The task is especially difficult when an individual or workforce has a cynical attitude towards the prospect of change.
A new study shows leaders who can inspire their employees and make them feel confident in their work have the best chance of warding off such attitudes.
“Having a leader who can do those things makes people want to change,” said Katherine DeCelles, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto.
DeCelles and collaborators conclusions were based on information collected through surveys with nearly 700 correctional officers at 14 different prisons in one mid-Atlantic U.S. state.
Information on employee insubordination was also gathered.
Not only did researchers confirm that employee cynicism contributed to lower levels of commitment towards change, they also found that a more cynical climate in the workplace led to lower levels of individual commitment towards change, regardless of officers’ personal attitudes.
A poor climate could bolster individuals’ negative attitudes too.
“The cynicism starts to become more of a norm, so it becomes much more entrenched,” said DeCelles.
Cynicism was reduced, however, in workplaces with “transformational” leaders — people who helped employees see themselves as valuable and competent, and who successfully communicated their ideas about why change was necessary and desirable for everybody.
Prisons are rarely used as subjects for organizational behavior research, said DeCelles, who initiated the study after participating in a previous project about rehabilitation activities in U.S. correctional facilities.
However, their rigid, hierarchical structure made prisons ideal for studying the effects of cynicism towards change, she said.
With nearly half a million employees, a 38 percent turnover rate, and two million inmates, the prison system also deserves to be studied because of the resources dedicated to it and the important role it plays in society.
“It really is a significant organization on so many different dimensions and yet we know very little about how it functions,” said DeCelles.
The paper was published in a recent issue of Organization Science.