Topic: Employee Communication Behavior and Organizational Change

Author(s), Title and Publication
Schwarz, G. M., Watson, B. M., & Callan, V. J. (2011). Talking up failure: How discourse can signal failure to change. Management Communication Quarterly, 25(2), 311-352.

This study explored how employees in different groups talked about technological change in their organization, and how their talks signaled the eventual failure of the change. Social identity theory and language and social psychological approaches were used as theoretical frameworks. Social identity theory contends that a person’s social membership or received influence from others is most salient in shaping the person’s behaviors. The language and social psychological approach emphasizes that the content and language used in interpersonal talks is a determinant of peoples’ social memberships. The study proposed that employees’ talks about the organizational varies according to their groups and may foreshadow subsequent failure of the change.

The organization under study is a large public training institution, which has three divisions: (1) governance–responsible for commissioning change; (2) planning–responsible for change implementation; and (3) education–responsible for training and educating the community. The technological change was implementation of an electronic document management system, which made all documents electronically accessible and storable. The system was introduced in 2003 and failed in 2006 because most employees bypassed or minimized use of the system. The authors interviewed 44 employees in 2003, and contacted and interviewed 11 of the 44 employees in 2006.

Employees in the different divisions were found to have different levels of comprehension of the change, as reflected in their talks. The governance group had a poor understanding, inadequate but broad information of the change, and rarely used the new system. They talked about the change in positive but uninformed ways. The planning group had a sweeping understanding, broad knowledge and information of the change, and used the new system relatively often. They talked about the change in positive ways. The education group had a limited understanding, inadequate knowledge, poor information about the change, and seldom used the system. They talked about the change in neutral and uninformed ways. Generally, though employees had positive attitudes towards the change and believed in the benefits of the change, they talked about it based on unrealistic expectations rather than data or experience, and did not express much interest in the change. In terms of failure, each group justified the outcome at group level and blamed other groups for the failure.

Implications for Practice
Organizations that implement changes may want to listen carefully to how employees talk about pending or new changes because their talks might indicate early signs of the outcome of the changes. Organizations may also want to use existing interpersonal networks to provide support for change. The creation of “listening posts” to capture concerns and issues also might be valuable.

Location of Article
The article is available online at: (abstract free, purchase full article)

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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