George Mason UniversitySchool of Business

Managing Change in an Organization: Getting Ahead of the Curve to Sustain Profitability

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Victoria GradyImagine if managers could tailor their management style for each individual employee to give them the exact tool they need to accept change with open arms, eliminating any decrease in productivity or profitability during change. With new research, we may just be that much closer to implementing this goal.

Victoria M. Grady, assistant professor of management and director of the MBA and MS in Management graduate programs at George Mason University School of Business, has been studying various aspects of change in organizations for more than 12 years. Her latest research is focused on understanding attachment styles in organizational change.

Attachment styles are broadly defined as an indicator of potential individual reaction to change. Grady says to feel secure at work, people attach to different objects within the work environment including people, daily routines, rituals, office space and more. Grady’s goal: to have employees participate in a screening or questionnaire (assessment tool) to determine which attachment style they relate to.

Grady says, “There’s an anomaly in nature that baffles scientists: Parrot Fish. Parrot fish change shape and size numerous times throughout their lifecycle in response to their environment. Wouldn’t it be great if people were like Parrot Fish? Changing their shape or color to indicate to managers what was going on for them internally? The need for more training? More support? More details for change? Less details?”

Unfortunately people can’t change their shape or color, but managers are looking at new ways to handle change.

“With this new assessment test, we would be able to determine how a manager would deal with people in different ways based on their scores. This would allow us to identify and define the attachment nature of employees to managers. The way people ‘score’ would determine how you managed them before, during and after a change,” says Grady.

But to fully understand how to get ahead of the curve, you first have to understand attachment theory.

Attachment Theory

“Attachment is an instinctual behavior that we are all hard wired for. That is something you can’t get rid of. It’s part of yourmanagement style makeup. Part of your fight/flight response. It’s perfectly natural that we all attach and detach to objects throughout life,” says Grady. “This neurological hard wiring for attachment behavior is a direct contributor to this concept of resistance to change.”

So where does that leave businesses? For step one, a business can support their employees need for attachment.

Transitional Objects

“Just as a parent gives a child a blanket or a binkie, an organization can support their employees with some type of transitional object which will help make a transition to change easier and quicker to embrace,” says Grady.

Grady emphasizes that this transitional object does not have to be a tangible object. It can be a strong mission that employees believe in, or even a strong leader that employees connect to and are willing to follow. And yet sometimes, it is tangible, like a token item (small toy or object) that reminds the employee of their commitment to the success of the organization and their part in it.

“For one organization, employees had a trinket that the leader gave them. The toy became a metaphor of their relationship with their leader. They used it to deal with stress and anxiety, fiddling with it in meetings. It was an unconscious act,” says Grady.

Attachment Styles

So should managers of change run out and purchase toys for their employees? Of course not. This is where attachment styles come in. By taking the time to assess the attachment styles of employees, managers can then tailor their actions to various styles, supporting employees in the best way for them and encouraging productivity, reducing any decrease in profitability that usually comes with change.

For the past two years, Grady has been in a partnership with a team of consultants from the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) to develop this idea in the workforce. Pilot tests of the assessment are in process with the Federal Aviation Administration, Biotechnology firm Genentech, and Council Subsidiaries to the National Healthcare System (NHS) in the UK.

Grady says that often people are not resistant to change, but rather resistant to the discomfort that comes with change. If managers understand that there is a “grieving” process that comes with change, they can better support their employees through the emotional stages of grief.

The biggest takeaway for business leaders is to identify the core mechanisms, those support objects, that will stabilize or make the change easier.