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Organizational change from the bottom up Published: Sunday, January 23, 2011 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Organization change emerges from individuals taking responsibility for conversational frames and shifting them to accommodate new ways of conceptualizing organizational reality – that is, new ways of defining what constitutes knowledge. The work of many researchers and our own experience with hundreds of organizations demonstrate that organization change does not happen solely in a top-down, leader-led, strategic manner. Employees at all levels can and do engage in change that holds potentially broader implications for organizational culture and functioning beyond localized levels.

The work of Michael Moon, a distinguished researcher and professor on organizational theory at California State University proposes a bottom-up practitioner approach for framing change originating from the low-ranking employees. The perspective taken describes organization change as conversational shifts. Moon posts what he calls a Social Constructionist Approach to change, which departs from the premise that organizational life offers low-ranking employees who do not have a high degree of positional power and authority possible conceptual spaces within which to envision and proactively participate in organization change in ways that structuralist approaches do not. Bottom-up “change instigators” must somehow use their limited positional power to stir up action. This will depend on social interaction with others that somehow inspires action for change.

From the social constructionist perspective, the impossibility of establishing a monolithic ‘story’ or a single picture of the organization given the multiple perspectives and conversations that make up the organization raises questions about any assumption of the paramount importance of top-down change. Also, the organization change literature provides some indications that change that is initiated within one’s work group elicits more positive buy in and morale among employees.  Many change efforts initiated by low-ranking employees hinge primarily on their understanding of how work is conducted in existing conditions versus how it might potentially unfold in some transformed future set of conditions. Understanding bottom-up initiated change from this perspective may be more instructive in the context of educational and training settings because of its frame of reference from the employee's situated experience rather than from a positivistic orientation promoted by management.

Organizations not only ‘exist’ through social constructions that emerge through collaboration, but they also operate in a state of constant instability. The change process is not deterministic. Regardless whether one’s role and vantage point are that of low-level employee, change agent, strategist, or leader of an organization, the organization is in a state of change by the very social nature of its operations and its interactions with the environment. The collective construction of an organization in ‘real time’ is not a monolithic entity, standardized with a grand narrative across all stakeholders (Gergen, 1994; Gergen & Thatchenkery, 1996). Different parties in organizations can, however, arrive at a collective shared working sense of the organization; but this is always a provisional shared sense that is fluid by the very social and cultural dynamics that constitute how members of an organization understand the ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ of their organization.

Organization leaders and their employees all conduct their work from their socially constructed perspectives. Change initiatives that have broad organizational reach will require a consideration of issues of power and authority. Nevertheless, because of the nondeterministic nature of change in organizations, bottom-up initiated organization change holds potential that has not yet been fully understood and tapped by organizational leaders. Non-executive, non-managerial employees may use formal and informal organizational dialogues and conversations to shift how their peers and others within their organization understand how work could be accomplished in contrast to how it is accomplished and whether this may yield behavior change. The social constructionist approach emphasizes the subjectivity of individuals and their efforts to arrive at shared meanings. Therefore, creating the opportunities, context, and channels for those conversations to take place is a determining role of change agents.

Because reality is constructed through engagement among people over time, organizations change through the shift in these constructions and the meanings they hold for people. Through committed praxis, conversations can be shifted to transform the organization. Making sense of change in organizations depends deeply on shared interpretations of complex, fluid, and often emotionally charged conditions. Because of the low-ranking employee’s minimal formal authority and power relative to top managers, conversational responsibility and communicating persuasive alternative shared realities are important tools for change. Since conversations are the context in which change happens, low-ranking employees can shift conversations, underlying shared realities, and even background conversations to initiate change.

Bottom-up change agents seek possibilities for change, while at the same time faced with resistance to change. Through sensemaking of the resistance and possibilities, bottom-up change agents may reconstruct the relationship between organizational resistance to and possibilities for change (Moon, 2008). The social constructionist perspective on resistance is that it is not a phenomenon to be discovered but rather a constructed understanding about the state of one’s relationship with the organizational environment. Possibilities for change are also constructions. As with interpretations of resistance, possibilities for change emerge from an interpretation of the conversational context in the organization. Possibility is interrelated with resistance because they have a roughly complementary relationship to each other. What one interprets as resistance will affect the possibilities for change, and vice versa.

In summary, bottom-up organization change is instigated through sensemaking about resistance to and possibilities for change. These processes of sensemaking are contextualized and shaped by the daily conversations that all members of the organization engage in. As bottom-up change agents make sense of and engage in these conversations, the interrelations between resistance to and possibilities for change may be negotiated. Smart leaders and organizations will foster organizational dialogue as a strategy to synthesize those differences and will promote    interactions conducive to change propositions and experiments as one among other strategies to keep the organization changing and improving.


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