The 15 Immutable Laws Of Engaging Employees In A Change Effort
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The 15 Immutable Laws Of Engaging Employees In A Change Effort

In today’s complex, uncertain business environment, we realize that no organization can grow, prosper or even survive, without a knowledgeable, engaged and aware workforce.

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In today’s complex, uncertain business environment, we realize that no organization can grow, prosper or even survive, without a knowledgeable, engaged and aware workforce. This includes leadership, management, and employees at all levels.

Enlightened organizations also know that when undergoing transformational change it is crucial that the workforce be allowed to engage in the effort offering perspectives, ideas, and suggestions to guide and improve the change initiative.  Igniting and harnessing dialogue, discussion and debate internally places the focus on accelerating decision making, challenging people’s knowledge and providing information that leaders, managers and employees alike can utilize to frame arguments, illustrate situations, make decisions and launch new programs.

With all the complexities of today’s society we are faced with constant clutter and information overload. Even a simple decision to order a cup of coffee is complicated with several options. Do I want my coffee black? With milk? Sugar? Tall? Grande? Decaf? With a shot of espresso? Latte?

In a time when information is abundant, competitive advantage lies in our ability to affect the behaviors, attitudes and actions of our employees through relevant, authentic and contextual information and dialogue. The end result is a workforce that can make decisions quickly, accurately and consistent with the business strategy.  In the end, people need to make the argument for themselves.

As organizations continue to evolve amid the reality that technology has now given people globally a voice, providing an environment where employees can actually take ownership of the change initiative is a game-changer.  Put succinctly, organizational effectiveness is defined as an institution’s ability to operate profitably, functionally, socially, strategically, innovatively and humanely.

A management model focused on improving organizational effectiveness must bring together the right mix of communications, leadership and team building to create openness and an exchange that’s fostered by the right technologies and the right skill sets. What’s more, organizational effectiveness is a behavioral-based model, embedded in a belief that sharing the right information with the right people will result in the ability to make decisions for the organization.

As communicators, we must serve as the “invisible hand,” guiding employee behavior based on organizational priorities and strategies intertwined with people’s view of reality and need for purpose.

In shaping communications as a means for improving organizational effectiveness, we should consider several the following as immutable laws for increasing employee engagement specifically in a change effort:

1. The CEO ultimately drives employee behavior and the organization’s culture. In a time of change, the CEO must take the role as lead engagement officer. A clear, well-articulated guiding principle (whether about culture, company goals or organizational values) can help focus an organization, align and motivate employees, and guide effective communications internally. Internal communication must help shape and guide CEO actions and decisions so that they are clearly understood and actively engaged.

2. If it's "baked" you’ve lost. A critical mistake often made by leaders during change is to present a fully constructed rational and plan to the organization. While this sounds like the right thing to do, in practice such a tactic produces the exact opposite reaction with employees. Why? People want to participate in their future which means to participate in the change effort not watch it or hear about it.  The right approach is to provide a strong rationale for the change, a set of key metrics, and a timeline and then let the organization embrace and engage in making it work.

3. Management and communications must be married: not distant relatives. More and more we realize that management and communication are inextricably linked. Communication must be viewed as an important component of a company’s management model. It can no longer be viewed as a separate and distinct function.  This is probably the most important lesson of all and one that continues to elude many organizations.

4. Decision-making must be inclusive and integrated. A perceived lack of involvement in organizational decision-making results in employees who feel disillusioned and disempowered. We must shape communications as a tool for linking employees to business decisions, creating a channel for them to voice opinions and suggestions that ultimately affect outcomes.

5. Language is critical.  One area that is overlooked is how the actual change is characterized and communicated.  Language is important.  The key is to not use or over-use the word “change”.   Language must be clear, concise and simple.  In some instances, it needs to be provocative.  I all cases, it needs to be relevant to the workforce.

6. Make it “Important” not a Campaign.  Someone once said, if it’s not important then it’s not worth doing. Half the battle in organizational effectiveness rests with leadership’s ability to be disciplined and committed to its goals, strategies and purpose. Adopt a philosophy for how to manage, how to communicate, how to operate and stick with it.  Similarly, there is a tendency to “brand” a change effort and turn it into a campaign.  Posters, mugs, themes, all detract from the importance of the effort and essentially “turn off” employee interest, attention and engagement.  Don’t “brand” change ever!

