Employee Engagement and Change Management

Using science to help navigate the change process

I teach behavioral science applied to change management. Specifically, what we know about how learning and unlearning occurs and how that impacts change management processes.  I teach a course – Why is Change So Hard? that explores this.

What can organizations do to understand and manage employee engagement during times of change?

Organizations, if they want to be successful at creating change, need to learn how exactly people adapt to change and learn and unlearned new work habits. If you don’t have a good grounding in the science, a lot of what happens will catch you off guard. For instance, resistance to change is predicted to occur and is a natural part of the process that should not freak anyone out. Plan for it instead. Give employees time to adjust and adapt to the change. This is mostly about the mindset of the managers in charge of the change process and their expectations and how they deal with the resistance, which again, is normal and predicted.

What happens to Employee Engagement during different types of change?

Whenever change occurs, what we are really discussing is the removal of reward. So one way of doing things worked, now it doesn’t anymore. This can occur when you change your operating system for instance or your email system. People will resist and get upset and complain. What is happening is like a grief process. There is resistance to the new reality, and eventually people accept the new reality because they have no choice. This is normal. Not something to be upset about if you are the manager in charge. Treat it like grief. Commiserate and keep gently encouraging people to adapt. No – we can’t go back.

Another type of change occurs where the old way still works. This is much harder to change because it means people can refuse to change. And if they can refuse to change, they will refuse.  This happens when you try to change the culture of an organization, or you try to get a harassment situation to stop, or you are asking people to use a new form but the can still use the old form and still get things done. What happens is that people resist, not because they are being jerks, but because – that’s just part of the change process. There are ways to help employees adjust. You can enable and empower early adopters, support them and use them to create a new norm. But mostly, you just have to stay calm and patient during the rebellion to change and let it play out while exerting pressure to change.

What really helps is to adjust your training so that instead of having a 1 time training and expecting change, you roll out your training over time.  For instance, my sister works at a company that changed their email system. They were given an initial training, then over the period of 2 months, the training department sent out daily reminders about the new system and how to use it and nudges etc. This was a brilliant way to address the change, because it took into account the fact that people had to unlearn the old system and learn the new system and that is inevitably a process that takes a month or so. So plan accordingly.  You are building a habit and that takes a month or so of repetition.

What influences Employee Engagement during periods of change?

The attitude of the managers is key. If managers view the resistance in negative terms, meaning they take it personally or ascribe motivation to the resistance that has nothing to do with what is actually happening, they can make the process way more unpleasant that it really needs to be.   If managers view the resistance not as an attack on themselves, but as a normal part of the change process, they can be a lot more compassionate to the staff who are resisting and this makes the whole process easier and helps with how they go about motivating employees.  Managers who take resistance personally tend to try and bully employees into change. Managers who take a compassionate approach are supportive. Most employees prefer supportive approaches to bullying approaches.

What types of companies are doing this well? 

I think one of the best examples is Morgan Stanley – a couple of years ago they changed their corporate culture successfully - http://humanisthappiness.blogspot.com/2015/06/can-bankers-change.html  Details at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/05/can-bankers-behave/389558/

What could companies be doing differently? 

When planning for change, they should take into account the natural resistance and plan for it. They should also understand that this is a marathon not a sprint. You can’t just do a training and have things be different. You have to manage the change process over time to be successful.

How do you implement a change management program that supports Employee Engagement?

 If the change is largely cultural, I recommend implementing the change in stages. Do a proof of concept with a smaller group and then fold in the rest in stages, building upon success. What you are trying to do is ensure that the change you want is solidified in the least resistant group and then using that group to help drive the social adoption which does require social validation. Each group brought in is given enough time to adapt and solidify the new behaviors before bringing in the next group.

If the change is structural, then you organize your training to take place over a period of two months and build in a LOT of repetition so that the new habits become – habits.

To learn more – consider taking my course – why is change so hard or have me do a training for your team.

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