We’ve probably all been at the receiving end of a poorly-managed organizational change—a change where the rationale wasn’t clear, and where you and your teammates weren’t included in the change process but were affected by it. And maybe adversely so.
If you’re in a leadership position and facing an organizational change, you can make up for all the wrongs you’ve experienced in the past! It starts simply, with clear communication and including team members in the story of the change. The point is to make people feel like they’re part of the process and working with the changes, rather than in opposition to everything that’s going on. Here’s how to go about putting these ideas into action.
First, a story about what poorly-managed change looks like
Here’s an example from my own career: A company that had two different order-handling systems for different product lines decided to transition to one system going forward. The decision wasn’t officially communicated to the staff, but first made itself known as a rumor. No one really understood the reason or the consequences, and there were many open questions, like:
- When would the migration from one system to the other begin?
- How long would it take?
- What would happen to the redundant team?
- Would they be retrained and offered other jobs, or would they be made redundant and out of work?
The uncertainty carried on for over a year. People started to leave because they felt insecure about being left out of the decision-making process. No one likes to have a change imposed on them that they either don’t see the value in, or they think will negatively affect them.
In truth, this change could have been turned into a positive event if it had been properly communicated. The various team members could have been drawn into the story and if they had been able to see the benefits from the conception.
The importance of a good story
If you’re leading a team or individual through an organizational change, the best thing you can do is draw them into the story. Here’s what this means:
The no-story version: You tell some of your team members that instead of being a project manager in Division A, that they will now be a project manager in Division B, where they don’t know anyone. There’s no story here whatsoever. Just an order, really. If you were in their shoes how would you react?
The story version. You explain to your team that the purpose of the change is to break down divisional silos, share knowledge across departments, and to allow employees to grow and better utilize their strengths. Then, you go one step further and ask for advice and feedback about the initiative, and ask about the role each person would like to have in this new division.
The attitude you create with the story is significantly different compared to simply telling people they’re moving with no backstory or input on their part. In the positive scenario, you drew your team members into the story by explaining why the change was happening and asking for their opinion and views. When you ask and act upon your team members’ needs and desires, you make them feel valued; you motivate them by showing them that there’s something in the change for them.
More ways to include your team in the change
There are several ways in which we can make people active participants in a change initiative. We can for instance:
- Create surveys to elicit views and opinions from staff. Surveys are most powerful when they are anonymous and when the findings are published and acted upon.
- Set up virtual discussion forums where ideas can be sourced and debated in a wider group.
- Delegate part of the change process by giving people specific roles and responsibilities—e.g., assign a team member analysis work that will help inform the change process.
- Appoint employee representatives and invite them to take part in executive decision-making meetings. This way team members not only have a voice, but also a vote.
- Facilitate workshops to develop a collective understanding of the issues, approaches and methods going into the change. Workshops are particularly effective if the manager acts as a debate-maker rather than a decision-maker. It’s vital to make space for others to contribute and to reward people’s initiative by implementing their ideas.
The power of these methods is that they draw the employees into the process by engaging them, by creating dialogue and by giving them a role to play. It’s no longer a one-directional flow where employees are simply being told what to do. Now, people feel that their input matters. They’re being listened to and have become active participants who have real influence over how the organizational change happens.
Tell a story that touches people’s human needs
As you set out to engage your team in the change process, it’s essential that you tell a story that touches upon people’s deeply-routed needs. When you tell people what’s in it for them they feel more positive towards the change and will encourage it to happen.
But what is it that really drives and motivates people? Let’s look at how the six human needs impact organizational change.
- Certainty. People have a need for security, certainty, and stability in their jobs—especially in times of change. The more clarity and certainty you can provide, the better. Managers must help people understand how the change will affect them and what will happen and when.
- Variety. People’s inherent need for change and variety represents an opportunity that managers can utilize during times of change. This is about appealing to people’s need for excitement and stimuli and showing them that what they gain far outweighs what they might have to give up.
- Significance. Everybody wants to feel significant and special. Managers can draw people into the change story by helping them stand out and gain recognition as a result of the change. It’s about considering how the change can strengthen each person’s position.
- Connection. We all have a need to feel that we belong to a community or a team—a need, which can get threatened during organizational change. Managers have to unite people around a common goal and emphasize that they have an important role within the community.
- Growth. Everyone has a need to develop and learn new skills. Organizational change provides ample opportunity for growth if it’s handled correctly. Managers must utilize the organizational change to help people grow and develop and thereby create a positive feeling towards the future.
- Contribution. Finally, managers must make people feel that their efforts are contributing to a worthy cause. People want to know that the change matters in the bigger scheme of things and that it will have a positive impact on the customer, organization, community, and team.
As you draw people into the story and address their needs and desires, you really have to do it at two levels: at a practical level and at an emotional level. I urge you not to become a manager who dictates change. Instead, engage your team, create dialogue and give everyone a role to play that will make them feel valued and motivated.