7. View employees as a community not a captive audience. To date, leaders, managers and communicators have treated employees as a captive audience and to a lesser extent, a necessary burden. The result can often be compared to treating employees as children — spoon feeding them rhetoric and worse, pabulum, in the belief that they would just “eat it up.” Reality: employees are smart, knowledgeable human beings running households, raising children and actively involved in their communities and the world around them. To be effective organizationally, employees must be treated as if they are a public constituency capable of opinion-shaping, decision-making and ultimately, organizational success — which they are! This means providing facts, interaction, discussion, debate, dialogue and open communication.

8. Discover versus sell. The classic mistake most management and communicators make today is the belief that they need to “sell” employees on everything from a new benefits program to the corporate strategy. But people “smell the sell” and turn off to the very thing being endorsed. The right approach is to base communication on a “discover” model — one that allows people to find the answer or truth themselves. This encompasses a new type of thinking and approach. It means a provocative tone, a more authentic method of discussion and debate and a more pragmatic view of
human behavior.

9. People have a voice; now what?  Your employees have the ability to embrace, ignore or fight any organizational change effort. The question is – are you listening?  What are the conversations internally?  What types of information is breaking through? Being shared? The power of voice breaks through silos and creates linkages throughout the business. 

10. An employee’s understanding of strategy is “seeing and feeling” patterns
of behavior, starting at the top, not listening to “corporate speak.” Through actions, style and decisions, senior leadership can instill the appropriate mindset around the organization’s strategy, set the managerial and operational tone and provide continual focus on the future. How is internal communications directing the organization’s leadership actions to reflect the messages?

11. The marketplace should dominate internal conversation. The company’s external profile provides context for internal organizational health. From employee publications to employee meetings to internal e-mail, every opportunity must be shaped and used to bring the customer and marketplace inside the company. Competition, trends and industry issues, provide employees with the proper frame of reference to assess their performance and understanding of company decisions. How much of what we do has an internal focus without a direct link to the marketplace?

12. Why?   Any change initiative must begin with why. Information is meaningless unless a frame of reference is established.
We must provide an explanation of purpose, context and meaning to the organization and to the individual employee. As communicators, we must evaluate every message by asking, “Why should I (a front-line employee) care?” How often do we ask, “Why?”

13. Simplicity creates interest. The role of internal communications is to help the organization and leadership to keep things clear and simple. As the world becomes more complex and information overload threatens to overwhelm employees, the ability to keep things simple remains a true competitive advantage as well as a quality of life staple. We must filter our leadership’s messages and provide information that is clear, relevant and focused. It is here that we as communicators have the greatest opportunity to provide value to organizational culture. How often do we cut through the clutter and help simplify the message?

14.   Who Are You Talking to?  A major miss on the part of leaders and communicators alike is treating the workforce as a homogenous unit – one uniform entity that thinks, acts, and behaves the same.  It isn’t. Today’s workforce is composed of multiple perspectives that culminate into a worldview.  Analytics and data can provide a precise snapshot of your workforce including specific personas and archetypes that help characterize how they think which in turn guides content, tonality, cadence, context, frequency and rhythm.  The Employee View™ - an analytics-based offering designed to uncover an organization’s employee worldview - provides the right insights for leaders and communicators to calibrate communications organize employee influencer networks and address gaps in comprehension and trust.

15.  How do you talk about your reality? The core element of any change initiative is the story itself – what is referred to as the Narrative.  The Narrative is not messaging per se.  It is the story platform for describing the situation or reality in a manner that people can relate. It provides a sense of language, nuance and context.   It is the basis for communications internally and externally.  Without a Narrative, your change initiative will never gain traction.      

A glimpse at effective organizations reveals that strategic internal communications can and will facilitate a culture of learning during major transformational change, where:
• People share their best (and worst) practices
• Performance appraisals are used to assess learning activities
• Flexibility and risk-taking are rewarded
• People are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning, budgets
and opportunities.
• Research is used to gain insight not data
• Messages are aligned with actions to provide meaning versus noise

For companies to survive and prosper in a social and digital age they must be nimble and agile and embrace change at a rapid pace.  This new frontier represents a brave new world for the organizational communications presenting a unique challenge and opportunity for connecting people with purpose; ideas with solutions; and behavior with results.

Gary F. Grates is a Principal at W2O Group and a leading authority on change management and organizational communications.  Grates counsels organizations globally and is an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and ABERJE, Brazil.

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