The Temporal Sensitivity of Enforced Accelerated Work Pace: A grounded theory building approach

Graham John James Kenealy, BA (Hons), Ph.D. Candidate &
Susan Cartwright, Ph.D., MSc., BA, CPsychol

Abstract

This research explores how a large national UK government
organisation copes with radical structural change over time and
provides an insight into the temporal effects of ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’ on behaviour and receptivity within an
organisational context. The stages of ‘Acceptance’, ‘Reaction’ and
‘Withdrawal’ capture the essence of the ‘Coping Reflex Actions
relating to Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’, all sensitive to the
effects of time. ‘Temporal Sensitivity’; the duration of the changes
to work patterns played a large part in the behavioural
responses. The underlying logic of this research is grounded
theory building, a general method that works well with
qualitative data collection approaches and involves inducting
insights from field based, case data (Glaser, 1998). A methodology
discovered and developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967), negating
all others.

Keywords: Organisational Change, Organisational Behaviour,
Accelerated Work Pace, Change Fatigue.

Introduction

Change justification and content are well researched, well
rehearsed and very well accepted but the temporal and
situational aspects of change have largely been ignored by the
researchers of the past. Furthermore, there is a distinct absence
of strong social science theorising about change receptivity linked
to the pace and rate of change, a view well documented by
Pettigrew et al., (2001). Whilst the nature of organisational
change has generally been acknowledged as dynamic, empirical
studies have approached it largely in a static way. Researchers
have frequently used comparative cross-sectional ‘snap-shot’
methods to understand organisational change. Even when
granularity of time scales are introduced where different time
frames reveal different things, change itself remains
conceptualised as static and the same cross sectional ‘snap-shot’
method employed. In simple terms, change has been
conceptualised in terms of structure rather than action; the
emphasis has been on ‘change’ rather than ‘changing’ (Weick and
Quinn, 1999; Amis et al., 2004). More recent research has also
identified the lack of temporal sensitivity of past research into
organisational change dynamics and has concluded that in
complete contrast to the single snapshot methods historically
adopted by researchers that temporality is an essential integral
feature of organisational behaviour and as such should not be
treated implicitly (Avital, 2000; Pettigrew et al., 2001).

Pacing and receptivity are analytically interdependent and
alignable (Pettigrew et al., 2001) and there is no doubt that
research into the pace of organisational change is important to
revealing more about the dynamics of radical change programmes
and that there is an obvious shortage of empirical research in this
area with obvious gaps in the literature as a consequence
(Pettigrew et al., 2001; Amis et al., 2004).

The Research Setting

The subject organisation is The Environment Agency (EA), a
UK government organisation responsible for pollution control,
regulation and improving the environment. Employing over
11,000 staff with an annual budget of £650 million the EA is
spread across eight regions of England and Wales namely:
Southern Region, Thames Region, South West Region, Midlands
Region, Anglian Region, North West Region, North East Region
and Wales.

Methodology

Grounded theory building was chosen over all other methods
because of the project focus, that of looking at rarely explored
phenomenon for which extant theory did not appear to be
appropriate. In such situations, a grounded theory building
approach is more likely to generate novel and accurate insights
into the phenomenon under study rather than reliance on either
past research or office bound thought experiments (Glaser and
Strauss, 1967).

The primary instrument of data collection was the
unstructured interview, designed to elicit open-ended description
of what is happening in terms of change behaviour, all supported
by the interviewers own observations. Informal observations,
impressions and comments at each visit, particularly at informal
meeting points such as lunchtime and coffee breaks were
recorded in the form of hand written notes.

Purposive sampling initially recruited 24 participants. The
participants were identified as those being subjected to the
greatest levels of change and were chosen from a group of
individuals who had recently been identified in a parallel, nonrelated
study. The researcher conducted interviews during
several site visits at four area offices. Other data used to ground
the theory included data derived from past research which was
conducted recently at the organisation, investigating
organisational performance, attitudes and beliefs. Category
refinement provided more depth in specific areas leading to the
process of theoretical sampling. Theoretical sampling triggered a
further 40 interviews continuing the process of abstraction and
integration to the point of saturation.

The interviews were not taped but unobtrusive
contemporaneous notes were taken, as suggested by Glaser and
Strauss (1998). Field notes were generated immediately after the
interview to underpin the basic notes generated in the interview
itself. The notes were transcribed and subsequently coded. This
time the data collected and the subsequent coding were more
selective, allowing integration and abstraction to develop freely
without the incumbency of non-relevance. A number of the
respondents were interviewed again three months after their first
interview and again three months after that. The purpose was to
see if time had affected the respondent’s perception of the change
process; focusing on the main themes that had emerged in their
first interviews.

The Coping Reflex Stages of Enforced Accelerated
Work Pace

In this section there is a detailed account of the grounded
theory analysis, focusing on the key categories and their
underlying concepts and relationships, ultimately leading
discussions onto theoretical conceptualisation of ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’ and the dynamics of ‘Temporal
Sensitivity’.

