morning commute, do you think about how you are driving? Most of the time probably not, because driving generally becomes an automated activity after a while. You may sometimes even realize that you have reached your destination without noticing the roads you used or having consciously thought about any of your body movements. Now imagine you drive for a living and even though you are used to driving an automatic car, you are forced to use a stick shift. You can most likely figure out how to drive a stick, but it will take time, and until you figure it out, you cannot drive on auto pilot. You will have to reconfigure your body movements and practice shifting until you become good at it. This loss of a familiar habit can make you feel clumsy; you may even feel that your competence as a driver is threatened. For this simple reason, people are sometimes surprisingly outspoken when confronted with simple changes such as updating to a newer version of a particular software or a change in their voice mail system.


Some people are more resistant to change than others. Recall that one of the Big Five personality traits is Openness to Experience; obviously, people who rank high on this trait will tend to accept change readily. Research also shows that people who have a positive self-concept are better at coping with change, probably because those who have high self-esteem may feel that whatever the changes are, they are likely to adjust to it well and be successful in the new system. People with a more positive self-concept and those who are more optimistic may also view change as an opportunity to shine as opposed to a threat that is overwhelming. Finally, risk tolerance is another predictor of how resistant someone will be to stress. For people who are risk avoidant, the possibility of a change in technology or structure may be more threatening.Judge, T. A., Thoresen, C. J., Pucik, V., & Welbourne, T. M. (1999). Managerial coping with organizational change. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 107–122; Wanberg, C. R., & Banas, J. T. (2000). Predictors and outcomes of openness to changes in a reorganizing workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 132–142.

Feelings of Uncertainty

Change inevitably brings feelings of uncertainty. You have just heard that your company is merging with another. What would be your reaction? Such change is often turbulent, and it is often unclear what is going to happen to each individual. Some positions may be eliminated. Some people may see a change in their job duties. Things may get better—or they may get worse. The feeling that the future is unclear is enough to create stress for people because it leads to a sense of lost control.Ashford, S. J., Lee, C. L., & Bobko, P. (1989). Content, causes, and consequences of job insecurity: A theory-based measure and substantive test. Academy of Management Journal, 32, 803–829; Fugate, M., Kinicki, A. J., & Prussia, G. E. (2008). Employee coping with organizational change: An examination of alternative theoretical perspectives and models. Personnel Psychology, 61, 1–36.

Fear of Failure

Figure 7.12

One reason employees resist change is the fear of failure under the new system.

People also resist change when they feel that their performance may be affected under the new system. People who are experts in their jobs may be less than welcoming of the changes because they may be unsure whether their success would last under the new system. Studies show that people who feel that they can perform well under the new system are more likely to be committed to the proposed change, while those who have lower confidence in their ability to perform after changes are less committed.Herold, D. M., Fedor, D. B., & Caldwell, S. (2007). Beyond change management: A multilevel investigation of contextual and personal influences on employees’ commitment to change. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 942–951.

Personal Impact of Change

It would be too simplistic to argue that people resist all change, regardless of its form. In fact, people tend to be more welcoming of change that is favorable to them on a personal level (such as giving them more power over others or change that improves quality of life such as bigger and nicer offices). Research also shows that commitment to change is highest when proposed changes affect the work unit with a low impact on how individual jobs are performed.Fedor, D. M., Caldwell, S., & Herold, D. M. (2006). The effects of organizational changes on employee commitment: A multilevel investigation. Personnel Psychology, 59, 1–29.

Prevalence of Change

Any change effort should be considered within the context of all the other changes that are introduced in a company. Does the company have a history of making short-lived changes? If the company structure went from functional to product-based to geographic to matrix within the past five years and the top management is in the process of going back to a functional structure again, a certain level of resistance is to be expected because employees are likely to be fatigued as a result of the constant changes. Moreover, the lack of a history of successful changes may cause people to feel skeptical toward the newly planned changes. Therefore, considering the history of changes in the company is important to understanding why people resist. Another question is, how big is the planned change? If the company is considering a simple switch to a new computer program, such as introducing Microsoft Access for database management, the change may not be as extensive or stressful compared with a switch to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system such as SAP or PeopleSoft, which require a significant time commitment and can fundamentally affect how business is conducted.Labianca, G., Gray, B., & Brass D. J. (2000). A grounded model of organizational schema change during empowerment. Organization Science, 11, 235–257; Rafferty, A. E., & Griffin. M. A. (2006). Perceptions of organizational change: A stress and coping perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 1154–1162.

Perceived Loss of Power

One other reason people may resist change is that change may affect their power and influence in the organization. Imagine that your company moved to a more team-based structure, turning supervisors into team leaders. In the old structure, supervisors were in charge of hiring and firing all those reporting to them. Under the new system, this power is given to the team. Instead of monitoring the progress the team is making toward goals, the job of a team leader is to provide support and mentoring to the team in general and ensure that the team has access to all resources to be effective. Given the loss in prestige and status in the new structure, some supervisors may resist the proposed changes even if it is better for the organization to operate around teams.

