Reactive Vs Proactive Change 119
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Workplace change occurs rapidly and often in many businesses. This change may take place in order to respond to a new opportunity or to avoid a threat to the company. Regardless of the reason, change can be difficult for all involved; managers and employees face new challenges with change, and managers must learn to ease the difficulty of the transition. One of the major issues associated with managing change is reactive versus proactive responses to change. This entry will discuss proactive and reactive responses to change, the major models of organizational change, and the responsibilities of change managers with special emphasis on the roles of transitional management teams and change agents.


Proactive change involves actively attempting to make alterations to the work place and its practices. Companies that take a proactive approach to change are often trying to avoid a potential future threat or to capitalize on a potential future opportunity. Reactive change occurs when an organization makes changes in its practices after some threat or opportunity has already occurred. As an example of the difference, assume that a hotel executive learns about the increase in the number of Americans who want to travel with their pets. The hotel executive creates a plan to reserve certain rooms in many hotel locations for travelers with pets and to advertise this new amenity, even before travelers begin asking about such accommodations. This would be a proactive response to change because it was made in anticipation of customer demand. However, a reactive approach to change would occur if hotel executives had waited to enact such a change until many hotel managers had received repeated requests from guests to accommodate their pets and were denied rooms.


There are a number of theoretical models of change. Each attempts to describe the process through which organizations successfully alter their business practices, their organizational structure, or their organizational climate. The models of change which will be discusses in this section are summarized in Exhibit 1.


In the late 1940s social psychologist Kurt Lewin developed a three-step model for implementing change based on the concept of force field analysis. Force field analysis addresses the driving and resisting forces in a change situation. Driving forces must outweigh resisting forces in a situation if change is to occur. Thus, managers must be willing to advocate change strongly in order to overcome resistance from employees.

There are three steps in Lewin's model. The first step is "unfreezing," which involves dismantling those

Exhibit 1 Models of Change
Exhibit 1
Models of Change

Model/Approach Summary
Lewin's three-step model Old activities must be unfrozen, a new concept introduced, then new activities must be frozen
Bullock and Batten's planned change Exploration, planning, action, and integration
Kotter's eight steps Establish a sense of urgency, form a powerful guiding coalition, create a vision, communicate the vision, empower others to act on the vision, plan for and create short-term wins, consolidate improvements and produce still more change, institutionalize new approaches
Beckhard and Harris's change formula C = [ABD] > X,
Where C = change, A = level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, B = Desirability of the proposed change or end state, D = practicality of the change, and X = cost of changing
Nadler and Tushman's congruence model Organization is a system that draws inputs from internal and external sources and transforms them into outputs through four components: the work itself, the people, the informal organization, and the formal organization
Bridges's managing the transition Transition, which differs from change, consists of three phases: ending, neutral zone, and new beginning
Carnall's change management model Change depends on level of management skills in managing transitions effectively, dealing with organizational cultures, and managing organizational politics
Senge et al.'s systematic model Start small; grow steadily; don't plan everything; expect challenges
Stacey and Shaw's complex responsive process Change emerges naturally from communication and conflict; and mangers are a part of the whole environment

things that support or maintain the previous behavior. In an organization, these elements of the old could be the compensation system or the approach to performance management. In the second step, the organization "presents a new alternative." This means introducing a clear and appealing option for a new pattern of behavior. The final step in this model is "freezing" which requires that changed behavior be reinforced both formally and informally in the organization. It is in this step that managers can have a great amount of influence through their use of positive reinforcement.

Lewin's model does not explicitly state the notion that simply introducing change will result in the change being adopted or being sustained over the long run. If an attempt to create change in the organization is unsuccessful, it means that there is a problem in one of the three steps in the model.


R.J. Bullock and D. Batten derived their ideas from project management and they recommend using exploration, planning, action, and integration for planned change. Exploration occurs when managers confirm the need for change and secure resources needed for it. These resources may be physical or they may be mental, such as managers' expertise. The next step, planning, occurs when key decision makers and experts create a change plan that they then review and approve. Next, action occurs with enactment of the plan. There should be opportunities for feedback during the action phase. Finally, integration begins when all actions in the change plan have taken place. Integration occurs when the changes have been aligned with the organization and there is some degree of formalization, such as through policies and procedures in the organization.


John P. Kotter identified eight steps every organization must follow in order to reap long-term benefits from organizational change: establish a sense of urgency; form a powerful guiding coalition; create a vision and strategy; communicate the vision; empower others to act on the vision; generate short-term wins; consolidate improvements and produce still more change; and institutionalize the new approach (i.e., make it a part of the organizational culture).