Despite the number of themes that emerged at the start of
the substantive coding process, as the incidents were compared
and theoretical coding took over, it became clear that the main
concerns amongst the EA staff was that of increased workloads
and an increase in weekly working hours. Respondents
continually cited this as the main hurdle that stood between them
enjoying work and just, as they saw it turning up for work and
going through the motions without real interest or commitment.
Theoretical sensitivity led to the researcher hypothesising that
the main problem in reality was the aggressive nature in which
work pace was continually accelerated, leaving participants with
the sense that they have no choice; either increase weekly hours
or fall behind and run the risk of standing out as being incapable
or even incompetent. The important factor here was that the
increase in the working week in respect of contributed hours was
perceived as being obligatory; enforced upon them rather than
volunteered making more to become sensitised to contributing
more than their contractual obligations. ‘Enforced Accelerated
Work Pace’ embodies the quintessential meaning of the emergent
problem. Identifying the problem in this way, drawing on all of its
properties, linked to how participant’s actions and behaviour
handle and cope with the problem form the basis for theory
development.

The Problem

The impact an organisation can exert on its members
depends heavily on the importance of its goals, the demands put
on the individual, and on the sanctions and rewards. ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’ is the term used in this paper to describe
changes to work patterns. It connotes a change to participant
attitudes and beliefs as a consequence of the changes to work
pace during the implementation phase compared to that of the
pre-change period. It also relates particularly to the strength of
the pressure exerted on individuals, within the organisation to
keep up with the change process. This is not always easy, radical
change implies that everyone within the organisation will be
affected by the change programme to the same degree; in reality
it affects some areas of the organisation more than others. The
human resource department for example suffered very little
change compared to those in the regional area teams. The
Information Technology (IT) department found that they were in
a continual flux of change because of technological improvements
and advances synonymous with their profession. This is not
unusual, other researchers have identified in their research that
they found incremental change in some parts of the organisation
and radical change in others (Child and Smith, 1987; Pettigrew et
al., 1994).

Identified as the main concern amongst participants,
‘Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’ was deemed sensitive to the
effects of time. The temporal sensitivity relates closely to how the
individuals resolve the problem. The core variable; the way
individuals resolve their problems shifted, dependent upon the
temporal stages of the change process. The temporal effects of
this condition emerged with very specific behaviour patterns
formed by the way that participants manage or cope with the
condition. These patterns can be broken down to three very
specific, demonstrable stages and will be discussed in detail.

The Coping Reflex Stages

Coping reflex stages of ‘Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’
captures the essence of the three stage response behaviour that
emerged in the substantive area. The term reflex creates a vision
that some of the actions occur subconsciously; an involuntary
response to events that ensures the individuals survival within
the organisation as well as maintaining their own psychological
wellbeing. The term sets the action apart from one that is
calculated and deliberate to cope with a situation that is
unnatural; being forced, due to circumstance, to work at a pace
beyond one’s ability. The three very distinct behaviour patterns
referred to above are all sensitive to the effects of time on
receptivity. The first stage was that of ‘Acceptance’ leading onto
the ‘Reactive’ stage and ultimately to ‘Withdrawal’. The diagram
below provides a visual of the theoretical connections. The
substance of the connections in the theory is written in the
subsequent body of text.

Figure 1 (below) shows all the stages that were identified
during the course of the research. Shown as a linear schema it
suggests that there is a linear order to the sequence of events in
relation to time. This would certainly appear to be the case (albeit
the sequences should not be considered uni-directional). It’s
important to point out that not all respondents progressed
through every stage of the model. Some only progressed to the
first or second stage; some passed the early stages at break neck
speed creating the impression of entering the sequence at later
stages, missing out some of the earlier behaviour traits, whilst
others undoubtedly progressed through every single stage at a
much slower pace. It’s equally important to point out that whilst
some respondents had reached the middle stages of the schema
the data suggests that some actually reverted back to the
preceding stages over the course of the research.

Figure 1 Response Stages of Enforced Accelerated Work Pace
[please see the PDF version for figure]

This reverse trend was indeed attributed to the participant’s
perceived reduction in workload and consequential work pace
that occurred at the time of the reversal. The emphasis here is
that the model should be interpreted as bi-directional rather than
single direction. The movement and duration between one stage
and another is dependent upon the amount of pressure exerted
and the time-frame over which it was exerted. Suffice to say,
behaviour traits changed at different rates for different
individuals, dependent upon individual resistance and tolerances
to the levels of pressure, workload and change. Nevertheless the
model identifies all the stages encountered in this research; it
shows the complete life cycle in terms of the behaviour that was
displayed by individuals faced with enforced accelerated work. It
is important to note that the problem is not inextricably linked to
change but rather the pace of work that came out of the change
process. It has been linked in this instance to change because of
the extra work and time pressure that radical change invariably
brings. It is believed that the coping reflex stages of accelerated
work pace is a reaction that could result from any project that has
tight time constraints without adequate resources to do the work
in the specified time frame; a trend that is only too common in
modern organisations today (Kodz et al., 2002; Bird, 2004).