In summary, there are many reasons individuals resist change, which may prevent an organization from making important changes.

Is All Resistance Bad?

Resistance to change may be a positive force in some instances. In fact, resistance to change is a valuable feedback tool that should not be ignored. Why are people resisting the proposed changes? Do they believe that the new system will not work? If so, why not? By listening to people and incorporating their suggestions into the change effort, it is possible to make a more effective change. Some of a company’s most committed employees may be the most vocal opponents of a change effort. They may fear that the organization they feel such a strong attachment to is being threatened by the planned change effort and the change will ultimately hurt the company. In contrast, people who have less loyalty to the organization may comply with the proposed changes simply because they do not care enough about the fate of the company to oppose the changes. As a result, when dealing with those who resist change, it is important to avoid blaming them for a lack of loyalty.Ford, J. D., Ford, L. W., & D’Amelio, A. (2008). Resistance to change: The rest of the story. Academy of Management Review, 33, 362–377.

Key Takeaway

Organizations change in response to changes in the environment and in response to the way decision makers interpret these changes. When it comes to organizational change, one of the biggest obstacles is resistance to change. People resist change because change disrupts habits, conflicts with certain personality types, causes a fear of failure, can have potentially negative effects, can result in a potential for loss of power, and, when done too frequently, can exhaust employees.


  1. Can you think of an organizational or personal change that you had to go through? Have you encountered any resistance to this change? What were the reasons?
  2. How would you deal with employees who are resisting change because their habits are threatened? How would you deal with them if they are resisting because of a fear of failure?

7.4 Planning and Executing Change Effectively

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe Lewin’s three-stage model of planned change.
  2. Describe how organizations may embrace continuous change.

How do you plan, organize, and execute change effectively? Some types of change, such as mergers, often come with job losses. In these situations, it is important to remain fair and ethical while laying off otherwise exceptional employees. Once change has occurred, it is vital to take any steps necessary to reinforce the new system. Employees can often require continued support well after an organizational change.

One of the most useful frameworks in this area is the three-stage model of planned change developed in the 1950s by psychologist Kurt Lewin.Lewin K. (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper & Row. This model assumes that change will encounter resistance. Therefore, executing change without prior preparation is likely to lead to failure. Instead, organizations should start with unfreezingMaking sure that organizational members are ready for and receptive to change., or making sure that organizational members are ready for and receptive to change. This is followed by changeExecuting the planned changes., or executing the planned changes. Finally, refreezingEnsuring that change becomes permanent and the new habits, rules, or procedures become the norm. involves ensuring that change becomes permanent and the new habits, rules, or procedures become the norm.

Figure 7.13 Lewin’s Three-Stage Process of Change

Unfreezing Before Change

Many change efforts fail because people are insufficiently prepared for change. When employees are not prepared, they are more likely to resist the change effort and less likely to function effectively under the new system. What can organizations do before change to prepare employees? There are a number of things that are important at this stage.

Communicating a Plan for Change

Do people know what the change entails, or are they hearing about the planned changes through the grapevine or office gossip? When employees know what is going to happen, when, and why, they may feel more comfortable. Research shows that those who have more complete information about upcoming changes are more committed to a change effort.Wanberg, C. R., & Banas, J. T. (2000). Predictors and outcomes of openness to changes in a reorganizing workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 132–142. Moreover, in successful change efforts, the leader not only communicates a plan but also an overall vision for the change.Herold, D. M., Fedor D. B., Caldwell, S., & Liu, Y. (2008). The effects of transformational and change leadership on employees’ commitment to a change: A multilevel study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 346–357. When this vision is exciting and paints a picture of a future that employees would be proud to be a part of, people are likely to be more committed to change.

Ensuring that top management communicates with employees about the upcoming changes also has symbolic value.Armenakis, A. A., Harris, S. G., & Mossholder, K. W. (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46, 681–703. When top management and the company CEO discuss the importance of the changes in meetings, employees are provided with a reason to trust that this change is a strategic initiative. For example, while changing the employee performance appraisal system, the CEO of Kimberly Clark made sure to mention the new system in all meetings with employees, indicating that the change was supported by the CEO.

