Organizational Change: The Good, the Bad, the Ambivalent

Topic: Change Management, Human Resources
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (MAR 2011)
Article: Ambivalence Toward Imposed Change: The Conflict Between Dispositional Resistance to Change and the Orientation Toward the Change Agent
Authors: S. Oreg, N. Sverdlik
Reviewed By: Lauren A. Wood

Change management has become a buzz word of business leaders and academics alike, and the reason is simple: organizations are undergoing changes at a faster rate today than ever before. Despite these increases in change frequency and a growing body of research dedicated to understanding organizational initiatives, the vast majority of planned organizational changes still fail. But, why? According to Oreg and Sverdlik, the answer is a little complicated.

It is common knowledge that the success of any change initiative relies on employees’ acceptance and commitment to the change. And, indeed much research has been dedicated to understanding reasons behind and solutions to assuage employee resistance. However, this body of research typically categorizes employees into two types: those who support the change and those who resist. What about employees who are on the fence? The authors categorize these employees as ambivalent (experiencing both positive and negative feelings about different aspects of the change at the same time).  

The results reveal that ambivalence results from an interaction between an employee’s personal orientation to accept change (openness to change) or reject change (resistance predisposition) and the employee’s positive or negative feelings about the change agent. So, four outcomes result. Obviously, (and the best case for the organization) employees who are open to change and who generally like the change agent, will be supporters of the change. And the opposite, employees who tend to resist change and who dislike the change agent, will resist the initiative.

The interesting combinations (and the ones in which organizations have the greatest control) results when an employee’s predisposition for change is challenged by his or her feelings about the change agent. For example, an employee has a predisposition to resist change, but experiences ambivalence due to liking the change agent. And the reverse: an employee who is tends to accept change but dislikes the change agent will also be ambivalent. Indicating that perceptions about the change agent are strong enough to have an effect on employees’ personalities and predispositions!

What’s the take-away for organizations planning an initiative or currently undergoing an organizational change? Well, for starters, pick a well-liked, positive, and influential change agent! This can sway employees who would typically resist change to become one step closer to acceptance. Also, selecting a likeable change agent will help shift those employees who are open to change to be supporters of the change effort.    

Oreg, S., & Sverdlik, N. (2011). Ambivalence toward imposed change: The conflict between dispositional resistance to change and the orientation toward the change agent. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 337-349.

human resource management,organizational industrial psychology, organizational management