The first stage of this theoretical framework is not exclusive
to this research. The acceptance stage assumes that the stages of
resistance, normally associated with major change (Coch and
French, 1948; Scott and Jaffe, 1988; Beer et al., 1990; Kotter,
1995) have been overcome and participants are more willing to
accept that it will happen irrespective of their negative stance or
objections. However the greater the pressures of ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’ are placed on individuals the greater the
possibility of a negative reaction, particularly when the pressures
are sustained over longer periods. The dynamics appear to be
complex with a large number of contributing factors; the amount
of pressure exerted, the duration of the pressure exerted, the
individual’s susceptibility to increased pressure and external
factors that may be being exerted on the individual such as the
effects from their home life. Nevertheless this research showed
that most individuals when faced with situations of ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’ will indeed reach a point that will result
in a reaction in one form or another. For some this ‘Reactive
Stage’ simply entailed complaining to colleagues and friends or
even discussing the problem with line managers or team leaders.
For others though, it meant applying themselves even harder to
the task at hand, in an attempt to reach their self-imposed aims
and objectives sooner ultimately to return to the steady state of
equilibrium. By way of self preservation, the strongest reaction
by far was that of complete withdrawal; completely withdrawing
voluntary support for the change altogether and imposing a work
to rule mentality. For most this regress point (termed the
Adverse Impact Threshold) occurred as the organisation forced
further increases in work pace at the point when the individual is
already demonstrating behaviour that is consistent with the
latter stages of the reactive phase. This excessive pressure,
workload and pace combined with the element of time forces
withdrawal, causing individuals to reduce their working week
back to contracted hours. Strangely enough, for a large proportion
of those who reach withdrawal, there is another step. A short
break from excessive hours showed some reversal to the
withdrawal trend. Not back to the reactive stage as expected.
This research showed that they were still in fact contributing
high levels of additional hours. This denial was justified in their
minds because the extra time was not recorded on their official
time keeping records, it was work conducted mostly at home.
Further justification was given as the type of work that was
carried out at home i.e. reading or planning (classed in their eyes
as ‘not being real work’)

The Figure above can be expanded further to show not only
the behavioural effects (process stages), of the ‘Temporal
Sensitivity’ of ‘Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’ but also their
unique properties, the sub-categories that have emerged under
the main category during the course of the investigation. This
results in a three stage, two-tiered model.

Figure 2 Stages and Categories of Enforced Accelerated Work
Pace [please see the PDF version for figure]

Each of the three stages comprise of two contributing
subcategory. Each category relates to the response behavioural
patterns that emerged in the participants’ stories, all sensitive to
the levels and duration of accelerated work pace.

Acceptance Stage

The properties of (a) Reluctance and (b) Adaptive Processing
are integral to the Acceptance Stage. Both properties are
sensitive to the effects of workload, work pace and time.

Reluctance – This was the initial coping behaviour that came
out of ‘Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’, in this case it was the
result of a radical change programme. The coping reflex stage
identified here as reluctance symbolises the actor’s reluctance to
move forward too quickly without having sufficient time to adapt
and fully accept the inevitability. It has been well documented
(Scott and Jaffe, 1988; Rashford and Coghlan, 1989; Clarke, 1994;
Nortier, 1995) that some individuals faced with change often go
through a traumatic process of shock then denial before
acknowledgment and acceptance. It has also become expected
that change will be met with resistance. Fundamental change, in
whatever form often triggers intense emotion (Bartunek, 1984)
which in turn will affect how different groups interpret a
proposed change and how they behave as a consequence.

In complete contrast this initiative saw an array of cognitive
coping strategies; coping reflex stages that helped individuals to
manage the change. The stimulation and motivation to accept or
block change can come from a number of sources. Participants
consider the impact of change on their working life as well as how
it could affect their personal life, away from work, before they are
satisfied that the change is right for them. Therefore change
stimulus functions, that is, what occurs psychologically in
response to a change stimulus (positive or negative) is
fundamental to shaping attitudes and core beliefs. The most
dominant change stimulus effecting participant attitudes and
beliefs so early on in the process was that of ‘Historical
Grounding’ and ‘Social Positioning’.

Historically Grounding – Individuals use their experience of
the past to decide on a course of action for the future. Historical
grounders call on their experiences to determine the significance
or relevance of resisting. Historical grounding will generally
result in an indignant resignation by actors that it will happen
irrespective of negative feelings. The core belief amongst
participants in this research was that they had been through
radical change programmes before which made very little
difference to the way they worked. This was demonstrated by one
respondent who said:

My feeling, looking back at the last radical
change, was that there’ll be a change within the
wider organisation but it won’t affect us very
much and we will just carry on. So just get on
with it. A little naughty, but based on the views of
other people I work with, who have been here for
thirty years and have probably been doing the
same job through five different re-organisations
you can understand why.

Taking cues from others in the organisation in this way is
what Raffanti (2005) called the sizing up process. Shaped by
historical grounding this research demonstrated very few signs of
the shock or denial behaviour that has been reported by a
number of researchers working in the field of organisational
change. Nevertheless scepticism and mistrust from the employees
about the likelihood of real change are significant if historically
real change never happened, it would leave most reluctant to go
through major disruption again. When history shows that change
was just something to do about nothing it then becomes easy to
understand how negative behaviour such as that of reluctance
emerge, assimilated as yet another unnecessary change that
would amount to nothing. This was borne out in a response from
the very first interview:

I know that we’ve just got to get on with it, but
I’ve got to admit I just felt puzzlement when I
heard about the re-organisation because
everybody seemed to be working very hard
anyway and it was working well the way it was. I
couldn’t actually see the justification for it,
despite the messages from above.
I’m certainly not opposed to change if you can see
a clear business case but it just seemed to be yet
another change just for the sake of change.

Others, particularly those in the IT department saw the
change as secular; they felt that they were constantly changing
anyway and that a change resulting from technological advances
was the very nature and essence of the IT profession worldwide
and not peculiar to the EA.

