Values and Organisational Change

In todays world change is ubiquitous. Those people and organisations that can navigate through significant change events more effectively than others are likely to be the leaders of the future. For this reason, change is a particular area of interest for us here at HC and will be the subject of Matt’s PhD in coming years.

Whilst researching peer reviewed literature on change, we recently read an interesting article on how people’s adaptability to change can be closely related to their innermost values. Since it was such a great read, we felt compelled to share it with you all.


What was this study about?

We each value different things in the workplace. These values tend to profoundly influence the directions we are likely to be motivated in at work.  For example, if you are a person that values prestige then you will probably be motivated to seek out jobs, projects or even relationships that you believe other people will envy. This particular study specifically looked at the impact of two common workplace values on sales results during an organisational change.

The study focuses on two workplace values, namely Learning Orientation (LO) and Performance Orientation (PO). LO refers to a person’s intrinsic desire to improve his or her skills for the sake of being able to do things better (Ahearne, Lam, Mathieu and Bolander, 2010). People with a high LO enjoy learning new things, tend to ask more questions and value feedback. People with a strong orientation towards learning are also intrinsically motivated – they are driven by internal factors such as enjoyment or interest in a task itself.

In contrast, PO refers to a person’s desire to be viewed positively by others through the demonstration of his or her current ability (Ahearne et al, 2010). People with a high orientation towards peformance (in the way that these authors defined it) tend to be extrinsically motivated, that is, they are motivated by reward, recognition and satisfaction.

STOP! Before you go and try and pigeon-hole yourself into one category or the other, research has shown that learning orientation and performance orientation are not mutually exclusive. It is absolutely possible for someone to be highly motivated by both learning opportunities (LO) AND recognition (PO).

What were the results of this study?

This study tracked the relative performance of salespeople, over a 12 month period of change and monitored how performance during that time was related to both LO and PO. Figures 1 and 2 summarise the findings simply.

Figure 1 shows that all employees, irrespective of whether they were High, Average, or Low in Learning Orientation, experienced a rapid decline in their performance during the initial months of the change implementation (ie this value made little or no difference in terms of performance initially). HOWEVER, notice how the higher the learning orientation, the quicker performance began to recover after the change AND the higher performance eventually got!

Source: Ahearne, M., Lam, S.K., Mathieu, J.E. & Bolander, W. (2010). Why are Some Salespeople Better at Adapting to Organizational Change? Journal of Marketing, 74, 65-79.

Figure 2 paints a different picture in relation to the the role of Performance Orientation. People who had a high PO did appear to exhibit the smallest decline in performance during the training period. HOWEVER, this group’s performance never recovered to pre-change levels whereas the sales results of those who were low on PO initially dropped off more than others, then demonstrated the strongest improvement in performance by the end of the 12 month period.

What does this mean in practice?

Employees with high LO are likely to divert attention away from other tasks in an attempt to learn the new skills and systems required of them. These employees also tend to be more likely to admit weaknesses in knowledge or skill to both themselves and others and are more likely to learn new processes in a less superficial fashion. In contrast, those people with high PO are much less likely to admit their shortcomings in front of others (since positive feedback is such a powerful motivator for them) and are therefore likely to experience much more superficial learning during times of change. They are too busy wondering what people think and trying to be the best performer, that they forgot to learn the new skills required post the change. 

Of course this has major implications in the workplace. I am not suggesting for a second that we do not want staff that are focussed on high performance and delivering results. It is just that as managers, we need to be careful to encourage our staff to admit their weaknesses or knowledge gaps (even if they are not naturally learnig oriented) and experience deeper, more genuine learning. This is especially important during times of change and as this study illustrates, can have major impacts to the bottom line of businesses.

These findings also have major implications beyond the workplace. We all experience change, whether it’s in our personal or work life. So it is important for us each to understand that being able to adapt to the inevitable challenges and changes that life throws our way is closely linked to our approach to learning. Another important implication is that if you are someone that knows they are particularly driven by the recognition of others, being aware of this fact is the first step. Less obvious, but far more profound is the insight that being driven by recognition also makes it far less likely to admit your mistakes or shortcomings, and adapt to change effectively.

Being open to and embracing learning, certainly appears to be one of the secrets to coping with change (both in our personal and work lives). If we all approached lifes challenges as learning opportunities, we might find that the challenges are a little less daunting than first thought.

For further reading:

Ahearne, M., Lam, S.K., Mathieu, J.E. & Bolander, W. (2010). Why are Some Salespeople Better at Adapting to Organizational Change? Journal of Marketing, 74, 65-79.

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