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Employee Coping During Organizational Change

Employees are key players in executing organizational change initiatives. However, employees often feel great stress during these changes which may result in withdrawal from the organization through absenteeism and turnover. These actions can hinder change effectiveness and prove to be very costly to an organization, as the knowledge, skills, and abilities of their employees are lost, possibly to a competing organization. For these reasons it is important to evaluate the process by which employees appraise and handle organizational change so that steps can be taken to increase the likelihood that employees will remain committed to the organization throughout the change initiative.

How Employees Appraise Change

Often, employees will negatively appraise change, seeing it as a harm or threat to some aspect of their job. The harm is that the change has negatively affected an aspect of their work life (e.g., additional workload), and the threat is of something in their future being negatively affected (e.g., loss of job security). Many would describe feeling a sense of helplessness during these times.

Coping with Negative Appraisals?

Employees use control coping and escape coping as means of alleviating the stress related to their negative appraisal of the organizational change. Control coping occurs when an employee actively engages in the organizational change. For example, an employee who tries to see the change as a time to grow and develop is using a control coping strategy. Escape coping is avoiding or withdrawing from the change process and taking no action to influence it. For example, an employee is escape coping when he retreats from discussing the change and believes he is powerless in it. Both control and escape coping have important relationships with emotions in the workplace, in that control coping more often results in positive emotions whereas escape coping often results in negative emotions. It must be noted that both coping strategies can function to produce positive emotions. For example, an employee can be hopeful in the sense that she sees the change as a time to grow (control), or she can be hopeful in the sense that, in time, things will work themselves out (escape). Most detrimental to an organization is when employees use escape coping strategies that lead to negative emotions and associated work outcomes such as work withdrawal, abusing sick leave, and turnover.

What Can Managers Do?

The relationship between employees’ negative appraisals of organizational change and workplace outcomes is fully mediated by coping and emotions. This means negative appraisals lead to employee coping and emotions, which in turn cause either positive or negative work outcomes. Therefore, managing employees’ appraisals, coping strategies, and emotions is essential to reduce the negative workplace outcomes such as employee withdrawal, absenteeism, and turnover. Managers can impact employees’ appraisal of organizational change by:
  • Communicating organizational change information in a way that will reduce employee concerns about important job aspects (e.g., job security, job changes, reduced possibility for advancement)
  • Articulating a clear vision for the changes and delineating employee roles in the new changed environment allowing employees to clearly understand their new function
  • Giving employees a sense of influence and control by involving them in the change process
Managers should attempt to lessen withdrawal by acting as a role model and directly influencing employees’ likelihood to engage in escape coping and associated negative emotions. Managers may do this by:
  • Demonstrating more productive nonescape-oriented coping strategies (i.e., viewing the change as an opportunity for growth)
  • Answering questions and initiating discussions about the change initiative
  • Sharing their own concerns and experiences
In addition, managers should celebrate small victories throughout the change process. By building in these small victories, managers will yield more positive emotions in their employees, therefore reducing withdrawal, and possibly even increasing employee commitment.

Lexy Adkins


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Fugate, M., Kinicki, A. J., and Prussia, G. E. (2008). Employee coping with organizational change: An examination of alternative theoretical perspectives and models. Personnel Psychology, 61(1), 1-36.