Social Positioning – Most actors don’t just consider the
outcome of the change as simply emerging at the other end with a
new role in the new structure. Many consider how the change
might affect their status within the organisation. Some consider
the loss or the potential loss of pay within the new structure as
important. Others consider the changes to their job grade and the
loss of status within the organisation along with the loss of
control that this could bring, as more important. Maintaining
ones grade and control within the new structure is not always
enough. New structures could affect career paths and progression
leaving one unable to develop further thus stymieing earning
potential. Ultimately social positioners consider the change from
their own personal perspective; how would it affect them and not
necessarily how it affects colleagues or team members.

Most participants considered the timescales of the
implementation to have a decided effect on the work pace that
was consequently imposed on them. Increased work pace can
have a positive effect, forcing people to evaluate and accept the
situation quickly and move on with a common purpose and aim.
With others it could have a negative effect causing a reluctance to
move forward.

The term reluctance was used in this instance to
differentiate between the more radical resistant state normally
associated with the early stages of the change implementation
process. Resistance implies a totally negative response from all
involved. This did not appear to be the case at the subject
organisation; participants simply felt protective, they wanted to
secure their own future by securing the future of the
organisation; they failed to see the reasons or justification for the
large scale disruption that they knew accompanied radical
change programmes. This research calls into question the use of
the resistance terminology used by so many to describe the initial
response behaviour of change initiatives. It is not so much that
the statement appears wrong; simply that it is over-generalised
and in many cases inaccurate. Either way, how organisations
attend to an extensive range of employees’ emotions could
facilitate or hinder the progress of ambitious change (Huy, 1999).

The reasons for resistance or the methods for breaking down
resistance to create a general acceptance for change have formed
the basis for many research projects (Coch and French, 1948;
Beer et al., 1990; Kotter, 1995). This project goes beyond the
acceptance stage to investigate the effects of ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’ on individual behaviour. Above all the
study presents a powerful insight into the effects of ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’ over time.

Adaptive Processing – The initial reluctance behaviour
rapidly changed to adaptive processing. This is how individuals
synthesise the information around them to adjust their cognitive
coping behaviour to deal with the changing environment. Initially
participants feel that the extra work and increased pace is
necessary to effect sustainable change. Participants’ stories
demonstrated that they are willing to work the increased
workloads, increases in work pace and even an increase in
working hours to stay abreast of the change process.

Both external and internal stimuli and its relationship with
time affect the core attitudes and beliefs. The organisations core
attitudes and beliefs are constantly evolving and modified,
changing over time. They are all played out in their stories that
demonstrated a supportive culture not just within individual
departments but also across departments. Some individuals
working in areas where the changes had little or marginal impact
(in terms of workload and pace) demonstrated extra-role
behaviour (Organ, 1988; Morrison and Phelps, 1999), they
supported their less fortunate colleagues by picking up some of
their tasks, albeit, as they saw it at the time, a temporary
expedient. The most dominant change stimulus effecting
participant attitudes and beliefs in this later part of the
reluctance stage was that of ‘Equilibrium Seeking’ and ‘Social
Jockeying’.

Equilibrium Seeking – Once the change implementation
process had picked up pace most participants sought routine in
their daily lives. The psychological effect of returning to some sort
of normality; to re-dress the balance, triggered by a surge of effort
from all those involved. The uncomfortable situation of, not being
exactly sure where job role boundaries started and finished,
contributed to the surge to ‘pull it all together’.

Social Jockeying – Combined with the new insurgence
against negative feelings some saw the new positive spin as an
opportunity to redress issues of social positioning. They saw this
as their opportunity to progress within the organisation maybe
even to gain promotion and move up within the ranks.

Adaptive processing therefore contains both elements of
equilibrium seeking and social jockeying to allow individuals to
adapt and change core beliefs and attitude to stay attuned and
cope with this stage of the change.

Reactive Stage

The properties of (a) Change Fatigue and (b) Psychological
Detachment are integral to the Reactive Stage. As with the
Acceptance Stage the properties of this stage remain sensitive to
the effects of workload, work pace and time.

Change Fatigue – This was the initial behaviour that was
characteristic of the reactive stage. As the interviews were coded
and compared it became clear that change fatigue, the original
focus of this part of the investigation, was not emerging as a
major category. Respondents were unfamiliar with the ‘change
fatigue’ terminology and spoke more about a sense of weariness
and tiredness to describe their feelings towards the new change
initiative, complaining that they felt that there was a never
ending barrage of change without, as they saw it, realistic aims
and objectives, particularly in respect of the planned change
timescales. Nevertheless, in the absence of a definition from the
extant literature the theoretical coding process determined that
there was a strong inference that the ‘weariness and tiredness’
categories were describing the same phenomenon. The
perceptions of the individuals living the experience initially
suggested the phenomenon simply described weariness due to the
lack of rest and from being unsettled; a result of the change.
However, theorising refocused attention on ‘Enforced Accelerated
Work Pace’ as the main cause of ‘change fatigue’ where
‘weariness’ became an effective property of this category.

Fatigue in this sense is not just simply a tiredness or
weariness feeling due to workload or work pace that can be
relieved by rest; it is a negative psychological effect with
debilitating consequences. This transient state, categorised by
signs of participant discomfort, loss of efficiency and a lack of
response to stimulus indicates the integration and consistency of
core attitudes and beliefs for those involved.