The first step, establishing a sense of urgency, involves selling the need for change to managers and employees. Kotter recommends creating a "felt-need" for change in others. The second step is for managers to create a powerful group of people who can work together to enact change. Their power will be a driving force in encourages others to adopt change. Third, the organization must have a vision that will guide the entirety of the change effort, and this vision must be communicated repeatedly (step four)—as much as ten times as often as one would expect to.

Steps five through eight occur after the sense of urgency is created, and these steps are easier to delegate or decentralize. In step five, others in the organization are empowered to act on the vision. Managers should assist in this process by eliminating barriers such as old systems or structures. Step six asks managers to plan for and to create short-term wins. This means that small improvements should be recognized and celebrated publicly. In step seven, the current improvements are built upon with new projects and resources. Finally, in step eight, the new approaches should be institutionalized; that is, they should become a routine path to organizational success.


The change formula is a mathematical representation of the change process (see Exhibit 1). The basic notion is that, for change to occur, the costs of change ( X ) must be outweighed by dissatisfaction with the status quo ( A ), the desirability of the proposed change ( B ), and the practicality of the change ( D ). There will be resistance to change if people are not dissatisfied with the current state of the organization ( A ), or if the changes are not seen as an improvement ( B ), if the change cannot be done in a feasible way ( D ), or the cost is far too high ( X ).

This formula can also be conceptualized as ( A × B × D ) > X. The multiplicative nature of this formula indicates that if any variable is zero or near zero, resistance to change will not be overcome. In other words, the variables of A, B, and D do not compensate for one another, and when one is very low, the cost of change is likely to be too high.


Nadler and Tushman's model presents the dynamics of what occurs in an organization when we try to change it. The foundation of this model is that of the organization as an open system, in which organizational subsystems are influence by the external environment. The organizational system draws inputs from internal and external sources—such as the organization's own strategy, its resources, and its environment—and transforms them into outputs, such as behavior and performance. This transformation from inputs to outputs occurs through four organizational elements: the work, the people, and the formal and informal organization. The work involves the daily activities carried out by individuals in the organization. The skills and capabilities of the people involved in the organization are critical. The formal organization is characterized by its structure, its standard procedures, and its policies. The informal organization encompasses things such as norms, values, and political behavior.

In this model, effective change occurs when all four components (work, people, formal, and informal organization) are managed, because they are all interrelated. A change in the work procedures themselves may not be effective if the people do not have the capabilities to engage in the new practices. A change to the formal organization may not be effective if the beliefs and values of people (i.e., the informal organization) do not support it. If there is a lack of congruence among these four elements, then there is resistance to change. Furthermore, there may be control issues in which there is confusion over who regulates the new structures and processes. Finally, power problems may occur as managers and employees feel threatened that their current power may be removed by the change.


William Bridges distinguished planned change from transition. He believes that transition is more complex because it requires abandoning old practices and adopting new behaviors or ways of thinking, whereas planned change is about changing physical locations or organizational structures. Bridges believes that transition often lags behind planned change because it is more complex and more difficult to achieve. Because it is psychological, it is harder to manage.

Bridges describes three phases of transition: ending, neutral zone, and new beginning. Ending is similar to Lewin's concept of unfreezing in that you must end a current situation before you can begin something new. So, in this phase, old structures, practices, and behaviors must be stopped. Ideally, this ending can be commemorated or marked in some way. In the second phase, the neutral zone, the old practices have been stopped, but new ones have not yet been adopted. In this phase, many employees will feel disoriented and anxious; nevertheless, it may be a time in which creativity rises. Finally, new beginnings are not planned and predicted, but must evolve as organizational members psychologically adjust to transition. Managers can encourage, support, and reinforce these new beginnings. Bridges recommends that four key elements be communicated to people during a new beginning: the purpose behind the change; a picture of how the organization will be after the change; a step-by-step plan to get to that stage; and the part they can play in that outcome.


Carnall's view of change is focused on managers and the skills they can use to manage change. Carnall describes three skills that must be present at all levels of management: (1) managing transitions effectively; (2) dealing with organizational cultures; and (3) managing organizational politics. Managing transitions involves helping employees learn as they change and supporting a culture of openness and risk-taking. Managing organizational cultures involves creating a "more adaptable culture." This is an organizational culture in which people are more open, there is greater information flow, and perhaps greater autonomy. Finally, to manage organizational politics, the manager should recognize and understand different organizational groups and their political agendas. The manager should be able to build coalitions and control the agenda through his or her political skill.


