Providing Context in a Changing Workplace

Recently, I watched a man using the self-check-out line at the grocery store for the first time. After a few attempts, he managed to scan his first item. With the can of soup in his hand, he immediately tried to scan another item. The machine wouldn’t work and told him to get help from an attendant. His frustration mounted. The attendant arrived and told him to put the first item in the bag before scanning the second item. So he put the soup in a bag and put the bag in his cart, then moved back to scan his next item. Of course it didn’t work, and the attendant said “no, you have to put the bag on the shelf before you scan the next item”. Clearly agitated, the man pulled the bag from the cart and put it on the (wrong) shelf, and the system still wouldn’t scan his next item. Eventually, through trial and error and the attendant’s prompts, he figured the system out.

Flickr/Lauras Eye

His confusion came from the fact that he was thinking in terms of a traditional check-out line where all items are scanned first and then bagged.

What no one explained to him was that the self-check-out system used both the scanned SKU and the weight of the item as a cross reference to avoid fraud. If someone had explained the context of this new system, he would have understood the necessary steps more readily and been considerably less frustrated with the process.

So what does this have to do with HR and managing people?

It’s important to remember that people act on what they think you mean, according to the context or framework that already exists in their mind. If you want them to understand something new or different, you have to provide the new context first, and not assume it will be obvious.

According to one study published in the Academy of Management Review, “the impact of context on organizational behavior is not sufficiently recognized or appreciated”. [1] Often, this is because context is not provided or clearly explained, but just as frequently, misunderstanding results from the typical human reaction to something different.  As researchers from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington so aptly expressed it:  

When a novel conception is introduced it always elicits great resistance. Even as a transformation in general thinking and attitudes develops more support and adherents, there will continue to be resistance to the challenge to the existing order, the comfortable, existing ways of viewing the world.”[2]

To replace the existing context in someone’s mind and replace it with the framework needed to embrace a new way of doing things is not easy, and typically involves a number of tools and approaches.  The following figure shows the elements of context that come into play when determining its impact within an organization.

Figure 1-Some important dimensions of context [3]

Usually it’s best to start with the reason for doing things differently. This reason should be strategically or operationally significant, and should be delivered by an appropriate level of leadership within the organization. Simply knowing the reason for change, however, is seldom enough to assure support for the transition. In our earlier example; the customer accepted the rationale for using the new self-check system (faster, more convenient, etc.), and was floundering because of functional differences in this new experience compared to the process he was familiar with.

Once the business rationale for the new way of doing things has been provided and leadership commitment has been demonstrated, the next steps in providing context include:

  • informing your people  how the new process or system works;
  • identifying how it will impact their specific job functions;
  • if possible, explaining why it works this way and; and especially,
  • highlighting the ways in which it will be different from the old system or way of doing things so they are prepared in advance for those differences.  

Since it takes time to modify the mental framework we associate with any regular activity, you will also want to make information and support available as needed to your employees for a period of time.

Referring, once again, to our self-check example, a few key pieces of information would have made this customer’s experience much less frustrating and the attendant’s job much less demanding.  However, even if the customer had that information before using the new system, he may still have fumbled a little over the many differences he encountered. In this example, the availability of an attendant to resolve issues (if you’ve used them, you know there are issues!) is critical, until all customers are comfortable with self-check systems.

In the workplace, the same principles apply.  Providing your employees with the proper context prior to (and support during) transitions will reduces stress, enhance understanding, and greatly increase the effectiveness of your important change initiatives.

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[1] Johns, G., (2006) Essential Impact of Context on Organizational Behavior, Academy of Management Review, Vol.31,No.2,386–408

[2] Huber, R. & Moallem, M. Constructivism in Theory and Practice: Toward a better understanding.

[3] Johns, G., (2006) Essential Impact of Context on Organizational Behavior, Academy of Management Review, Vol.31,No.2,386–408


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