Whilst the negative psychological effects are fundamental to
this research, it’s important to note that it cannot be assumed
that increase job demands and the resultant increases in work
pace are always classed as barriers to positive change stimulus
and that they necessarily always lead to dissatisfaction, even if
they are perceived as high. The mere mention of fatigue in this
context implies that all change response behaviour is negative.
This may not always be the case. In a recent study Van Yperin
and Janssen argued (2002) that an individuals goal orientation
may explain why some employees feel fatigued but satisfied with
their jobs when faced with heavy workloads, whereas others
perceptions of high job demands are related to both fatigue and
dissatisfaction. The important difference here is that this
research has not considered fatigue on a superficial level; it is a
condition that is more than just a feeling of tiredness or
weariness with the potential, if not redressed properly of leading
to the more serious condition recognised as occupational stress.

As the pace continues to accelerate the sense of fatigue
heightens and participants become more and more aware of the
debilitating impact of ‘Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’. Their
natural reaction is to find ways to overcome the effects.

Hurdling – Whilst the change appeared to be accepted with
very few signs of resistance before and at the early stages of the
implementation phase, opinions and behaviour for some
individuals changed as fatigue and weariness took hold. Some
respondents felt that timescales were unrealistic; that their new
job roles were poorly defined; the clarity of communication was
poor; and management’s ability to manage change effectively was
called into question.

Change fatigue is a popular but vague concept used by a
number of commentators (Buchanan et al., 1999; Abrahamson,
2000; Buchanan and Doyle, 2001) to describe the effects of
initiative overload, change related stress, frustration, cynicism
and burnout that some individuals feel when faced with one
organisational change programme after another. There is a
general acceptance of what the terminology means without any
real attempt to define the terminology in any specific context.
Using this research as the main point of reference, it was felt
appropriate to promote a greater understanding of what is meant
by ‘change fatigue’ by way of a definition.

Change Fatigue can be described as:

The diminished reaction to stimulus or the
complete inability of an individual to work
normally and efficiently caused by weariness for
further change, brought on by prolonged, high
levels of change related enforced accelerated work
pace.

Hurdling is an array of cognitive behaviour traits that seek
solutions to the discomfort and fatigue feelings; to find ways of
returning to efficient working. Individuals will find an array of
ingenious reasons for not being able to start or even to progress
change related tasks, in many cases looking for others within and
external to the organisation to blame. The emerging insight
linked fatigue to poorly managed change rather than just the
levels or indeed the type of change as was originally expected.

This response is characteristic of the feelings towards
management:

The change milestones are never met. When are
we going to get the new job role descriptions?
When are we going to see the new structures?
When do I have to apply for my job? When are
the interviews? When do we get the new job
offers? The problem is that they are very erratic
and they don’t stick to the programme dates. So
you think right, in May I’m going to find out what
the jobs are going to be and then they say it will
be June which then slips to July, which is very
stressful because everything gets concertinaed
into a much smaller time frame and you still don’t
know where you stand at the end of it all….It gets
to the point were it simply becomes monotonous
and tiring.

It would appear that whilst the key start dates slipped back
again and again there was never any movement to the end date,
forcing the original change programme into a smaller time frame.
Constrained implementation timescales and the consequential
increases in work pace was by far the biggest concern amongst
the employees at the subject organisation. Other ‘hurdling
behaviour’ entails glossing over tasks to tick the appropriate
“task completed” box. The perception here was that if there isn’t
enough time to do all the tasks properly by the specified deadline
dates then something will suffer as a result.

The second set of interviews conducted three months after
the first showed further increases in change stimulus barriers.
Some individuals cited poorly defined work boundaries as the
main cause, particularly those who undertook certain tasks to
help support colleagues seemingly under more pressure, found
that they had been lumbered with the task permanently. Further
resentment and cynicism started to appear when individuals
found themselves reworking supposedly completed tasks or
rushing to complete important tasks that had initially been
completely overlooked, mainly, as they perceive it, as a result of
change mismanagement.

Psychological Detachment – As time passed1 with the
increase in pressured accelerated work pace the core belief
amongst participants changed, eventually reaching detachment.
Detachment, in this sense has dual meaning. On the one hand it
is the intuitive awareness (the feeling of being detached) on the
other hand it is the process action (the action of detachment).

Intuitive Awareness – A product of feeling rather than a
deliberate judgement coupled with a consciousness of ones
surroundings; the psychological state of no longer feeling
involved; being pushed aside; no longer feeling part of the
process.

Process Action – This is the physical action of detachment; a
response action to the change stimulus which could either be
categorised as an automatic or purposive response. An automatic
response is an individual’s unconscious, innate ability to survive;
a mechanism by which one copes with ‘Enforced Accelerated
Work Pace’, played out in the form of some participants drawing
away from the change activities, only taking on tasks that
demonstrates compliance to organisational requirements; that of
taking on tasks of the position for which they were originally
employed. This rebuttal of change activities can be likened to an
adventurer in the wilderness who lights a camp fire to keep
warm; if he gets too warm his unconscious response is to move
away from the fire to a point that is more suited to his comfort
requirements. A purposive response is the very conscious effort of
an individual to build artificial barriers to safeguard and protect
ones own wellbeing. In this case the detachment behaviour
relates to individuals purposely making themselves unavailable
for progress meetings, scheduling meetings and certain project
meetings to avoid incurring further workloads and to avoid
owning up to not meeting deadlines set at earlier meetings.
Strangely, this reaction was not restricted to the lower grade
workers; it also came from team leaders and middle managers
alike, indicating that the ‘Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’ was
driven from top management, down.

