Why is there a performance dip during or following organisational change?
When doesn’t a performance dip happen?
In my earlier post Is the Change Curve a myth? I looked at the research evidence about whether the change curve actually occurs or not. Is there always a performance dip following or during change? In my next book I take a deeper look at this and look at what evidence there is that the change curve does actually happen during change events and why this appears to be. What follows is an (uncorrected) extract from a chapter in my forthcoming book Fear to Flow: How to develop resilience in organisations…
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Firstly there are a few papers that looks at this. In 1999 researchers from The University of Alabama conducted a series of studies [i] which validated the initial performance dip or decline and subsequent improvement in performance during team change events in a couple of organisations.
Then in 2002, a paper published by researchers from the US entitled “The Death Valley of Change”[ii] reviewed much of the previous research evidence for the performance curve and subsequent performance dip and also conducted their own study. They found that 13 of 15 previous studies had also found valid evidence for the existence of all the elements of change curve.
In 2010 a paper published by researchers from universities in Finland and the US entitled ‘Empirical validation of the Classic Change Curve on a software technology change project’[iii] found that change in IT change projects closely fits the change curve.
Does the performance dip always happen?
Now does this mean that there will always be a performance dip during organisational change?
In a book published in 2015[iv], German researchers Klaus Leopold and Siegfried Kaltenecker note that the dip in performance in the change curve occurs when the change necessitates that the people in the organisation have to unlearn old behaviours, processes and systems and learn new ways of doing things. Also new systems and processes need to be embedded in the organisation and made to fit with existing structures and processes. They argue “During the process of change, it is almost always the case that something new must be learned and, as is all too frequently forgotten, something old must be unlearned. Structures must be brought to life; processes practised; competences acquired; patterns of behavior cultivated.” (p110)
Learning, unlearning and reorientation
If the organisational change does not require learning and unlearning it is entirely possible that the people and organisation will not go through the change curve. However, I am not sure what kind of change does not necessitate learning and unlearning at some level.
In effect the performance dip in the change curve is due to the move from stasis to change and the reorientation both the system and the individuals have to undergo to accommodate this change. From the individuals point of view this includes ignoring and letting go of old habits, thinking, procedures and often contacts and networks as well as ways of getting things achieved, and finding new ways of doing things, learning the attributes of new colleagues, and networks, finding new shortcuts and practices and maybe even learning or constructing new knowledge and expectations.
It is not surprising therefore that there is a consequential performance dip whilst this process of unlearning (known as reversal learning[v]), reorientation, developing new skills and ways of working and learning or constructing new knowledge takes place. If you have ever taken up advanced training in a sport or other activity you will already have experienced this dip in performance as you re-orient yourself to a new way of doing things. When I joined the army many years ago I was already quite adapt at walking. However, when you learn to march you must learn to walk in a certain way and move in concert with a body of other people as well as respond instantly to commands. There were times when I forgot which way left was and would find myself doing really odd things like swinging my arms with my legs as opposed to my legs as you would normally do. It’s as if all of a sudden you have forgotten how to walk, and then with practice (and a lot of being shouted at) you start to ‘get it’ and march in concert with the other people.
So whilst there is often a performance dip as found by Leopold and Kaltenecker[vi] above, it appears some at least of this performance dip occurs as a result of the process of learning, unlearning and reorientation. This however does not exclude the emotional aspect of this process, which the original formation of the change curve was describing.
Most change, particularly organizational change can and does involve loss.
…some at least of this dip occurs as a result of the process of learning and reorientation
Loss of identity and status.
When people operate in an essentially stable system they gain an identity and self-identity which is often based on what they do, the perceived importance of what they contribute, how skillful and knowledgeable they are or are perceived to be, how unique and difficult their skills and knowledge are, for example.
All of these factors contribute to their organizational identity. In change situations and particularly in change situations that either change the currency and validity of our skills, knowledge and maybe even our status, our identity can come under threat. For example, if we are perceived as competent and knowledgeable, a change can, as noted above, place us in a situation of having to unlearn and ignore the very knowledge and skills that previously helped to create our identity and start to learn new and sometimes completely different skills and knowledge. It may even be that our entire identity is changed.
Consider the example of the women and men who formed the often-considerable typing pools that populated organisations around the world until the advent of the personal computer. Suddenly and almost overnight this function disappeared and with it the jobs and identities of all these people.
Many restructuring efforts like flatter management structures etc. all come with a direct threat of loss of identity and the challenge of creating a new identity. Even just the move from a competent knowledgeable individual to one of being in the position of having to learn new things again can create a situation that some find threatening.
I have seen many examples where executives refuse to learn in the same rooms as employees of lower grades and positions. I have personally coached many people who didn’t want anyone else to know they were being coached. Change often prompts a change in emotional state and one of those emotions is frequently a sense of loss.
Loss of control
“I will stop email dead in its tracks. I am not going to let it destroy our business”
Loss of control. The sense that you have lost control can be either concrete or perceptual.
