• Talent Development

Supporting Employees Through Organizational Change

Teresa

Teresa Sanchez

Leading a company through organizational change management initiatives is no small task. And once the ink has dried and the company enters a transition period, the hardest part still lies ahead: Earning employee buy-in.

The uncertainty and tumult of the pandemic years have changed peoples’ attitudes toward change, resulting in what Harvard Business Review is calling “change fatigue.” A Gartner survey revealed that employees’ willingness to support enterprise change collapsed to just 43% in 2022, compared to 74% in 2016. Employee resistance is cited as the number one reason why organizational changes fail, according to a McKinsey report. 

The reason for this resistance is that most organizations, in the weeks and months following a change event, fail to take the right actions to support teams while they adjust. Leadership often assigns employees additional responsibilities and requires them to join new teams in an uncertain environment, often without guidance as to the rationale behind the switch. This fractures trust and drives a wedge between employees and management that is hard to reverse. Fifty-five percent of employees took a significant hit to their own health, their team relationships, and their work environment to sustain high performance through disruptions, Gartner found.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. When managed properly, a change event creates an opportunity to re-engineer a more inclusive and productive workplace culture. To earn employee buy-in and retain top talent in times of change, we recommend the following actions:

1. Be empathetic. Tell employees first

In work and in life, nobody likes to receive important news second-hand, especially when it’s relevant to their financial security. Although unintentional, employees often learn about organizational change management programs through the grapevine. A director tells investors something to the tune of “we’re considering strategic alternatives such as an acquisition” and suddenly your employees are reading about it in the paper. Confusion and chaos result and trust is lost. You can avoid this by telling employees about change events ahead of (or synchronously with) the public announcement in a direct but empathetic manner that speaks to their concerns. If the change will result in layoffs, or if they will have to relocate, they deserve ample notice. (For more resources on managing layoffs, read our blog Supporting Employees Through Tough Times). If the change will bring new opportunities for advancement, the same is true. A proactive communications strategy ensures the whole team is given the facts before the news hits the wire. It sets an inclusive precedent and is, simply, respectful.

2. Invest in an improved employee experience

Employees incur additional responsibilities – both intellectual and emotional – during times of transition. We recommend showing appreciation for this labor by coupling the change with a new employee wellness benefit or social initiative. This could mean no-meeting days, planned “downtime” around the change, or a fun company-wide networking event outside of the office. Demonstrating organizational care and valuing relationships makes employee buy-in smoother amid changes. 

3. Ensure managers have the proper training (and capacity!)

Only 57% of managers have enough capacity in their day-to-day work to support their teams through change. If the managers don’t usher in the change, no one will, so it’s absolutely critical that you give them the resources and bandwidth to succeed. This means lightening their loads, setting aside time for them to connect meaningfully with new reports, and ensuring they know how to communicate with empathy. Leveraging the perspective-taking power of immersive technologies is one proven way to allow managers to practice communicating empathetically in high-stakes situations. Knowing what to say (and what NOT to say) in these conversations can be the difference between an engaged employee and a jaded one.

4. Collect employee feedback

Re-structured hierarchies, often part of a major change event, tend to breed insecurity. Doubts about job security deter open expression, harming an organization’s psychological safety culture. If you want to build psychological safety during a transition time, solicit employee feedback on management’s handling of the change. Asking the questions “What are we doing right?” and “How can we make it better?” gives employees a venue to voice their opinions and sets a strong precedent for speaking up. Gartner research has found that when employees own implementation planning, change success increases by 24%. 

Seizing the opportunity

When managed strategically, change events create a launching pad for a more vibrant, inclusive employee culture. Inviting employee involvement, centering employee experience, and working to alleviate fatigue is key to unlocking this potential. Instead of playing catch up (or worse, doing damage control,) leaders who bring the change will elicit more sincere employee buy-in and support a healthier, more productive future.

 

Check out our course offering on organizational transformation and change management.

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