This summary is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center


Understanding employees’ reactions to change is critical for successful change management, as these reactions can have a profound impact on individual and organizational outcomes. During a planned organizational change, change agents (individuals who make an effort to improve a system’s functioning) consciously communicate change-related information with change recipients (individuals affected by a change.) This study aimed to answer which communicative behaviors of change agents can foster positive reactions by change recipients and explored the mechanism of these effects.

The researchers argued that change agents who follow the autonomy-restrictive communication approach (i.e., using threats and rational logic to “press” for a behavior change) would reduce change readiness. In contrast, those who adopt reflective listening (i.e., seeking to understand what another person is feeling or trying to express by feeding one’s own understanding back to the sender for verification) and an autonomy-supportive communication approach (i.e., providing choice, acknowledging employees’ perspectives, and encouraging personal initiatives) would promote change readiness. Researchers also posited that autonomy-supportive communication compared to autonomy-restrictive communication, could fulfill change recipients’ psychological needs for autonomy, relevance, and competence, thus leading to positive responses to change.


The authors applied a multi-method approach in which they coded the conversations between change agents and change recipients (Study 1), conducted an online experiment to test the impact of change communication (Study 2), and designed a scenario to reveal how change agents respond to negative responses to change (Study 3).

In Study 1, an undergraduate student sample of 95 interactions between change agents and change recipients were collected. Change agents attended a university training on “communication and motivation” open to students from all disciplines. Study 2 analyzed 101 working professionals who were recruited through Mechanical Turk (MTurk). In Study 3, 68 change agents working in organizations were recruited.

Key Findings

-Autonomy-restrictive communication behaviors such as coercion, argumentation, and persuasion led to recipient psychological reactance and counter-arguing rather than change.

-Despite the negative effect, change agents were more likely to use autonomy-restrictive language than supportive language when confronted with resistance to change.

   -Thus, change recipients are not passive respondents. Their resistance also affects change agents’ reactions.

-Autonomy-supportive communication addresses recipients’ basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness during an organizational transformation. Therefore, this type of communication enables change agents to elicit recipients’ positive reactions to change.

Implications for practice

Companies and change agents facing change resistance should 1) avoid autonomy-restrictive communication behaviors such as persuasion, coercion, or threats, and 2) implement autonomy-supportive communication behaviors such as providing choice and offering encouragement to satisfy employees’ psychological needs.


Endrejat, P. C., Klonek, F. E., Müller-Frommeyer, L. C., & Kauffeld, S. (in press). Turning change resistance into readiness: How change agents’ communication shapes recipient reactions. European Management Journal.

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