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Engaging People in Organizational Change

Orange neon "Change" sign

A year into the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to drive change in organizations as employees move to working in a hybrid world with more choices about where, when, and how much they work.

The success of such changes, now and in the future, is highly dependent on the advocacy of employees. For, while leadership may envision and drive change, success is largely contingent upon the involvement of employees; engaging teams; and recognizing why people ‘resist’ change.

Involving employees

Managers often fail to take into account the extent to which people can make or break a change.

The path of rolling out change is immeasurably smoother if people are asked early in the change process for input on issues that will affect their jobs. Frontline staff tend to be rich repositories of knowledge about where potential issues may occur, what technical and logistical challenges need to be addressed and how customers may react to changes.

In addition, the engagement of frontline members can smooth the way for complex change, whereas their resistance will make implementation an ongoing challenge.

Managers who resist engaging organizational members early in a change often do so because they believe that the process will be more efficient and quicker if fewer people are involved in the planning. This is short-sighted, since involving as many people as possible will actually help enable them to take ownership of the change.

This was evident in the Toyota Production System –known as Lean manufacturing – which pushed decision-making to the lowest level.  Workers on the assembly line were the ones who saw problems first. They were closest to the glitches that were inevitable in any manufacturing process. So, it only made sense to give them the greatest authority in finding solutions.

As with Toyota, every person in an organization has the right to be an expert at something. The person who is the receptionist or the janitor will know more about receiving people or cleaning offices than anyone else and it is incredibly wasteful if an organization does not take advantage of their knowledge and include them in decisions about changes.

Although such an approach may take longer in the beginning, ensuring broad involvement saves untold headaches later on. In addition, not only do more information and ideas surface, but people are also more committed when they are involved and engaged in developing the plan for change.

Therefore, whenever it is feasible to do so, organizational change should be constructed or negotiated with rather than to people.

Engaging teams

During any change process there is frequently a need to bring teams of people together, to share information, exchange ideas, and generate solutions to challenging issues.

However, managers often make the mistake of imposing solutions developed by a small, exclusive team, usually from corporate headquarters. A better approach for transformational change is to establish a core team that includes selected individuals and/or volunteers from across the organization.

A larger, cross-functional team may add complexity at the start of a transformation, and achieving alignment may initially take longer, but an inclusive team can generate more co-created solutions and organization-wide buy-in. Such a team can also make better-informed decisions and develop specific and realistic solutions.

Any team works better with a certain level of clarity about individual and shared responsibilities for engagement and collaboration within a change process. Clarity about roles, responsibilities, accountabilities and operating processes will help to reduce confusion.

So, ensuring that teams are effectively involved in organizational change will increase the involvement of people and encourage their potential commitment to changes.

Recognizing why people ‘resist’ change

Individuals and teams will have their own perceptions about proposed change. For instance, they may perceive it as threatening their status or adding extra work to their already overloaded work schedule. Subsequently, they may then appear to oppose the change and, as a result, be viewed in negative terms as ‘resistors’.

Too often managers fail to understand why people react the way they do and tend to frame the situation in ways that make the misunderstandings and so-called ‘resistance’ worse.

To address this, managers need to recognize the emotional impact of change on individuals and find out why they respond as they do. The reality is that many people will be optimistic, react positively to change and embrace rather than oppose it if: the outcome is important to them; they have been convinced that they will be better rather than worse off; and have also been given the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process about the change.

Many employees want, whenever it is feasible to do so, to be involved in identifying the need for the change and take part in its creation and implementation. When this is not possible then they will need to know the reasons for the change, and what training and development will be provided to help them make the transition.

Ultimately, providing the opportunities for people to be involved in decisions and ideas about organizational changes that affect them will help to create a more inclusive and positive approach to change.