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A recent publication by ABS researcher Armin Pircher Verdorfer (Leadership & Management section) has made a significant contribution to understanding change management in public high-reliability contexts.
Dr Armin Pircher Verdorfer
Dr Armin Pircher Verdorfer

The study, Adapting to Organizational Change in a Public Sector High-Reliability Context: The Role of Negative Affect and Normative Commitment to Change, was conducted in collaboration with the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF), and co-authored with RNLAF Officer Gerco Van Ginkel. Their work, which was published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory sheds light on the complex process of introducing major changes within a public high-reliability setting. A high-reliability setting is an organisation that operates in complex, high-risk environments where any errors could have catastrophic consequences. In this case, the organisation was a military airbase.

Their paper tells 2 stories: the first is the research exploring strategies to navigate the challenges of organisational change. The second is the behind-the-scenes story of the collaboration between an ABS student and a researcher. This showcases how ABS is both a place of learning and inspiration and a hub for teamwork.

From classroom to air force base

The co-author Van Ginkel was a part-time student in the ABS Executive Programme in Management Studies (EPMS). He took an elective in change management taught by Pircher Verdorfer. Van Ginkel was strongly motivated by his deep interest in organisational change and his direct involvement in change projects at the RNLAF. He  decided to focus his master’s thesis on studying organisational change within RNLAF, under Pircher Verdorfer’s supervision.. The successful completion of his thesis marked not the end, but a continuation of their collaboration. With Van Ginkel’s help, Pircher Verdorfer  gained an invaluable opportunity to further investigate an ongoing change project at RNLAF. This gave him the opportunity to collect additional waves of data. Their collaboration is a great example of how ABS students' interests and real-world experiences align with the expertise of ABS researchers. By working together, they were able to identify and explore significant research questions in a real-world setting.

Copyright: UvA EB
The key to effective change management lies not only in convincing people of the change's may be more effective to reinforce their sense of personal ethics and loyalty to the organisation and the change. Pircher Verdorfer

Major transition

The research focused on the personnel at an RNLAF airbase amidst a major transition. The air force was replacing the aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets with advanced F-35 jets. This shift is a part of the Netherlands' strategic initiative to modernise its military capabilities, ensuring readiness against future threats. The study explored various aspects, including the emotional responses as well as work stress and, critically, work errors, among the personnel involved in the transition.

Their findings revealed that even though personnel recognised the need for change, some individuals still had negative feelings about the transition and how it was being managed. This was associated with an increased workload and an rise in work errors. But the research went deeper than these expected outcomes. The researchers investigated  what psychological resources could help ease the adverse impacts of such negative emotions.

The role of duty and obligation

Traditional beliefs in change management emphasise the importance of individuals positively identifying with change. But this study revealed something else that played a critical role in mitigating the effects of the negative feelings: a  'normative commitment to change'. This refers to a sense of duty and obligation to support the change.  This novel insight suggests that in certain contexts, particularly those involving public interest and high reliability, the key to effective change management lies not only in convincing people of the change's merits. Instead, it may be more effective to reinforce their sense of personal ethics and loyalty to the organisation and the change.

These findings open up new approaches to change management strategies. This is particularly true for sectors with a strong emphasis on reliability and duty. Pircher Verdorfer’s and Van Ginkel’s work contributes to academic discourse and it also offers practical guidance for organisations navigating similar change processes.