How to help employees adapt to new roles in organizational change

In a seminar we organized recently, the senior executives participating in the meeting were all participants in the large-scale digital transformation of their companies. During the discussion, we first asked them to describe their role in the transformation work. When we talk about “role”, we don’t mean job title. We don’t need to know whether they are the chief technology officer or the head of human resources. We explained in advance to the senior executives that we expect to get more basic character descriptions, such as “problem solver”, “transaction facilitator”, “task expert” and “creative”. Next, we asked them to imagine if the digital transformation is successful, then what role team members play an important role in this process. For this question, executives have different answers, which is very intriguing. Obviously, if they want to contribute to the future development of the company, they must make certain role adjustments.

The current challenge requires managers to deal with it seriously, because next we will enter a major transition period, and enterprises will face unprecedented tests. The reason is simple. First of all, many companies have begun to promote digital transformation. The outbreak of the epidemic last year, and more than a year of enclosed prevention and control management and remote office work accelerated the process of digital transformation.

The problem is that although managers understand that the transformation task on their shoulders is a great responsibility, many people do not understand how big the management challenge is. Their focus is still only at the task level. Their focus is on what changes the new technology brings to their job responsibilities, and what skills improvement employees need to make. Of course, changes at the task level are indispensable, and management is also quite difficult. But the good news is that people have realized that learning and mastering new technologies is a must, and most people are quite confident about it. They may not like to master new processes and tools in a forced state, but they are already conscious of doing so, and they know that they are fully competent.

But the real challenge in the process of major transformation lies in the threat posed by the role change, and managers often ignore this threat. In the above, we briefly mentioned the concept of “role”, which is exactly the same as what sociologists and social psychologists mean when discussing “role theory”. In this theory, individuals in the group tend to some basic social roles that are generally understood, and many people’s decisions and behaviors are affected by this tendency. For example, an “instigator” in everyone’s eyes will move closer to this image in terms of behavior, and he will not behave like a “technical expert” with strict regulations. Whether at work or in life, when people are undergoing major changes, it is more difficult to make role adjustments. Although most people have chosen to some extent the role they have played for a long time, this choice is not intentional. They didn’t think about how to switch roles, because they didn’t realize that they were “playing” a certain role at the beginning, so when someone suggested that they switch roles, they didn’t know they could do it completely.

Handle the role transition
To better understand how role theory is applied in the workplace, let’s take Marianne as an example. Marianne is a senior accountant at a large animal hospital. At the time of writing this article, her hospital is about to reopen, and Marianne and her colleagues will soon bid farewell to the state of telecommuting since March 2020. Although Marianne is eager to return to the pleasant office environment in the past, and all the daily tasks are easy to do, she still has worries, because today’s company is different from the past. In the past year, everyone has worked from home, and many new digital methods have been in place. The previous special practices, and even the “last resort” procedures, have now become standardized processes. Marianne has a foreboding that the digital transformation discussed by the company before the outbreak will accelerate at this moment.

Why is Marianne worried about this? Because one of her tasks-the editing and distribution of various reports can already be handled automatically by the digital system. Although the new technical means may save her time for higher value-added work, how to find these higher-level jobs, whether the higher-level financial director will conduct performance evaluations on her according to the new work content and other practical issues? There is no clear answer. But a deeper question is whether Marianne’s role among colleagues will be affected. Marianne is respected not only because she is an accounting genius, but more importantly, she is a senior generalist in the team, she is familiar with the business and understands the customers. Moreover, she is willing to give, she is not stingy to help colleagues, and often brings positive energy to the team. But now all these roles seem to be threatened. The digital transformation made her doubt her own value, and her mood became depressed. In this case, how can she lead the team through the transition period?

Marianne’s problems are very common. After summarizing and refining, we can use this as a framework to help more professionals. Here, we briefly summarize as follows. Major transformations often impact individuals in three dimensions: role adjustment, task learning, and emotional connection.

Only one of these is generally recognized, that is, the task learning challenge. But at a deeper level, emotional connections also need to be handled well. In fact, when dealing with emotional connection problems, people can refer to a mental healing model that has many similarities. Usually, after the loss of relatives and friends, people fall into the abyss of grief from the beginning to gradually accept reality. At different stages, the degree of sadness is different. Everyone is familiar with this kind of emotional experience (although this psychological healing model also has certain flaws). However, most people regard it as a process of overcoming psychological obstacles, and rarely regard it as a factor that needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, management often fails to pay attention to deep-level major role conversion issues (and the resulting emotional ups and downs). If people are not aware of this problem and deal with it well, other developments will also be affected.

In management thinking, role adjustment theory is not unfamiliar. People used this theory to explain why some executives have been successful abroad for a long time when discussing executive expatriates, while others have suffered a serious cultural shock. Studies have shown that if expatriate executives can calmly face the role adjustments brought about by environmental changes, they can better tide over this difficulty. Role adjustment theory can also help return executives to improve work efficiency or promote higher positions. Generally speaking, if a manager feels powerless after being promoted, the reason is that he has not adjusted his understanding of his role in time. A CEO we know reviewed her role transition in an exchange. She was once the leading expert business leader, but she consciously put aside her old role-the smartest person in the professional field-and became a Learner, convener, promoter, because her subordinates have their own expertise, she can’t learn everything.

