How Organizational Change Disrupts Our Sense of Self

Leaders can better manage large-scale transformation by helping employees adapt to new identities rather than new tasks.

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In a recent workshop, we assembled a group of managers involved in large-scale digital transformation initiatives in their various organizations. As part of the discussion, we first asked them how they would describe their roles in those change initiatives. By roles, we didn’t mean job titles — we did not need to know that someone was a chief technology officer or head of HR. As we had already clarified for our participants, we were looking for more archetypal roles, such as “problem solver,” “dealmaker,” “functional expert,” or “idea person.” Next, we asked them to imagine the digital transformation really taking hold and to name roles that would be most valuable in driving that success. And here was the interesting disconnect: For the most part, their answers to the two questions were different. Evidently, if these managers wanted to have a meaningful impact on their organizations’ futures, they would have to do some role adjustment.

This is the right challenge for managers to focus on right now, because we are heading into a period that will make unprecedented demands on organizations to navigate big transitions successfully. This is true because of the digital transformations so many of them have embarked on and because those changes have been accelerated by a year of pandemic lockdowns and remote work.

The problem is that even though managers know they have big transitions to navigate, most have sized up the management challenge all wrong. They are focusing almost wholly on the level of task change — on how job content will shift with the introduction of new technology, and how much reskilling will be required. This task-level change is essential, of course, and plenty hard to manage. But the good news about learning new tasks is that people expect that it will be necessary, and most can approach it with some confidence. They might not like having to master new processes and tools, but they’ve consciously done it before and know they can do it.

The real challenge going on in the midst of a major transition — the one that managers are overlooking — is the role-change threat. As hinted above, we’re using the term role in the same sense that sociologists and social psychologists do when they talk about role theory — the idea that individuals in groups gravitate to basic, commonly understood social roles, which in turn shape much of their decision-making and actions. A person who identifies as a “firebrand,” for example, proceeds to live up to that role by behaving in ways that, say, a “technocrat” simply does not. When people find themselves in the midst of major transitions — whether in work or in life — this is the harder level of adjustment to make, because most of them, despite conforming to roles they have, to a certain extent, chosen, are not doing so consciously. They haven’t thought about what it takes to change the role they are playing, because they don’t think of themselves as “playing” roles in the first place — and if the idea of shifting roles is presented to them, they don’t know that they can do it.

Navigating Role Disruption

To understand how role theory applies to workplaces, consider the example of Marianne, a senior accountant in a large veterinary hospital. As we write this, her office is reopening its doors to her and many of her colleagues who have been working remotely since March 2020. Eager for a return to her sociable wing and the comforting routines of life as it was, she is also anxious about the changed reality she might find on reentry. During a year of working at home, many new digital capabilities have been put in place, and many processes that were formerly exceptional or even “last resort” ways of working have become standard operating procedure. She senses that the digital transformation the company was talking about before the pandemic is about to make a great lurch forward.

Why does this prospect worry Marianne? The new system automates one of her tasks — compiling and distributing various reports. Although it promises to free her up to do higher-value tasks, it is not clear how she will go about identifying those higher-level ways to contribute and whether her CFO boss will know how to assess her performance on them. But a deeper issue is how this may affect her role among her colleagues: She is respected not only as an accounting whiz but as the veteran generalist on the team who really understands the business and its customers. She has also been appreciated as a giver — someone who generously helps colleagues — and as a source of positive, upbeat energy. Now those roles seem threatened. How can she lead others through a transformation that leaves her personally feeling uncertain of her ongoing worth and increasingly dispirited?

To distill Marianne’s case — which is, alas, all too typical — into a framework that could also help others, here is how we would describe what is going on. Major transitions cause personal disruption along three different dimensions: role adjustment, task learning, and emotional engagement.

Only one of them, the task-learning challenge, is usually acknowledged explicitly. Below that level, there is a second, emotional dimension. In fact, it shares a lot with the famous (if flawed) “stages of grief” model of dealing with loss. This classic model of a typical emotional journey, with its plunge into mourning followed by a climb to acceptance, is often recognized as a barrier to change but not taken seriously as a factor to be managed. And meanwhile, operating well beneath the surface of management attention is role disruption (and its accompanying roller coaster of emotions) — which, if it is not recognized and resolved, will undermine the progress someone is trying to make on the other fronts.

Role adjustment theory is not unknown to managerial thinking. It has previously been used to explain why some executives succeed in long-term postings to foreign territories while others succumb to severe culture shock. Research shows that expats manage this difficult transition better when they explicitly confront the role adjustments required by their changed surroundings.1 The theory has also been used to help high-level managers become more effective as they return from international assignments or as they rise in the corporate ranks.2 Usually, when someone struggles in the aftermath of a big promotion, it turns out they have not revised their understanding of the role the organization needs them to play. One CEO we know described how she had to consciously set aside her old role as expert functional leader — the smartest person in the room in her field — with a new role of learner, convener, and encourager of others whose diverse expertise she could never hope to replicate.