Develop a Sense of Urgency

People are more likely to accept change if they feel that there is a need for it. If employees feel their company is doing well, the perceived need for change will be smaller. Those who plan the change will need to make the case that there is an external or internal threat to the organization’s competitiveness, reputation, or sometimes even its survival and that failure to act will have undesirable consequences. For example, Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, executed a successful transformation of the company in the early 1990s. In his biography Elephants Can Dance, Gerstner highlights how he achieved cooperation as follows: “Our greatest ally in shaking loose the past was IBM’s eminent collapse. Rather than go with the usual impulse to put on a happy face, I decided to keep the crisis front and center. I didn’t want to lose the sense of urgency.”Gerstner, L. V. (2002). Who says elephants can’t dance? Inside IBM’s historic turnaround. New York: HarperCollins; Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Building a Coalition

To convince people that change is needed, the change leader does not necessarily have to convince every person individually. In fact, people’s opinions toward change are affected by opinion leaders or those people who have a strong influence over the behaviors and attitudes of others.Burkhardt, M. E. (1994). Social interaction effects following a technological change: A longitudinal investigation. Academy of Management Journal, 37, 869–898; Kotter, J. P. (1995, March–April). Leading change: Why transformations fail. Harvard Business Review, 73(2), 59–67. Instead of trying to get everyone on board at the same time, it may be more useful to convince and prepare the opinion leaders. Understanding one’s own social networks as well as the networks of others in the organization can help managers identify opinion leaders. Once these individuals agree that the proposed change is needed and will be useful, they will become helpful allies in ensuring that the rest of the organization is ready for change.Armenakis, A. A., Harris, S. G., & Mossholder, K. W. (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46, 681–703. For example, when Paul Pressler became the CEO of Gap Inc. in 2002, he initiated a culture change effort in the hope of creating a sense of identity among the company’s many brands such as Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Gap. For this purpose, employees were segmented instead of trying to reach out to all employees at the same time. Gap Inc. started by training the 2,000 senior managers in “leadership summits,” who in turn were instrumental in ensuring the cooperation of the remaining 150,000 employees of the company.Nash, J. A. (Nov/Dec 2005). Comprehensive campaign helps Gap employees embrace cultural change. Communication World, 22(6).

Provide Support

Employees should feel that their needs are not ignored. Therefore, management may prepare employees for change by providing emotional and instrumental support. Emotional support may be in the form of frequently discussing the changes, encouraging employees to voice their concerns, and simply expressing confidence in employees’ ability to perform effectively under the new system. Instrumental support may be in the form of providing a training program to employees so that they know how to function under the new system. Effective leadership and motivation skills can assist managers to provide support to employees.

Allow Employees to Participate

Studies show that employees who participate in planning change efforts tend to have more positive opinions about the change. Why? They will have the opportunity to voice their concerns. They can shape the change effort so that their concerns are addressed. They will be more knowledgeable about the reasons for change, alternatives to the proposed changes, and why the chosen alternative was better than the others. Finally, they will feel a sense of ownership of the planned change and are more likely to be on board.Wanberg, C. R., & Banas, J. T. (2000). Predictors and outcomes of openness to changes in a reorganizing workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 132–142. Participation may be more useful if it starts at earlier stages, preferably while the problem is still being diagnosed. For example, assume that a company suspects there are problems with manufacturing quality. One way of convincing employees that there is a problem that needs to be solved would be to ask them to take customer calls about the product quality. Once employees experience the problem firsthand, they will be more motivated to solve the problem.

Executing Change

The second stage of Lewin’s three-stage change model is executing change. At this stage, the organization implements the planned changes on technology, structure, culture, or procedures. The specifics of how change should be executed will depend on the type of change. However, there are three tips that may facilitate the success of a change effort.

Continue to Provide Support

As the change is under way, employees may experience high amounts of stress. They may make mistakes more often or experience uncertainty about their new responsibilities or job descriptions. Management has an important role in helping employees cope with this stress by displaying support, patience, and continuing to provide support to employees even after the change is complete.

Create Small Wins

During a change effort, if the organization can create a history of small wins, change acceptance will be more likely.Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press; Reay, T., Golden-Biddle, K., & Germann, K. (2006). Legitimizing a new role: Small wins and microprocesses of change. Academy of Management Journal, 49, 977–998. If the change is large in scope and the payoff is a long time away, employees may not realize change is occurring during the transformation period. However, if people see changes, improvements, and successes along the way, they will be inspired and motivated to continue the change effort. For this reason, breaking up the proposed change into phases may be a good idea because it creates smaller targets. Small wins are also important for planners of change to make the point that their idea is on the right track. Early success gives change planners more credibility while early failures may be a setback.Hamel, G. (2000, July/August). Waking up IBM. Harvard Business Review, 78(4), 137–146.

Eliminate Obstacles

When the change effort is in place, many obstacles may crop up along the way. There may be key people who publicly support the change effort while silently undermining the planned changes. There may be obstacles rooted in a company’s structure, existing processes, or culture. It is the management’s job to identify, understand, and remove these obstacles.Kotter, J. P. (1995, March–April). Leading change: Why transformations fail. Harvard Business Review, 73(2), 59–67. Ideally, these obstacles would have been eliminated before implementing the change, but sometimes unexpected roadblocks emerge as change is under way.


