The challenges of engaging employees in change
In the corporate world, focus tends to be on external change – market fluctuations; technology; geopolitical and health events. But, amid conflicting priorities, it’s essential to take a long, hard look at your organisation’s internal workings during a time of change, specifically employee engagement.
Poorly-managed change can have a negative impact on employee engagement, leading to adverse knock-on effects for the business:
- Resistance to change by disengaged employees making it harder to deliver the benefits of that change
- Risk of low staff morale, leading to a decline in productivity and/or customer service standards
- Reputational risk from poor customer experience, by word of mouth and social media
- Reputational risk to your employer branding by disgruntled employees
- Leaders failing to realise the importance of employee engagement when up against competing, target-based priorities such as revenue or sales
- Leaders worrying about appearing directionless and weak if they feel they don’t know all the answers.
Employee emotions during change
When change happens, it’s usual and natural for employees go through an emotional transition. They may be:
- shocked or upset, especially if they didn’t see change coming or hadn’t been consulted
- disorientated – routines, workplaces and teams may change
- afraid – of workload, inexperience or job loss
- angry – with those who are imposing the change
- enthusiastic – some people relish change
- relieved – a mundane job might be about to get more interesting
People are moved by emotion, but persuaded by logic. Hear out employees’ fears and feelings first, and take them into account objectively. Then swiftly give sound reasons why change has to happen, to appeal to their reason.
Be honest – if a change is going to be tough, say that from the start.
It’s also important for employee morale that those leaders responsible for the change take ownership of the process themselves, and don’t hand it over solely to the HR department or external change management consultants. There’s more engagement with disruption if everyone feels ‘all in it together’.
There will be some employees who relish change and challenge. Seize the opportunity to use these positive people as ‘change champions’ to reassure and encourage others.
Resistance to change
People only change when they choose to: it has to come from within, not be forced from the outside. There are many reasons why some people are resistant to change:
- they may have had a bad experience in the past communication was poor
- they’re worried about their workload or even losing their job
- they don’t trust management to support them.
Overcoming resistance needs a credible appeal to hearts and minds. Solicit feedback and engage people in the process to build ownership of the change.
Listening to employees
It’s official – research shows that the number one driver of employee engagement during organisational change is being involved in the decision-making. When you give a voice to employees, especially in times of change, they feel heard, acknowledged – and are engaged.
There are three main ways to listen to employees:
- ‘Read the room’ – this involves paying attention to everything that goes on in your department, even the whole organisation, and comparing notes with other departmental leaders.
- Meet often with your team – these meetings don’t have to be formal sit-downs: they can be online, walking or standing, but they do need to include status reports and space to express feelings and ideas about the change.
- Employee engagement surveys: Particularly useful around a time of change, you can tailor questions to: canvass employees’ ideas; garner opinion about the change; discover how your strategy is perceived; pinpoint problems and address them before they cause disengagement; benchmark engagement before and after the change and measure engagement against other metrics.
- Pulse surveys: Test reaction to a specific aspect of change, such as simply agreeing or disagreeing with it.
- 360 feedback: Managers, direct reports, peers, and the employee themselves respond to the impact of change on an individual.
- Exit surveys: Exit surveys give honest insights into why people leave, so that any issues can be addressed.
Intelligent AI software can process surveys with open text comments, taking the hard work out of analysing employees’ concerns, criticisms, comments and suggestions. The resulting qualitative and quantitative data <link to my article on q&q data?> will give you insights to help make the change a success and your workforce more engaged.
Unless a business has an ‘always on’ communication culture, communicating change can be clumsy and disengaging for employees. If you’re making any of these classic corporate communication mistakes, remedy immediately:
- Poor day-to-day communication between leaders and teams, as flagged up by employee engagement surveys
- Suspicious spikes in communication frequency that only happen when something disruptive is going on
- Lengthy messages or newsletters from the C-suite that read more like propaganda diktats than insights into the benefits of the change for the company and employees
Instead, employees need:
- A change narrative – What has been decided and why? What is going to happen? Where is the company going? What are the challenges? Tell the story of the change.
- Facts – consistent, and bite-sized for easy consumption
- Updates – regular, truthful and insightful, celebrating successes, but being honest about challenges
- To know what’s in it for them – change is only enthusiastically embraced if it offers employees positive benefits
- A mix of communications – from across the leadership board, from CEO to line managers
- A forum – ideally organisation-wide, real-time, always-on, and a safe, non-judgmental space for employees to have honest, transparent conversations
- Honesty – if you don’t know, say so, but follow up as soon as you know more
How to engage employees in the change process
The most enlightened organisations rarely need a strategy for managing employee engagement during change; they have already created a culture and climate where organisational change runs through their corporate DNA. However, for the rest of us:
Begin with a single vision: Envisage what you want to achieve, then work with employees and stakeholders on how to adapt and focus on it. Prioritise the vision, and avoid running any competing initiatives alongside it, otherwise efforts get diluted.
Develop your strategy: Give team members their say in how they can achieve the vision, and how they will work with other stakeholders. Include strategies for:
- Supporting employees
- Managing resistance and problems
- Identifying new skills and learning
- Effective communication
- Measuring success
- Embedding the transformation
Champion the change: The change leader is personally committed to the change being a success, and must be its role model. Choose change champions (ideally volunteers who are enthusiastic about the new direction) to work alongside the leader and actively participate in change management initiatives, rallying support.
And if all else fails…
‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete’. R. Buckminster Fuller, 20th century inventor, designer and futurist.