Writtle University College and ARU have merged. Writtle’s full range of college, degree, postgraduate and short courses will still be delivered on the Writtle campus. See our guide to finding Writtle information on this site.

‘Spinning’ workplace change is counterproductive

Published: 5 March 2018 at 11:00

People stood next to an office watercooler

Study finds workers likely to see through employers’ attempts at “sweet talk”

Workers are likely to see through employers who try to spin the positives of workplace change, according to a study published in the journal Organization Studies.

The research, by Anglia Ruskin University and Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, found that employers who attempt to “sweet talk” employees into embracing unwanted change were likely to be met with resistance, whether it be direct or indirect, by their workers.

The study examined worker behaviours in a large European governmental department, which was going through a period of organisational change. Researchers found they displayed two forms of resistance to change: “frontstage”, where there was open dissent but a reluctant compliance, and “backstage”, where employees appeared to comply with the proposed changes but used subtle methods like watercooler gossip, foot-dragging and feigning productivity to resist the change.

As employers used different methods such as pep talks, presentations and telling success stories to try and persuade employees to adopt the changes, low-level employees and middle managers appeared keen to show an outward acceptance. 

However, in confidential conversations with colleagues, they questioned the necessity and desirability of the changes and spoke of feeling dispirited, sceptical or disgruntled.

This impression of co-operation allowed employees to fly under managers’ radar to preserve an autonomy in their day-to-day work, and also gave them a sense of self-importance, allowing the workers to frame themselves as those who really knew what was best for the organisation.

Lead author Sierk Ybema, Professor of Organisation Studies at Anglia Ruskin University, said: 

“This study suggests that management’s benign appearance and harsh practices come to be mirrored in the staff’s response – an equally ambiguous mixture of apparent compliance and hidden resistance.

“Open dissent to change can sometimes seem like empty posturing and could have repercussions for the workers in question.

“But sweet talk meets with sweet talk when staff welcome change efforts with a smile, paying lip service to its intentions and appearing to act compliantly. Meanwhile, under the radar, members manage to stall the process through lassitude, cynicism, mockery, gossip, and critique, leaving managers to wonder why change does not get off the ground.”