As that example implies, the need for role adjustment is also something that is often explicitly addressed in executive coaching to C-suite executives, whose promotion to the top leadership ranks usually brings tremendous pressure to produce leadership results along with an unnerving freedom in how to allocate personal time and attention. The wonderful thing about gaining role clarity — as in, “I am a team-builder now” or “I am a sustainability champion” (or, in Elon Musk’s case, “I am Tesla’s techno-king”) — is that the identified role then pulls into focus what tasks, old and new, deserve the executive’s personal attention.

Tackling Transitions at Scale

To the extent that there has been focus on role adjustment in an organization, it has usually been part of a high-touch counseling approach reserved for elite and exceptional cases of high-stakes transitions. Our contention now is that it has to be done for many more of the people facing substantial change in organizations — or, one might say, it must be done “at scale.” If organizations are going to weather the transitions to new digitally transformed futures, they cannot lose their Mariannes and hundreds of other key contributors outside the C-suite. That’s all the more true in the aftermath of the pandemic, which has rocked people’s emotions and put new pressures on roles, given the blurring of work and personal lives that has come with working from home.

This is why our workshop exercise with the managers — where they named their current roles versus the roles that would prove decisive — constituted a valuable step. Asking questions about roles explicitly brings the issue to the surface and helps managers make sense of why a proposed change at work can stir such internal resistance.3 By understanding that roles are socially constructed and dynamic, they can gain a fresh perspective on how different people contribute to a group’s success and can see that it is possible to make deliberate, positive changes. They begin to add the new skill of analyzing and adjusting the roles they are playing to their repertoire.

Bruce Feiler, in his recent bestseller Life Is in the Transitions, makes a similar point about navigating transitions outside the workplace. He lays out the central thesis of the book in a series of three statements: “The linear life is dead,” “The nonlinear life involves more life transitions,” and “Life transitions are a skill we can, and must, master.” Our own research would add a fourth statement: “Mastering transitions demands an awareness of the roles one is playing, and of the fact that they may need to change.”4

Using a technique called organizational role analysis, a team can gain exactly that awareness. This technique involves thinking about people’s engagement in their workplace from three perspectives: the roles they find themselves in, the organization’s stance toward that role, and the individual’s experience of that role. Our favored version of the analysis involves asking thought-provoking questions about each of these perspectives and about the dynamics created by their interplay.

Picture a session in which Marianne, for example, is guided to respond to a series of prompts:

  1. What is your formal job title or organizational position?
  2. On a different level, what are the valuable roles you play on your team?
  3. How important are these roles to you? Which would be most upsetting to lose or to have respected less?
  4. How do you think other key stakeholders perceive your roles and their importance? Is there a gap between your perceptions and theirs?
  5. What potentially disruptive change is happening?
  6. What impact do you anticipate it could have on your most important role(s)?
  7. How would that impact affect you emotionally and in terms of your ability to make an important contribution?
  8. What’s to be done? Do you need to adjust how you fulfill your role to fit the changed environment? What different tasks or priorities would that entail?
  9. Do you need to make a more fundamental role adjustment — stepping into a new role, retiring an old one, or assigning your various roles different relative importance?

Essentially, the answers Marianne comes up with amount to a kind of SWOT analysis, in which the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats inherent in her current set of roles are hauled out for explicit examination, leading to an action plan she can put energy into pursuing.

Once people start to explore the roles they play and how those roles shape their behavior — and therefore the tasks that they focus on — they can appreciate the four preferences we all have about the roles we play. Psychologically, we are always working to reduce role ambiguity, role conflicts, and role overload, and to gain more autonomy to make the needed adjustments. (There is a large literature related to this, under the banner of self-determination theory.5) If we cannot accomplish these objectives, our frustration leads directly to negative emotional responses. A focused discussion of these issues with a team typically generates a practical set of adjustments that can be made to make people’s roles clearer, more aligned, more manageable, and more autonomous.

The details of how a team or individual engages with role analysis can vary, but the point is that opening people’s eyes to this realm of conflict they were not consciously engaging with — revealing the problem they didn’t know they didn’t know about — is more than half the battle. Role adjustment is the essential process for navigating transitions on a personal level. Therefore, it is the key to navigating transitions at the organizational level, whether the transition in question is an exciting but daunting digital transformation or a welcome but anxious reentry into a post-pandemic office. Ignore it at your peril.

Topics

Frontiers

An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
More in this series

References

1. M.A. Shaffer, B.S. Reiche, M. Dimitrova, et al., “Work- and Family-Role Adjustment of Different Types of Global Professionals: Scale Development and Validation,” Journal of International Business Studies 47, no. 2 (February 2016): 113-139.

2. J.S. Black and H.B. Gregersen, “The Right Way to Manage Expats,” in “On Managing Across Cultures” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2016), 139-153.

3. H. Gregersen, “Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life” (New York: Harper Business, 2018).

4. T. Kobe and R. Lehman, “Return on Experience” (Novato, California: ORO Editions, 2021).

5. R.M. Ryan and E.L. Deci, “Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness” (New York: Guilford Press, 2017).

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Comment (1)
Maria Hernandez
An excellent article that shows how organizational role analysis can be applied in today's global context with a high impact on individual and group performance at work.