Senge and colleagues encourage managers to think like biologists when approaching organizational change. That is, to better understand how organizations react to change, one should view them as systems bound by many interrelated actions that may affect each other over a long period of time. To enact change, Senge et al recommend that managers start small, grow steadily, do not plan the whole thing, and expect challenges. Furthermore, Senge et al offer a number of issues related to the challenges of first initiating change, then sustaining that change, and finally redesigning and rethinking change.


In both proactive and reactive responses to change and in every model of change, one element remains the same: the need for change managers. There are different types of change managers and their roles encompass a variety of duties. Managers may have responsibility for change that is not ever formally dictated or outlined, or a person or group may be specifically chosen to enact or facilitate change. Described below are two formal ways in which change managers can be identified: transition management teams and change agents. Some responsibilities of change managers are then described.


In some organizations that are experiencing change, a specific group of managers is chosen to coordinate change through-out an organization. This transition management team typically consists of eight to twelve people whose full-time responsibilities are to manage and facilitate the change process in the organization. Transition management teams are responsible not only for the structural and procedural changes that occur, but also for managing emotions and resistance to change. These teams typically report to the chief executive officer of the company on a regular basis.

Transition management teams do the day-to-day work involved in change management, and they are not simply another layer of management between top management and line employees. Furthermore, they are not the planning committee; these teams do not develop the plans for the change, they only facilitate the change that is being enacted. Neither are they responsible for determining when and where change is needed, or how it will be brought about. Instead, they manage changes that have been identified and implemented by upper management. Finally, these teams are not permanent. They exist only while the organization is in flux, and they are dissolved once the company has successfully changed.


A change agent is one person who is formally in charge of guiding a change effort. The change agent is typically a part of organizational development, which is a set of planned change interventions intended to improve a company's long-term performance and survival. A change agent may be appointed from within the ranks of current company managers, or the agent may be an outside consultant who is brought in during the period of change. Unlike the transition management team, which only facilitates a change that has been identified and planned by others, the change agent is involved in all steps of organizational change. The agent helps to clarify problems, gather relevant information, assist managers in creating a plan, evaluate the plan's effectiveness, and implement the plan. After change has been successfully enacted, the change agent either returns to his or her normal duties (if this person is from within the organization), or ends his or her work with the company (if this person is a consultant).

There are advantages and disadvantages to choosing either an organizational member or an outside consultant to be a change agent. Outside consultants can be more costly and there is a greater risk for trade secrets to be leaked. Additionally, the consultant is unlikely to have the knowledge of the organization that an employee has, nor is this person likely to be trusted by others in the organization, as they would trust one of their own organizational members. However, consultants do have a more unbiased view of the organization and its problems. They may also bring more innovative or creative ideas to the company. Finally, they may be used as a scapegoat when change is implemented. That is, the negative emotions of organizational members may be directed towards the outsider rather than at the company's management, which may make for a smoother transition during the change process.


Change managers are responsible for garnering support for change and overcoming resistance to change. There are ten techniques that change managers can use to accomplish this:

  1. Plan well. Appropriate time and effort must go into planning change before implementation begins.
  2. Allow for discussion and negotiation. Employees must have some input into the changes. This two-way communication can help reduce employee concerns.
  3. Allow for participation. If employees participate in changes that affect them, they are more likely to support those changes.
  4. Emphasize the financial benefits. If employees can earn higher compensation through organizational change, telling them about this possibility will help to increase support for the change.
  5. Avoid too much change. Employees can only handle a certain amount of change before there are negative repercussions from stress, so changes should be introduced slowly and over time.
  6. Gain political support. For change to be successful, certain key employees (those with informal power in the organization) must support it.
  7. Let employees see successful change. Employees will be more willing to support change if they see that it has worked successfully in other companies or other areas of their company.
  8. Reduce uncertainty. Uncertainty about the change effort can cause negative emotions and actions, and any information that change managers can give to reduce uncertainty can reduce resistance to change.
  9. Ask questions to involve workers. Change managers should ask workers questions that move them toward a goal or objective or that reinforce positive accomplishments.
  10. Build strong working relationships. Better working relationships in general will aid in change management; trust and mutual respect are critical elements of good working relationships.

Managing change can be a reactive or a proactive process, and there are a number of different models of organizational change. Each model emphasizes different approaches to understanding and managing change. In many of these models, the role of the change manager is emphasized. The change manager may be a part of a transitional management team or may be a change agent. This person facilitates the changes to the organization and is often a critical element in the success or failure of the change.

SEE ALSO: Managing Change ; Organizational Development ; Trends in Organizational Change

Marcia J. Simmering


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