When Employees See Digital Transformation as a Threat

Elizabeth Solberg, Sut I Wong, Laura E. Mercer Traavik

Realizing the potential benefits from new technologies is highly dependent on employees’ positive engagement.

BI RESEARCH: Digital Mindsets

“It’s very possible that by the way technology is heading... there may not be any more need for us people... everything will be done by computers or robots.” - Hospital security guard, 32 years old

The quote above is from research we conducted in the US. However, recent research presented by the analysis agency Zynk (see reference) shows that job-future is something Norwegians are also worried about, with robots and automation being the strongest present and predicted future drivers of this concern.

Technological advances in automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence enable businesses to operate more efficiently and create completely new business ideas and models. However, forecasts predict that these technologies could have negative implications for job security and the availability of meaningful work opportunities, even for higher-skilled workers.

So it is not surprising that many believe there will be greater competition for jobs in the future, and that new technology could be a primary competitor.

We believe that technological progress has the potential to expand individual capabilities and create opportunities at work, including new career paths. Further, we believe that many organizational leaders are committed to ensuring that new technology implemented to benefit business does not come at the expense of employees.

Employees’ Engagement is Critical

However, if employees believe that technological progress will result in less interesting tasks or work resources, or if they are unable to identify ways in which the new technology can enable them to create new job and career possibilities, their acceptance and usage of new technologies will likely be affected.

These issues are important for organizations undergoing digital transformation to address, because realizing the potential benefits that come from implementing and leveraging new technologies is highly dependent on employees’ positive engagement behind new technologies.

Digital transformation as a zero-sum game

Seeing new technology as one’s competitor in the workplace can trigger a zero-sum mindset among employees.

A zero-sum mindset refers to beliefs that situations are comprised of finite resources, such that a resource gain for some implies a corresponding resource loss for others. It is a term derived from game theory and research on people’s choices to either cooperate or compete when outcomes are interdependent and resources are fixed. And like a zero-sum game, when a person believes that a situation is comprised of finite resources, and that there is a salient opponent for these resources, this can lead to negative attitudes towards the opponent, competitive behavior, and attempts to avoid them or hinder their ability to gain in the situation (Esses, Jackson, & Armstrong, 1998).

In a recent study of helping behavior in organizations during periods of economic recession, employees having zero-sum mindset towards economic gains and losses reported helping coworkers less and behaved more competitively towards coworkers – even when the situation was not objectively zero-sum (Sirola & Pitesa, 2017).

In line with this research, we expect that employees with a zero-sum mindset towards situations of technological change will be more likely to have negative attitudes towards new technology, and engage in behavior aimed at avoiding or undermining systems or projects where new technology is implemented or leveraged.

Mastery climates mitigate zero-sum mindset

Initial support for our hypothesis was found in data collected by two BI Executive Master of Management students from 281 employees in Norway.

Findings indicated that having a zero-sum mindset towards new technology was negatively related to beliefs that a specific, newly implemented technology was useful for carrying out one’s work.

However, employees’ perceptions of a “mastery climate” in their work group was positively related to their ratings of new technology usefulness, and this positive relationship could be explained, at least partially, by a reduction in employees’ zero sum mindset. That is to say, findings indicated that when perceptions of a mastery climate increases, ratings of new technology usefulness increases, at least in part because perceiving a master climate reduces zero-sum mindset.

A mastery climate emphasizes learning, improvement, and task mastery through collaborative social interactions (Nerstad, Roberts, & Richardsen, 2013). The focus on collaboration in mastery-oriented work groups is likely to promote feelings of trust and a perspective of expandable resources in the organization. Accordingly, mastery climates should help employees focus on the opportunities presented by new technology, not expected losses, a mindset that should be give way to accepting and actively embracing new technology.

Work climates emphasizing learning and collaboration

Employees beliefs that a meaningful and secure work future is threatened by new technology are in some cases accurate, and should be taken seriously.

However, when new technology implemented or leveraged at work does not necessarily come at the expense of employees, then creating work climates that emphasize learning and collaboration could be beneficial for reducing zero-sum beliefs, and generating more positive engagement behind digital transformations.


This article is first published in BI Leadership Magazine 2019. BI Leadership Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Leadership and Organzational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School.

Text: Associate professor Elizabeth Solberg, Associate Professor Laura E.M. Traavik and Professor Sut I Wong.

Published 2. January 2019

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