Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 242
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Emotional Balancing

New research reveals the emotional needs of two groups that must be met for rapid change to occur.

What do car racing and drug research have in common?

In car racing, the extreme conditions of driving 150 Mph for sustained periods causes the weak spots in a car's design to emerge, causing failure. In drug research, large doses, given to laboratory animals, reveal ways the drug will cause disease or organ failure.

In both cases, the common element is careful observation during extreme conditions.

Quy Nguyen Huy, of INSEAD, recently completed a management study taking advantage of this principle.

Huy discovered a large, service providing company that suddenly found itself facing foreign competition for its core businesses. Deregulation had created the opening, and the company realized it could not survive without drastic, rapid change.

The company launched a reorganization that included downsizing, consolidation, and the rapid development of new projects that would trim costs and add new capabilities in their services. It was an effort to transform the company with survival hanging in the balance.

Huy selected ten of these change projects and spent three years watching what happened, and plenty happened. Huy saw failure and success, heartache and frustration, and he learned lessons all of us can use in managing our people in difficult business conditions. The most important lessons involved emotions.

In times of stress and rapid change, two groups develop urgent emotional needs that must be met. If they are not, change doesn't happen.

The first group are the managers and supervisors whose ideas for change have caught the attention and the blessing of executives. Much has been written about the role of executives in guiding change, but Huy observed in this company that managers and supervisors were the source of improvement ideas, and they were the ones charged with the responsibility to implement these ideas.

Doing so takes an emotional toll.

Managers who strive to implement change must possess enthusiasm and drive in the face of resistance, indifference, frustration, and unexpected events. Their energy must infect others who then depend upon managers not to let them down. Change takes time.

In successful change projects, managers recognized their own emotional needs and came together to support each other. This support helped prevent the erosion of their energy. They celebrated milestones together. They reminded each other of their wish to achieve, of the new capabilities they were learning, and of their need to focus on controllable portions of their jobs. But when the managers' commitment wavered, their change projects stopped dead. Inertia killed them.

A second group of people with urgent emotional needs are the employees affected by change . . . the survivors who must move their families, lose friends, abandon tasks they enjoyed, and embrace new tasks associated with the change. They also have to keep working on the day-to-day tasks that keep the business alive. If they stop, chaos results.

In successful change projects, Huy found that managers addressed these emotional needs. They met with employees individually and in small groups and encouraged them to voice their concerns. Managers listened empathically and they used company resources to ease the impact of change when they could. They organized mourning sessions of cherished values that were no longer appropriate, and they praised values that were needed.

Huy recognized the emotional needs of these two groups, and he also found a balancing among managers to meet these needs. Some managers dynamically pushed change. Others listened empathically to distressed employees. Few managers could do both.

Huy calls this emotional balancing, and he believes his observations in this study demonstrate its value in helping businesses adapt in changing conditions. He recommends that we cultivate both skills in our managers and supervisors.

Reference: Huy, Quy Nguyen (2002) Emotional Balancing of Organizational Continuity and Radical Chance: the Contribution of Middle Managers. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47 (1), 31-69.

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