The aim of this paper is to understand how employees, in their role of follower of change, frame upcoming change by studying the prospective stories they tell (n=110). This study complements the dominant retrospective approach to the research of employees’ change sensemaking. We incorporate forward-looking awareness into organization theories and add to the scholarly interest in prospection (Gioia & Patvardhan, 2018). This could lead to a better understanding of followers’ adaptation- or rejection intentions in response to change initiatives (Konlechner et al., 2018).
Employees experience continuous shifts in relationships and organizational roles (Van der Smissen et al., 2013). This ‘turbulence’ triggers intensive sensemaking (Weick, 1995) of what is going on and how to respond. In uncertain times, employees often form expectations towards the future based on their remembered experiences from the past, and organizational change literature has traditionally taken a retrospective approach to understand followers’ change sensemaking (Boje, 2008).
However, traditional literature neither provides elaborate insight in followers’ attempts to build scenarios for their future, nor do they add to the understanding of followers’ hopes, dreams, concerns, or fears (which all have a future time orientation) in the context of upcoming change. Scholars suggested that the current radical changes employees face cannot be anticipated easily from a mere retrospective approach (MacKay & Chia, 2013). In reality, employees think as often about their future as they do about their past and tend to create complex, temporal ranges of future orientations (Klein, 2013). Hence, researchers have critiqued the omission of the possible impact of beliefs and expectations about the future (e.g., Kaplan & Orlikowski, 2013), and have developed complementary notions to develop temporal sensemaking to challenge us to “mentally reverse the arrow of time” (Lord et al., 2013, p. 4) by focusing on expected futures to understand the present. The acknowledgement of prospective sensemaking directing attitudes and behaviors today (Maitlis & Christianson, 2014), expectedly offers novel insights to those interesting in understanding employees’ change behaviors.
A narrative approach is used to capture 110 individuals’ idiosyncratic and cultural sensemaking efforts (Pentland, 1999). We created a digital research set-up in which participants were guided to write a narrative that resembles a biographical account about a fictive colleague. Participants were introduced to the task by a video message from the fictive focal actor “Jim” and a video announcement of upcoming change by a fictive CEO in a Zoom-call for the entire organization. By means of the Story Completion Method, participants were asked “how does the story end?” and invited to write subsequent chapters on how they expected this story to continue, and how the roles and responses of the different actors would unfold along the way. Research context is provided by the Dutch travel industry in which organizations are dealing with heavy consequences of the COVID19 pandemic.
Results will be available by November 2021.
Qualitative research is less generalizable given the sample size and scope. Besides, the method requires specific skills and a level of empathy with the scenario, this proved to be difficult for some of the participants. In our analysis we therefore have to account for a difference between prospective sensemaking efforts and mere extrapolations of past experiences.
This study reveals potentialities that are considered to be available in the future. For change leaders, it is helpful to understand these potentialities as they reveal explanations for differences in followers’ prospective change strategies, and diverse anticipative responses to change efforts. We extend the concept of prospective sensemaking, and explore its use in a follower-based, dynamic context of organizational change.
Advancing the concept of follower-based prospective sensemaking is important as it could provide explorative notions that illustrate the formation and use of expectations. Especially interesting is the context Dutch travel industry context as employees at the time of data collection experienced a ‘cosmology episode’ triggering sudden loss of meaning and coherence. This is perceived to be a critical trigger for sensemaking in the absence of past empirical experience (as no one experienced a pandemic and resulting business challenges before, but rather relies on transcendent belief systems in the face of future uncertainty (Weick, 1993)).