From this example, we can see that in the training of corporate executives, role adjustment is often a problem that needs to be addressed clearly. Because once promoted to the highest level of leadership in the organization, on the one hand, due to the responsibility of leadership, the pressure on the body increases sharply; on the other hand, because the individual can allocate time and attention autonomously, it is sometimes unavoidable to be overwhelmed. If executives have a clear positioning of their roles, for example, “I am now a team builder” or “I am a supporter of sustainable development” (or like Elon Musk, he considers himself a “Tesla The king of technology”), then he will naturally bring tasks worth paying attention to (whether new tasks or old tasks) into his sight.

Handling large-scale transformation
When talking about the need to pay attention to the role adjustment within the organization, it seems that it is always aimed at special situations such as elites or major transformations. This kind of role adjustment is often part of a highly humanized and personalized coaching. But our current view is that more people need to make role adjustments when facing drastic changes in the organization. In other words, the role adjustment must reach a certain scale. If digital transformation leads to a new future, and companies must undergo transformational challenges before creating a better future, then employees like Marianne and hundreds of thousands of people who can create important value for the company, although they are not in high positions, But the same is indispensable. This is especially true after the epidemic. Because of the epidemic, people are forced to work from home, the boundary between work and personal life has become blurred, employees will inevitably fluctuate in mood, and personal role positioning has also become a little more stressful.

Therefore, we arranged the aforementioned exercise in the seminar, that is, asking the participating executives to describe their roles: what is the current situation and which roles will play a key role in the future. This link is very valuable. Putting the role issue in a clear place allows everyone to face it squarely. This also helps managers understand why some reform proposals, once put forward, will arouse internal resistance. After understanding that role positioning is the result of interpersonal interaction and will develop and change, managers will have a new understanding when they look at the value contribution of employees to the enterprise. They can make more thoughtful, positive changes to the organization. After learning, managers have added new tools to perform role analysis and positioning adjustments on the basis of their original skills.

In his recent bestseller “Life Is in the Transitions”, Bruce Feiler put forward a similar view to ours on how to transform life outside of work. The core theme of his book can be summarized in three sentences: “Linear life has ended”, “Non-linear life has to undergo more transformations”, and “We can master the skills of life transformation, and we must master them”. According to our research, one more article can be added: “To make a successful transition, we need to understand our current role and recognize the necessity of role transition.”

Through the use of a tool called “organizational role analysis”, the management team can gain this understanding. This tool requires people to think about an employee’s work status from three aspects: the employee’s current role, the organization’s attitude towards this role, and the employee’s own experience in this role. When doing case analysis, we like to use the way of asking questions to stimulate thinking, not only to consider the above three aspects separately, but also to pay attention to the interaction between them.

Let us imagine Marianne receiving counseling and see how she answers the following questions:

1. What is your official job title or position in the organization?

2. On different levels, what valuable roles have you played in the team?

3. How important are these roles to you? Which one do you least want to lose, or which one you most want to be respected?

4. How do you think other major stakeholders will view your role and their importance? Is there a gap between your own feelings and their opinions?

5. What are the potentially destructive changes currently occurring?

6. How will these changes affect your most important role?

7. Will these effects change your mood? Will your ability to play an important role for the company be impaired?

8. Are there any coping methods? Do you need to adjust the way you perform your role to better adapt to changes in the environment? What specific tasks or key tasks will be involved in the adjustment?

9. Do you need to make a more thorough role change, get rid of the old setting, take on a new role, or adjust the importance of your current multiple roles?

In essence, Marianne’s answer to the above question is equivalent to doing a SWOT analysis of herself. The advantages, disadvantages, opportunities and threats in her current role are checked one by one, from which a set of action plans can be formed, which is convenient Marianne actively implements it.

Once people start to study their roles and how these roles shape their behavior (which determines which tasks they will focus on), they will understand the four preferences of people in the process of playing their own roles. Psychologically, we will try our best to reduce role ambiguity, role conflict and role overload, while increasing autonomy to make necessary adjustments. (There are many documents in this area, all of which belong to the category of self-determination theory.) If we cannot achieve the above goals, frustration will directly lead to negative emotional reactions. After intensively discussing the above issues with the team, everyone can usually come up with a set of feasible adjustment measures to make the role positioning clearer, more consistent, more controllable, and more autonomous.

How the team or individual conducts role analysis can be different, but the key is to make people clearly see conflicts that they did not realize. In other words, there are problems, and the parties do not know that they do not know. Once the problem of people’s consciousness is solved, it is half the battle. In personal transformation, role adjustment is an indispensable process. In organizational transformation, role adjustment is also the key. This transformation can be a digital transformation, which is exciting, but at the same time challenging; it can also be a return to the office reopened after the epidemic, with great expectations but also anxiety. Ignoring the role adjustment, it is a risk for the company and the individual.