For example, in an organisational change situation, often the change is brought about by factors in the market, or government policy change for example. These things are usually beyond our control and you would think that given this fact, this wouldn’t be included in a section on loss of control. However it is very easy to fool ourselves about the level of control we have, especially when things have stayed the same for some time before the change.
I was once at a meeting in a mail organisation just as emails were starting to catch on. There was a panic meeting about the drop in physical mail volumes (and hence profit) being experienced at the time as a result of the uptake of email. The then head of the division concerned stunned everyone by standing up and saying “I will stop email dead in its tracks. I am not going to let it destroy our business”.
This director had been so used to having things the way they were for all of his life up until this point, and had also got so used to having the ultimate power in the organisation, that he couldn’t perceive of any situation that could possibly occur outside of his direct control.
When the reality finally dawned he decided it was time to retire. Concrete loss of control involves things that you used to have control over and as a result of the change no longer have and perceptual loss of control includes situations such and the mail boss where you think you had control but in actual fact never did have. Change is a bugger for showing you what you thought was concrete was actually perceptual all along. The issue is what your reaction is to this ‘reality check’ when it occurs. All change requires at least a temporary loss of control, at least until things settle down again.
Then there is an internal loss of control as the previous knowledge and skills become outdated and no longer relevant.
Further change itself often feels to have a life of its own beyond our direct control. Many people experience the sense that the best they can do with change is grasp the tail and hang on until things settle down again. This is particularly troublesome for many people who are used to the perception or illusion of control in their day-to-day jobs, where they knew what they were doing. This sense of a loss of control is an emotional experience.
Loss of Knowledge and Skills
Loss of knowledge. I know this is rather obvious but change involves change!
As such, especially when change occurs within an organisation, new knowledge will be needed and some old knowledge will be made redundant.
The adage ’nam et ista potestas est’ or that knowledge is power is often true in organisations. It gives people place, identity, status and power.
Change can erode or make knowledge redundant in a flash. It can even the field suddenly in a way which can easily be a threat to those with the knowledge and hence the power in an organisation (irrespective of rank or position).
The problem with knowledge is it is not that easy to forget and overlay with new information. The people who find change the easiest tend to be those who have little investment in the past. These tend to be people who are new into the organisation. The longer there has been stability of knowledge (the longer the people in the organisation have been in the zone of stasis), the harder and more painful change becomes. It is important to remember that knowledge doesn’t just include ‘out there’ stuff, but includes knowledge of policies, procedures, culture, who to go to, who not to go to, how to get stuff done, shortcuts, etc.
Change involves change.
Loss of face
Loss of face. Just plain old embarrassment induces severe stress with many people. Uncertainty often brings with the fear that we might lose face and be publicly embarrassed by not being able to operate like we have been in the old world. In effect this is a loss of perceived credibility. This on it’s own can lead directly to a performance dip during change.
Loss of a psychological contract
Perhaps the hardest loss to navigate for many is a loss of a psychological contract.
Over time lists of expectations build up that are not in the formal work contract. Flexibility around finishing early because of childcare issues granted by the old boss. The way the team operate informally. The little unofficial perks that have built up over time. How we operate together etc.
Our psychological contract with our work is largely made up of sets of expectations that have been constructed over a period of time. Psychological contracts are informal, and often unconscious expectations. They are how our system expects the work world to operate, which is why often a change of boss for example is a source of stress for most people for a while until the new psychological contract is understood and embedded and the old one is discarded. The stress will continue if the old psychological contract is mourned.
Loss of networks and colleagues
Loss of networks and colleagues. Organizational change frequently involves restructuring and this entails disruptions to our networks, and our networks are the conduits through which we get most of our work done.
It is our professional relationships that are the enablers for work flow.
The better the relationships the easier it it to get things done and agreed. Organisational change often means work colleagues disappearing and our networks getting disrupted. If some of these are particularly valued and close relationships there could well be a period of direct grief. Regardless there is very likely to be a sense of loss, disruption and loss of performance as the new relationships grow and we find out how to navigate the new networks and get things done with new people.
Loss, I would argue is often a central part of change and therefore it is not surprising there is likely to be a performance dip as a result.
References[i] Elrod, P. D., & Tippett, D. D. (1999). “An empirical study of the relationship between team performance and team maturity.” Engineering Management Journal 11(1): 7-14.
[ii] Elrod, P. D. and D. D. Tippett (2002). “The “death valley” of change.” Journal of Organizational Change Management 15(3): 273-291.
[iii] Nikula, U., et al. (2010). “Empirical validation of the Classic Change Curve on a software technology change project.” Information and Software Technology 52(6): 680-696.
[iv] Kaltenecker, S. and K. Leopold (2015). Kanban Change Leadership: Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement 1st Edition, Wiley.
[v] Harlow, H. F. (1949). “The formation of learning sets.” Psychological Review 56(1): 51.
Clark, L., et al. (2004). “The neuropsychology of ventral prefrontal cortex: decision-making and reversal learning.” Brain and Cognition 55(1): 41-53.
[vi] Kaltenecker, S. and K. Leopold (2015). Kanban Change Leadership: Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement 1st Edition, Wiley.
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