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Five ways to engage employees in change

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Change is constant in most organizations -- and it is an essential component of growth. Typically, when organizations undergo change initiatives, leaders tend to focus on laying out the procedural steps they must take, but they often ignore the human component of change: steering their team toward the new vision, transforming culture, encouraging learning and growth, and communicating.

Whether your organization is embarking on a merger or acquisition, adjusting its operations, or marketing new services, the course shift will require employees to think, act and behave differently to align to the new direction. It’s important to remember that employees are only human, and thus they will not automatically adapt to new processes. It’s only natural for them to feel frustrated and to demonstrate some level of resistance. A good leader can effectively address employees’ concerns by giving them a degree of control over the change.

To guide your team through a successful transformation, consider these actions:

Start with a vision. You need a common vision on how your team will work together and with any stakeholders to make the change initiative a reality. With a stated vision, you’ll eliminate any confusion for your employees or any stakeholders on how the team will adapt. Prioritize setting this vision ahead of all other tasks. Your team members must remain focused on and aligned with this vision, so try to avoid starting competing initiatives at the same time. Introducing too many new things at once will create an implosion of all efforts.

Develop a strategy. After creating a vision, engage your team members about how to get there. They and other stakeholders need to understand their roles in implementing a strategy that will fulfill the vision. Understand who your stakeholders are and what they need so that you are able to work with them. Questions you need to answer include the following:

• What new skills and abilities will employees need?

• How will employees learn them?

• What is the plan for communicating with employees and other stakeholders about the change?

• How will you measure success?

• What is needed to make transformation stick?

Be a champion of change. For successful change to occur, you need to be a dynamic role model. Employees need to know that their leader is personally committed to the success of the change. Practice this by removing barriers, providing resources, ensuring learning, partnering with stakeholders, supporting employees through change, measuring progress and quickly managing resistance.

Communicate early and often. Middle and front-line leaders are the primary communicators to employees. Communication from them should be frequent and consistent. Everyone affected by the change needs to know what it entails, why and how it is happening, and what’s in it for them. Don’t impose change; engage employees in a conversation about it. Ask them what they think and how they are feeling. They will talk if you listen.

Get in front of problems. Concern is a normal response to a change initiative. Create a safe environment and a mechanism that allows employees to air their issues and bring forth problems before there is any chance of escalation or derailment. Respond fairly, reasonably and in alignment with the vision of the change, regardless of anyone’s role or level in the organization. Keep in mind that what you think is a small issue may be a large concern for the person affected.

In situations where transformation is profoundly resisted despite efforts to engage, address the situation head-on. Otherwise, you may be required to do excessive work-arounds. You may also experience increased employee turnover or efforts to sabotage the change initiative.

Organizational change is a complex process that requires time, patience and dedication. If you lead and engage employees through the change, you are more likely to achieve sustainable success.

Rachel Bangasser is an organizational change leader at the state government level and holds a doctorate in organization development.

©2014, Society for Human Resource Management

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