In an attempt to further understand ‘detachment’,
interviewee questioning moved to discussing employee
commitment and that of the psychological contract. Some of the
statements below helped to develop clearer perspectives on
detachment:

Their original promises have not materialised.
This chaos is continuing far too long and now I
feel completely out on a limb…Isolated, if you
follow… which may sound strange, considering I
work in a team. I haven’t got the same
commitment anymore. I can’t decide whether
that’s my own fault…you know…an element of
disinterest, or simply that I am punch
drunk……but I do feel out of sorts….. I have got to
the stage where I no longer feel a part of all of
this. It’s my own professional pride that’s keeping
me going at the moment.

What you’ve got here is a really committed
workforce…….they are committed to protecting
the environment and they are abused; the
management and the system abuse them, they
know people really care about the environment
and we’re not here for the pay and they abuse the
situation. Especially post initiative….I’m afraid
it’s not going to last….there’s already too many
who feel that they are no longer really involved,
who feel that they have been pushed out.
Personally I think it’s more of a desire not to be
involved.

Psychological contracts are based on information available to
individuals regarding their organisation, their work groups, and
their motives. Such contracts are composites of individual and
organisational factors, as interpreted by individual contract
holders. Individual factors make each psychological contract
potentially unique. However when a contract is shared, its nature
and meaning may shift. Normative contracts occur when several
people (colleagues and co-workers) agree on the terms in their
individual contracts (Rousseau, 1995). Rousseau (1995) suggests
that there are fundamental questions that need consideration
when interpreting psychological contracts. Particularly in the
sense of what they consider as promises. Primarily, what leads
employees to interpret organisational actions as promissory? He
continues to say that the legitimacy of the promise maker in
conveying commitments affects his or her credibility. An
influential supervisor is likely to make commitments that are
more readily relied on than those made by a boss who is believed
to have little influence. The ‘normative contract’ based on the
interviewee statements, presented above shows that the encoded
messages presented in the pre-change management rhetoric have
clearly, in their minds not been met. The common belief was that
individual contribution and commitment would force the change
through quickly.

The key feature of a commitment-signalling event involves
some sort of punctuation or break between what was and what is
to come. As time progressed, a large portion of the change
participants felt that whilst they met their side of the contract
the organisation failed on their commitment. The signal that
their commitment was coming to an end would have been the
stabilisation of work load and that of work pace however, most
believe that work pace and work loads were, in fact still
escalating.

Adverse Impact Threshold – This was the transitional phase
between the reactive stage and the withdrawal stage. The
principal property integral to this stage was the property of
submission. As with all the earlier stages the property of this
stage remains sensitive to the effects of workload, work pace and
time.

Submission – The property of submission is used to describe
a participant’s ultimate reaction to prolonged ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’ and prolonged psychological detachment.
Participants feel that they have no more to offer, materialising as
a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude. This is demonstrated in some of the
participant’s responses in the latter stages of the change
programme:

This can’t be allowed to carry on…..I’m not going
to allow this situation to continue….I love
working at the Agency but I think they are asking
too much of us all.

There’s only so much of this we can realistically
take before something gives. My friend describes
us all as lemmings sitting on the edge of a parapet
waiting for the first one to jump……..in time we’re
all going over the edge.

They are getting away with this at the
moment…….but if you think about it, if you rev an
engine at full revs eventually you will run out of
petrol worse still the engine wears out……We
can’t keep this pace up… eventually we’ll all give
up the fight.

The complexity, disorganisation and frustration are all
natural aspects and normal features of organisational life, which
can have severe psychological consequences (Huy, 1999; Mullins,
1999; Wanberg and Banas, 2000; Bovey and Hede, 2001).
Complicated organisational dynamics with respect to time, the
levels of increased workload and the levels of work pace, along
with the individual’s ability to absorb such pressures means the
exact point of the ‘Adverse Impact’ is difficult to determine.
Suffice to say, everybody has a point at which attitudes and
beliefs will change and no two individuals will react at the same
point in time. Nevertheless, the ‘Adverse Impact Threshold’ and
‘Submission’ is just a short step after ‘detachment’; an interim
stage before reaching ‘complete withdrawal’.

Some participants will simply remained detached whilst
others expectations are far greater. By detaching themselves, not
just internally (in their minds) but externally (by their actions),
the hope is that it will trigger a reaction from the organisations
management to redress the imbalance of work pace and work
load against their contracted hours. That said, it was noted with
this research that those managing to maintain some level of extra
working (in the sense of pace and additional hours) for the
longest periods were, in the main those individuals who had a
relatively short service history at the subject organisation or
individuals at the early stages of their career, who had not been
through a major change programme such as this before i.e. those
without any real historical grounding in which to base any
judgement and those who had originated from a culture of wellorganised
continuous change.

