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.
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.
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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.
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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).