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Press releases, updates and important announcements from AOM The Secrets of Embracing Change in Work and Life

19 Sep 2022
Today's workforce might best be described in terms of tumult: Great Resignation, Great Retirement, Great Reshuffle, etc. In this "new normal," managers must learn to navigate a state of continual transition in their teams and organizations, while keeping up with day-to-day demands.

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Likewise, George Mason University School of Business Management Professors Sarah Wittman and Kevin Rockmann believe that it is time for scholars to change the way they think about role transitions to better align their theories with our increasingly uncertain world.

Over the last few decades, management theorists have sought to understand transitions by means of attributes such as voluntariness, social desirability, and predictability—generalizable qualities that tend to encourage binary thinking with implicit value judgments attached. While such catch-all labels theoretically make it easier to compare and contrast different types of transitions, Wittman points out that at the end of the day, they may raise more questions than answers. "Attributes are not measurable, plus they're subjective for each person," she says. "Is accepting a promotion voluntary or involuntary? There are many situations in which it would really not be voluntary."

Along with Mailys M. George (a faculty member at EDHEC Business School), Wittman and Rockmann authored a paper for Academy of Management Annals laying out an entirely new mental model for studying role transitions. Instead of attributes, their proposed paradigm is structured around experiences—in other words, what a role-switch looks and feels like not only for the person undergoing the transition, but for everyone indirectly affected (managers, colleagues, etc.). The experience-based approach would be open-ended enough to encompass transitions in both the professional and personal spheres—as well as addressing the impact that each sphere has on the other.

To illustrate their method in action, the paper posits a hypothetical employee named Maria who enjoys a healthy work/life balance and high productivity. Maria undergoes a role-transition as she becomes the primary caregiver for her aging father. Cataloging the attributes of her life change would hardly do justice to its magnitude. Every area of her life would be impacted, from her ability for colleagues, friends, and relatives.

The paper's experience-based framework defines Maria's disruption as movement across four transition dimensions—psychological, physical, relational, and behavioral. To be sure, not all transitions are as major as Maria's—smaller ones might not involve all four types of movement. And dramatic movement in one area can easily lead to more subtle shifts in another, as when the isolation of work-from-home causes psychological strain for employees new to remote working.


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Read the original research in Academy of Management Annals.

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