This is not unusual, when managed properly continuous
change doesn’t appear to be a problem. Indeed it has become
common place in some industrial sectors where continuous
change is synonymous with the service and/or products they
provide thereby adopting continuous and rapid change as an
organisational culture (Tushman and Anderson, 1986; Brown and
Eisenhardt, 1997; Brown and Eisenhardt, 1998). In this instance
however, actors were willing to work at a faster pace and
contribute additional time without the feeling of it being forced
upon them. Poorly managed change initiatives over sustained
periods, on the other hand appear to result in negative responses
from those involved creating an increased sense of fatigue. The
most universal characteristic of continuous work is that, if it is
sustained for a sufficient period of time, it shows a general falling
off in the subject’s efficiency. Commonly referred to as the
‘general decrement’ Robinson et. al’s research (1924) shows that
the accuracy or quality of work in many cases suffered a more
marked decrement than the speed of work as the net result of
several physiological factors all contributing to the concept of
fatigue.

Withdrawal Stage

Still sensitive to the effects of workload, pace and time, the
integral properties at this final stage of (a) Withdrawal Reflex
and (b) Self-Actualised Non-Compliance are the ones that
emerged the most dominant from the respondents’ stories.

Withdrawal Reflex – Withdrawal Reflex can be described as
a response stimulated by any unexpected threat to the well-being
of the individual, characterised by the sudden movement away
from the potentially damaging stimulus as a natural survival
instinct (Corsini, 2002). The data shows that individuals who find
that they have reached ‘Detachment’ very quickly move to the
‘Adverse Impact Threshold’ and withdraw voluntary support
completely. When the increase in workload is considered to be too
high because of constricted time scales, the pace is forced
unnecessarily high to the point where participants feel it to be too
disruptive. In many cases individuals forced to work at an
increased work pace will not sustain the pace over long periods,
they revert back to working contractual hours only. Withdrawal
enables individuals to order some semblance into their lives and
rationalise their own thought processes, ultimately having the
feeling of taking back control.

Reflective Psychology is a pertinent feature of individuals
taking back control. They consider the intended action in terms of
the cause(s) that brought them to this point and the potential
effect of the intended action. The self-questioning relates to how
much the increased work pace was self imposed; self blame is one
of the unusual but not uncommon behaviour traits of reflective
psychology at this stage along with a reflection of how they see
others coping with the same impositions. Reflecting on the effects
of withdrawal ranks high in the minds of those who reach this
point. Typically actors contemplate the potential damage to their
integrity, career and status before acting out the withdrawal.

Self Actualised Non-Compliance – Withdrawal reflex; the
complete withdrawal of voluntary support is not the final
response. Unexpectedly there are secondary behaviour traits that
often emerge from withdrawal. Organisational culture invariably
plays its part in shaping core beliefs. A strong work ethic and
cultural commitment to maintain a professional approach and to
overcome obstacles will undoubtedly refocus change participants
attention and in some instances, regain support. This does not
entail actors returning to one of the other stages, described above
but moving to a new stage with completely different behaviour
traits.

Some individuals outwardly convey the message that they
are no longer willing to sacrifice personal time for the benefit of
the organisation. In reality, this rarely happens, whilst the
amount of extra time spent at work is reduced, they continue
working more than their contracted hours, starting earlier in the
morning, working through lunch breaks and taking work home,
all in varying degrees. The sense of professional pride and
obligation remains and in reality their non-compliance was selfactualised
to the point of self denial. Denial, in this sense, can be
described as the refusal to acknowledge an emotionally inducing
event, feeling or memory (Freud, 1966).

Speaking about her concerns regarding the amount of her
perceived contribution to the organisation one informant said,

If you’re money orientated don’t come and work
for the Environment Agency – Most people at the
Agency, or certainly the ones that I come in
contact with, on a daily basis, do the job because
they care about the environment, they consider it
to be their vocation in life to conserve the earths
natural resources for future generations. We feel
quite privileged because we are doing a job that
actually means something to us. What is the
alternative, working on voluntary assignments for
voluntary conservation organisations, but how
would we live without a regular income.

She also stated that most people in the organisation have devoted
their lives to conservation and the environment. Using her words,
“you just have to look at peoples’ backgrounds to understand
people’s devotion”.

Interestingly in this instance a review of interviewee
qualifications showed that more than 90% held a degree or a
higher degree in an environmental science or a natural science
subject. Individuals with a strong academic background such as
those at the Environment Agency are better equipped to cope
with stressful situations and in general terms show a stronger
commitment towards meeting project aims and objectives
compared to those with a non-academic background. Whilst not
part of this paper the influence of academic achievement would
be a worthwhile topic for future research and papers. The
influence of academic backgrounds and commitment to see
projects through has been the subject of debate by other
researchers of the past (Cartwright and Cooper, 2002; Carson et
al., 2005).

It was considered the commitment to their profession (rather
than the organisation), high academic achievement and the
supportive work culture that triggered self actualised noncompliance
behaviour. On the one hand respondents felt duty
bound to support their colleagues yet the need to take back some
control on the other. This control was played out by refusing to
work extra hours (at the office).

Temporal Sensitivity of Enforced Accelerated Work
Pace

There is a great emphasis here, placed on the temporal
effects of the ‘Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’. Temporal
sensitivity means, certainly in this context, the duration of the
intense pressure exerted on staff to maintain the work pace
levels. It also refers to the changes to work patterns which
became necessary to effect change and which played a big part in
the behavioural responses. Changes to the work pace for
relatively short durations didn’t appear to have an effect, indeed
to maintain the work rate most individuals were willing to
(voluntarily) contribute extra hours at work even though they
didn’t get paid for out of hours working. Willing participants
started with the core belief that ‘accelerated work pace’ was
necessary for sustainable change and for the secure future of the
organisation, which transcends normal work patterns. However
those individuals encountering ‘Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’
for longer periods particularly when the acceleration was the
result of mismanaged change exhibited a more severe response.