After the change is implemented, the long-term success of a change effort depends on the extent to which the change becomes part of the company’s culture. If the change has been successful, the revised ways of thinking, behaving, and performing should become routine. To evaluate and reinforce (“refreeze”) the change, there are a number of things management can do.

Publicize Success

To make change permanent, the organization may benefit from sharing the results of the change effort with employees. What was gained from the implemented changes? How much money did the company save? How much did the company’s reputation improve? What was the reduction in accidents after new procedures were put in place? Sharing concrete results with employees increases their confidence that the implemented change was a right decision.

Reward Change Adoption

To ensure that change becomes permanent, organizations may benefit from rewarding those who embrace the change effort (an aspect of the controlling function). The rewards do not necessarily have to be financial. The simple act of recognizing those who are giving support to the change effort in front of their peers may encourage others to get on board. When the new behaviors employees are expected to demonstrate (such as using a new computer program, filling out a new form, or simply greeting customers once they enter the store) are made part of an organization’s reward system, those behaviors are more likely to be taken seriously and repeated, making the change effort successful.Gale, S. F. (2003). Incentives and the art of changing behavior. Workforce Management, 82(11), 48–54.

Embracing Continuous Change

While Lewin’s three-stage model offers many useful insights into the process of implementing change, it views each organizational change as an episode with a beginning, middle, and end. In contrast with this episodic change assumption, some management experts in the 1990s began to propose that change is—or ought to be—a continuous process.

The learning organization is an example of a company embracing continuous change. By setting up a dynamic feedback loop, learning can become a regular part of daily operations. If an employee implements a new method or technology that seems to be successful, a learning organization is in a good position to adopt it. By constantly being aware of how employee actions and outcomes affect others as well as overall company productivity, the inevitable small changes throughout organizations can be rapidly absorbed and tailored for daily operations. When an organization understands that change does indeed occur constantly, it will be in a better position to make use of good changes and intervene if a change seems detrimental.

Key Takeaway

Effective change effort can be conceptualized as a three-step process in which employees are first prepared for change, then change is implemented, and finally the new behavioral patterns become permanent. According to emerging contemporary views, it can also be seen as a continuous process that affirms the organic, ever-evolving nature of an organization.


  1. What are the benefits of employee participation in change management?
  2. Imagine that you are introducing a new system to college students where they would have to use a special ID number you create for them for activities such as logging on to campus computers or using library resources. How would you plan and implement the change? Explain using Lewin’s three-stage framework.
  3. Why are successful companies less likely to change? What should companies do to make organizational change part of their culture?

7.5 Building Your Change Management Skills

Learning Objective

  1. Identify guidelines for overcoming resistance to change.

Overcoming Resistance to Your Proposals

You feel that a change is needed. You have a great idea. But people around you do not seem convinced. They are resisting your great idea. How do you make change happen?

  • Listen to naysayers. You may think that your idea is great, but listening to those who resist may give you valuable ideas about why it may not work and how to design it more effectively.
  • Is your change revolutionary? If you are trying to change dramatically the way things are done, you will find that resistance is greater. If your proposal involves incrementally making things better, you may have better luck.
  • Involve those around you in planning the change. Instead of providing the solutions, make them part of the solution. If they admit that there is a problem and participate in planning a way out, you would have to do less convincing when it is time to implement the change.
  • Assess your credibility. When trying to persuade people to change their ways, it helps if you have a history of suggesting implementable changes. Otherwise, you may be ignored or met with suspicion. This means you need to establish trust and a history of keeping promises over time before you propose a major change.
  • Present data to your audience. Be prepared to defend the technical aspects of your ideas and provide evidence that your proposal is likely to work.
  • Appeal to your audience’s ideals. Frame your proposal around the big picture. Are you going to create happier clients? Is this going to lead to a better reputation for the company? Identify the long-term goals you are hoping to accomplish that people would be proud to be a part of.
  • Understand the reasons for resistance. Is your audience resisting because they fear change? Does the change you propose mean more work for them? Does it affect them in a negative way? Understanding the consequences of your proposal for the parties involved may help you tailor your pitch to your audience.Based on: McGoon, C. (March 1995). Secrets of building influence. Communication World, 12(3), 16; Michelman, P. (July 2007). Overcoming resistance to change. Harvard Management Update, 12(7), 3–4; Stanley, T. L. (January 2002). Change: A common-sense approach. Supervision, 63(1), 7–10.

Key Takeaway

There are several steps you can take to help you overcome resistance to change. Many of them share the common theme of respecting those who are resistant so you can understand and learn from their concerns.


  1. What do you think are some key reasons why people resist change?
  2. Do you think some people are more resistant to change regardless of what it is? Why do you think this is?