How Individuals Can Change Organizations practice essay
The following post is an essay researched and written in anticipation of an exam question for the module Organizational Change (later changed to "Understanding Organizational Change") in pursuit of the Organizational Psychology Master's qualification within the University of London's International Programmes (Birkbeck College). Excerpts may be used with the citation:
Aylsworth, J. (2009). How individual agency can be used to change organizations. (url) Accessed: (Month year).
Exam essay question:
"Employees are not just passive recipients of organisational policy but have an active, if limited, role in shaping it: Discuss the processes through which individuals and groups might try to exert influence on change in organisations."
How Individual Agency
Can Be Used to Change Organizations
We will consider the issue of the role of the individual within organizational change by weaving definitions, theory and evidence, and recommendations for further research into three salient issues: 1) Unitarist versus pluralist frameworks, 2) Individuals’ opportunities for enacting change versus resisting it, and 3) The implications of organizational silence. We will then summarize our conclusions and warn that organizations that fail to provide opportunities for individual voice while ignoring organizational silence are doing so at their own peril.
#1 Unitarist versus pluralist frameworks
A unitarist view of organizations assumes that all parties share the same goals, while plurarist perspectives acknowledge that stakeholders may have different goals. “Resistance” may be the broadest idea that that addresses how people respond to changes they don’t like. From a unitarist perspective,“resistance” is undesirable and presented as standing in the way of change. It’s rooted in the psychoanalystic idea of being a defense mechanism that comes from the unconscious. A more modern version of this is Johns’ (1983) characterization of people as creatures of habit in resisting any change that will be good for either themselves or the organization. In contrast, Ashforth & Rothbard (1998), from a pluralist view, present a positive view of resistance as “seed corn for organizational renewal and adaptation.”
These contrasting characterizations of organizations and resistance suggest that an individual’s opportunity to effect or resist change is more constrained within a unitarist versus a pluralist perspective.
#2 Enactment versus resistance
“Agency,” refers to how individuals seek and explore their ability to have impact during times of change (Davey, 2003). “Self-efficacy,” (Bandura, 1977) refers to an individual’s belief that he or she will succeed in bringing about desired outcomes. When individuals call upon their agency or self-efficacy to enact change, they might consider job-crafting, issue selling or whistle-blowing.
Job crafting.This focus originated with Wrzesniewksi & Dutton (2001), who defined it as “the physical and cognitive changes individuals make in the task or relational boundaries of their work.”
They proposed that individuals could change their jobs in three ways by changing: 1) task boundaries, 2) relational boundaries, or 3) cognitive task-boundaries.
They noted that the job-shaping literature provides considerable evidence (e.g. Amabile et al. 1994) to demonstrate that job-shaping occurs, and this evidence continues to mount as demonstrated by Lyons (2008). He defined “job-shaping” as“knowingly making unsupervised changes in jobs” and found that such work modifications correlated significantly with self-image, perceived control and readiness to change (Lyons, 2006). Because the study was exploratory, findings might not generalize to other occupations, but his research still makes an important contribution to the job-crafting literature.
Issue-selling. Dutton and Ashford (1993) define”issue-selling” as “a voluntary discretionary set of behaviors by which organizational members attempt to influence the organizational agenda by getting those above them to pay attention to issues of particular importance to them.” We argue that “issue-selling” is privileged toward managers (Davey, 2003) and not an avenue realistically available to front-line employees, who typically don’t feel that they can communicate upwards about issues and problems (Morrison & Milliken, 2000).
Whistle-blowing. In the interest of exploring our third issue more fully, we will not explore the issue of whistle-blowing here, though it certainly merits examination in the context of how individuals can effect organizational change.
In the context of enactment versus resistance, we conclude that individuals, front-line employees in particular, are constrained in the opportunities they have to openly advance change agendas.
#3 Implications of organizational silence
Hirshman (1979) proposed that individuals can respond in three ways to changes they don’t like. They can “voice” or “speak out.” They can be “loyal,” which means “keeping quiet,” or they can exit (leave the organization). However, it’s an oversight to equate “silence” with “loyalty.” More appropriately, Bowen & Blackmon (2003) have described “silence” as the “opposite of voice.”
Henrikson & Dayton (2006) define “organizational silence” as a“collective-level phenomenon of saying or doing very little in response to significant problems that face an organization.” Morrison & Milliken (2000) write that a “climate of silence,” implies that speaking up is not worth the effort and is also dangerous.
Bell& Staw (1989) argue that people are more likely to change work than to be changed by it. If they’re right, a climate of silence creates an accommodating space for individuals to change work. Citing Keil’s (1994) argument, we believe that this point is particularly salient in edge-of-chaos situations, where small actions can have large and unpredictable consequences.
Morrison and Milliken (2000) write that organizational silence is a potentially dangerous impediment to organizational change – and that it has effects on organizational decision making and change processes as well as employee cognitions, attitudes and behavior. They cite evidence that acts such as sabotage (Brehm,1966) may reflect an attempt to regain control lost as an antecedent of silence. Two avenues for further research are Edmondson and Munchus’ (2007) framework of dissent strategies (organizational silence, rumbling, communication and/or organizational blasting) and Huang et al’s (2003, 2006) work around power-distance (Hofstede, 1980) as a useful variable for exploring voice versus silence from a cross-cultural perspective.
We conclude that because what is silent is also hidden from view, it would behoove organizations to search out organizational silence, realizing that it could negatively impact organizational outcomes.
We have briefly explored three issues and presented the following conclusions: 1) Individual enactment should be more constrained within a unitarist versus a pluralist perspective, 2) Front-line employees, in particular, are constrained in the opportunities that they have to effect changes, and 3) Employees have an array of opportunities to resist change and oppose organizational change from an organizational silence perspective. Finally, organizations that fail to provide opportunities for individual voice while ignoring organizational silence are doing so at their own peril.
Exam performance: The essay was not used under exam conditions; however, it was submitted as a practice exam essay. It was evaluated as a "good" answer that would have easily passed.