Research Limitations

The contribution of this study must be considered in light of
its limitations. The use of grounded theory was certainly
instrumental in interpreting the complexity of ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’. Although this study provides a useful
step forward towards understanding the effects of pace; its
relationship with time and its impact on participants of change it
is important to recognise that the research design focused on a
single organisation. Extending the research to other
environments will help to establish the formal theory of ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’. Such usage will determine its wider
value to this area of study and provide valuable information for
possible improvements.

It would also be beneficial to develop further perspectives on
the Adverse Impact Threshold. Is there a level of accelerated
work pace at which there is very little chance of change fatigue
developing? Are the feelings of change fatigue more acute and
more prevalent at the subject organisation because of its history
of continuous change interspersed with periods of radical change
or would the results be the same for organisations with a less
disruptive past? Would the results be any different in
organisations in the private sector with a similar background of
disruptive change?

Conclusion and Future Research

The theoretical framework in this paper matches the
qualifications conceived by Glaser and Strauss (1967). Primarily
it fits the substantive area of study. The concepts and themes are
all central, intimately related to and emergent from ‘Enforced
Accelerated Work Pace’. Furthermore, the resultant theoretical
framework is sufficiently general to be applicable to a range of
organisational change implementation situations. More
importantly, from a grounded theory perspective it is readily
understandable by academics and practitioners alike and should
accordingly serve to be useful direction in change management
designs.

On a theoretical level, empirical validation and elaboration
of concepts and framework in other environments2 is essential.
The theoretical framework was produced by examination of 4
area offices in the same organisation, albeit the examination was
an in depth study. Further empirical grounding and comparisons
will serve to strengthen and enrich the concepts and framework
generated herein, and renders a more involved understanding of
the phenomenon.

Amis et al. (2004) in their research argued the benefits of
forcing the pace to complete the change as quickly as possible.
They cite Miller and Chen (1994) and their work on overcoming
inertia arguing that forcing the pace creates the momentum
necessary complete the change successfully. Other commentators
have argued that indiscriminate rapid change across an
organisation is not the appropriate method for engaging in large
scale radical change (Child and Smith, 1987; Pettigrew et al.,
1994).

Management research usually focuses on the technical
elements of change with a tendency to neglect the equally
important human element which is often crucial to the successful
implementation of change (Steier, 1989; Tessler, 1989; Huston,
1992). This research has purposely focused on the human
elements as a consequence of ‘Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’.
That said the ‘Temporal Sensitivity’ that greatly influences this
state presents some challenging propositions for change agencies
and managers with a number of implications for the practice of
organisational change implementation. In particular: the
framework provides a useful resource for enhancing the
understanding of complex work pace dynamics. It supports the
argument for slowing the change down to monotonic levels, if the
desired effect is sustainable change. Furthermore, where the
radical change requires a combination of a number of initiatives
to affect the desired organisational redirected goals, considerable
thought should be channelled towards planning and scheduling of
each event to avoid a possible uncontrollable clashes of peak
workloads and an uncontrollable imbalance of workloads for
different departments and/or individuals. Scheduling events
would also reduce the risk of ‘Enforced Accelerated Work Pace’ for
long periods resulting in ‘change fatigue’.

In terms of driving change, comparisons can be drawn to the
physical world. Consider an oversized peg driven into a
marginally undersized hole. Drive the peg hard enough and it
may fit with inevitable damage to the peg and the hole. A better
solution would be to increase the cross section of the hole or
reduce the cross section of the peg, making it a snug fit and
resulting in less effort and energy to drive the peg through the
hole. Pettigrew (1997) found that changing core beliefs was vital
before there was any attempt to make structural or strategic
change. The point being, more time spent at the beginning of the
process, shaping and developing all the components ensures they
all fit together properly without resistance or damage to the
components, with inevitably better results. In the case of this
research it focuses attention on time rather than task. It allows
sufficient time for participants to accept the change and time to
ensure the change is managed and communicated effectively
before full implementation takes place. Part of this management
strategy would include scheduling change initiatives to prevent
work overload and reduce consequential loss or damage.

Endnotes

1. Although the repeat interviews and real-time observations
clearly demonstrated a shift in behaviour patterns, the exact
point in time when these patterns changed varied for different
individuals. For some it happened relatively quickly for others it
was longer, dependent upon the individual’s ability to cope.
2. The framework developed in this paper lends itself to testing
participants of change in complex organisational environments,
specifically public service providers whose work output is not
easily quantifiable such as Academic Institutions, Central
Government, Local Government, the National Health Service
(NHS), Police and Fire Service.

Authors:

Graham John James Kenealy, PhD Candidate, BA (Hons)
Manchester Business School
University of Manchester
Room C1.
Booth Street West
Manchester,
M15 6PB
Phone: +44 (0) 1925 423964
E-mail: G.Kenealy@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk

Susan Cartwright, PhD, MSc, BA. CPsychol
Professor of Organisational Psychology
Manchester Business School
University of Manchester
Room C1.
Booth Street West
Manchester,
M15 6PB
Phone: +44 (0) 161 306 3524
Fax: +44 (0) 1925 423967
E-mail: Susan.cartwright@manchester.ac.uk

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