The times they are a changin'


We hear a lot these days about the impact of VUCA - volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. But what if forced upheaval, disruption and continual change were perceived by employees and managers not as destructive, but as sowing the seeds for organisational survival?

The current pressures on organisations to do things differently are multi-layered, 'tolerated' by most managers and act as catalysts for others when opportunities are to be seized. Psychologists Wanburg & Banas told us a few years ago that there are three processes which deserve attention from both management and employees when, to quote Bob Dylan, "..the times they are a changin'". Firstly, customer focus; secondly, stress management and thirdly, individual empowerment. It could be interesting to reassess these ideas with which we have been acquainted, yet which are easy to overlook during hectic times.

Why not stop and consider what the organisation we work in is doing about these processes, because if leveraged effectively, they may represent a way both to improve our working lives and guarantee our organisation a sustainable future. After all, for most of us, customer needs are at the forefront of our jobs.

There is a clear chain of cause and effect running from employee attitudes and behaviour to customer attitudes and behavior and onto an organisation's overall levels of productivity. If anyone doubted the link between employee attitude and customer focus, it has was carefully documented by the American company Sears in the Harvard Business Review back in 1999.

"The company's management found that a 5 percent improvement in employee attitudes leads to a 1.3 percent increase in customer satisfaction, which in turn translates into a 0.5 percent improvement in revenue growth. By training employees to improve the employee–customer interaction, Sears was able to improve customer satisfaction by 4 percent over a 12-month period, generating an estimated $200 million in additional revenues."

However efforts to improve employee attitudes will always be undermined if these same employees suffer excessive stress. To resist stress, we personally need to be resilient and resilience can be broken down into sub-parts; we learn that high levels of self-esteem and optimism, when combined with a high, perceived internal locus of control are required for this.

This is the hitch of course. If it is possible to improve customer service and give more responsibility to people through various management initiatives, how is it possible to maintain people's levels of self-esteem when confronted with continual upheaval, disruption and often associated failure? How is it possible to increase levels of optimism in the current climate (especially after layoffs) and lastly, how can an individual feel in control of his/her circumstances when the economic environment is out of control and exerting enormous pressure directly on employers and indirectly on their employees?

Well, the good news is that because resilience increases through adversity, the more difficult things are, the more resilient we will become. Unless, of course, you have low self-esteem, you are a pessimist and you believe in fate!

This 'Catch 22' situation needs to be thought through, because organisations themselves provide this context for developing individuals quite naturally, yet at the same time they seek stability and consistency and generally train employees for set roles rather than for change, crisis and shifting parameters.

Harnessing the fall-out from upheaval and disruption could be a training paradigm well worth investigating. But before that, it will require clearly identifying the personal qualities an unstable environment calls for in addition to assessing existing levels of resilience.

To do this, types of institutional support that specifically underpin change management could include:

  • rewarding for resisting failure and risk-taking
  • encouraging empowerment but not at the expense of voice and representation
  • measuring managerial foresight
  • rehearsing non-routine behaviour
  • closely monitoring the provision of a strategic, skill-based pay system
This will also require real-time, experimentation-orientated training methods that may not be as popular with trainees or trainers these days as the virtual methods now available and where there may be a need to disassociate a learning experience from appraisal.

Maybe there is something to be said, after all, for abseiling down a slippery, cold rock-face on some adventure team-building weekend and showing your fear in front of your colleagues – even if the experience is not directly transferable to your physically cosy office job. Maybe we can learn from sportsmen and women when they get back to form after personal injury or collective defeat by pro-actively formulating strategies and implementing them through varying tactics, appropriate technical application and measurement with the help of their coaches who themselves are well-versed in how to increase resilience.

Finally, what are we doing about future managers? Are they being trained by business schools the world over to become more resilient in an unpredictable world of work? Probably not, as there is an increasing tendency for business students to be considered as 'customers' rather than as learners because they are paying for their degrees. Is it judicious to steer these potential managers away from difficulties and discomfort into activities where they adopt the consumer attitude through prolific choice and where they are likely to be pampered by competing higher education institutions?

Perhaps the time has come then to leverage uncertainty and design training interventions where interruption and changing parameters on a regular basis force trainees to think with more elasticity and develop adaptive, responsible behaviours rather than to fit accepted norms and the seemingly necessary status quo.

About The Author

Malcolm Parker
Malcolm Parker

Malcolm Parker is an Associate Professor of HR Management at SKEMA Sophia-Antipolis in France and Head of Business-Bachelor programmes at the School.