• Chris Ward

Only people can make change happen

Updated: Mar 13, 2019

As anyone who has ever been involved with a major organizational change can attest, many things can derail a change project – unrealistic deadlines, overly ambitious outcomes, and poor planning to name but a few. For employees, change can be scary particularly when there are unknowns around workloads and job security. That's why it's essential to keep them in the loop.

Back in the day…

employees were expected to do what they were told. Whether they wanted to or liked what was being asked of them was pretty much irrelevant. They either did it or found another way to put food on their tables.

Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something. Plato

Fortunately, times have changed. More and more, leaders want to know what employees think about issues and their thinking is factored into decisions on programs and processes. Of course, this is a two-edged sword. When a new initiative is introduced, employees want to understand the reason for it, and what it means for them. They don’t like feeling on the outside looking in; they want to be in the know. And they certainly don’t want to be blindsided by an outsider who seems to know more about what’s happening in their department or organization than they do.

What’s this got to do with change?

In a word, everything! When members, customers, donors or other “outsiders” get wind of internal happenings before the “insiders” who are supposed to be in the know, the impact on morale and willingness to support a change initiative can be significant. The fact is, employees want to believe that what they are being asked to do will make a positive difference. This belief is hard to establish when they don’t get the information they feel they need.

An actual experience

Having invested considerable time and money in a rebranding initiative, management decided to implement a program that would engage employees in operationalizing the brand and position the business for greater success.

An important part of the rebranding work involved the identification of six behaviours that, it was felt, would play a big role in changing customer perceptions for the better once they were embraced by employees.

What goes up...

Over the course of three years employees were exposed to a variety of workshops and materials to help them understand the why and how of these behaviours. Perceptions of the degree to which these behaviours were being embraced by coworkers were monitored. And, to everyone’s delight, all trended up for the first year and a half.

From the get-go employees were asked for suggestions on what would make adoption of the brand behaviours and implementation of new systems go more smoothly. One suggestion, put forward early in the process, was better communication. Many employees were concerned that those on the frontline were not getting what they needed to properly do their jobs. Stories of being blindsided by customers who knew before employees what the organization was or wasn’t doing were common. Not surprisingly, staff members not only found this embarrassing, it was adversely affecting the organization’s reputation amongst external stakeholders.

…can come tumbling down

Despite assurances that communication would improve, little changed. The result was a growing indifference to the brand behaviours. By month 18, perceptions of the extent to which the brand behaviours were being embraced had peaked and were beginning to trend downward. After several years, and several hundred thousand dollars, this change initiative had gone as far as it could… which wasn’t nearly as far as management had intended.

The moral of this story

Communication, specifically the lack of clear, regular and meaningful communication, can derail even the most significant change initiative. Keeping employees in the loop is not a nice to do…  it’s absolutely a must do.

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