What the ambivalent can teach us about change

Topic: Change Management
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Ambivalence toward imposed change: The conflict between dispositional resistance to change and the orientation toward the change agent (NOV 2010)
Authors:  Shaul Oreg and Noga Sverdlik
Reviewed By: Bobby Bullock

As a business grows or shrinks, evolves or adjusts, one thing is always certain – change! Unfortunately, organizational change can be one of the most difficult things to deal with firsthand.  Even within one individual employee, feelings towards change can run the gambit from fierce resistance to strong support.  To address the issue of conflicting feelings towards change, Oreg and Sverdlik (2010) sought determine employees’ feelings towards (1) the concept of change and (2) how the change agent influences their reactions to imposed organizational change. 

The presence of ambivalence, as you may know, indicates both positive and negative reactions towards an object or event.  And because organizational change in itself can be quite complex, it makes sense that reactions to that change are also complex and often contradictory. 

According to Oreg and Sverdlik’s (2010) research, employees’ feelings about the change agent (e.g., a leader who spearheads organizational change) moderated the relationship between their resistance towards change and experience of ambivalence.  For example, when employees had a positive orientation towards the agent of change (i.e., strong faith in management) and also had a dispositional resistance to change, their experience of ambivalence was high.

Likewise, when employees had a negative orientation towards the agent of change and were highly resistant towards change, they experienced much less ambivalence and therefore were less conflicted in their feelings towards organizational change (“it’s just plain bad!”).

While ambivalence is often an unpleasant experience, employees who experience ambivalence can also perceive change in a more balanced, reflective, and realistic manner (Meyerson & Scully, 1995).  Therefore, when an organization is about to go through a major change, it would be wise to identify employees who are likely to feel ambivalent towards change (i.e., those that have positive orientations towards the organization while also being resistant to change) and seek their input.  Their conflicting perspectives have great potential to help identify both the advantages and disadvantages of change.

Oreg, S., & Sverdlik, N. (2010). Ambivalence toward imposed change: The conflict between dispositional resistance to change and the orientation toward the change agent. Journal of Applied Psychology, Advance online publication, 1-14.

Meyerson, D. E., & Scully, M. A. (1995). Tempered radicalism and the politics of ambivalence and change. Organization Science, 6(5), 585– 600. doi:10.1287/orsc.6.5.585