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Change without disruption: How to protect employee engagement

Employee engagement can suffer when leaders make organizational changes, but Shane McFeely offers five steps to quell distrust.

6 min read


employee engagement

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Bad news for organizational leadership — the rate of change is not likely to slow. But the good news is that rapid change doesn’t have to mean a decline in employee engagement or a dilution of organizational culture. 

Every organization and industry is contending with rapid change. From economic shifts, regulatory changes and fierce market competition to mergers and acquisitions and new technology advancements, leaders are constantly adapting to market pressures and transformations. There is an inherent inevitability of constant organizational change to lead in our modern economy. 

With unmanaged change, often comes employee dissatisfaction and decreased productivity. Yet, Quantum Workplace research found that communication about change is more critical than the change itself. They found that the frequency of change did not impact employee engagement levels. However, frequent communication about changes significantly boosted engagement and effectiveness of the changes. Employees well-informed about changes were 48% more engaged, making communication crucial for successful change management.

The bottom line from this research? Effective communication is critical to maintaining high employee engagement and successfully managing change.

Here are five must-haves in communicating organizational change:   

1. Use employee-centered framing

The first thing employees want to know when any changes occur is how it will impact them. What do these changes mean for their day-to-day tasks, workload, responsibilities, workplace relationships and career growth? This is why it is critical to have all levels of the organization collaborate on communication and make connections to roles and teams.

Employees at all levels of the organization need to know how changes will affect their future at the organization. Make it clear if organizational changes will immediately impact head count. The tendency is to wait to communicate any information to employees until leaders and managers have all the information. However, employees will only be highly engaged, productive and committed once they have job security. 

Next, leaders and managers need to make the case to employees that this will ultimately benefit employees and organizational success. Leaders need to make the connection between the personal impact on operations, job security, team cohesion and the benefits that might occur because of this change. 

2. Make it make sense

The message around organizational changes needs to resonate logically with employees. For employees to be supportive and embrace organizational changes, they have to make sense. Help employees understand the change by making the reasons for the change crystal clear. 

Communication plans often start by answering, “What are the changes?” and “How are we implementing them.” But leaders must begin with the goal and outcome in mind and communicate “Why we are making this change” and “How does it align with our goals and mission.” This is the first authenticity test for your message. Employees do not want sanitized ChatGPT generated corporate speak that is devoid of all meaning. 

Leaders must show authenticity, transparency and honesty in communicating their reasoning. Whether it’s reacting to competitive market pressures, refocusing on a dialed-in mission and goals or chasing new opportunities, employees will better understand and embrace changes if they are presented with the evidence.

3. Cascade the context

There is a large gap between leaders and frontline employees in the perception of communication effectiveness during periods of organizational change.

Much of the communication that happens from leadership is often not passed on strategically to the people leaders who need awareness and preparedness to respond to their teams. It’s not enough to just cascade the message, leaders must cascade the context about the why and how of the changes. 

Because leaders are at the table when discussing organizational changes or strategic decisions, they often overlook the level of context they have. Leaders know what alternatives were explored, what inputs and data were used in the decision-making process and what outcomes are intended with these changes. But they often fail to share it when it’s time to communicate with employees.

Leaders should include employees in the decision-making process whenever possible. At the very least, share with employees the people included in the decision-making process, what data and metrics were used as evidence and evaluation in the decision and how they made the ultimate decision. 

4. Plan and reinforce communication

When communicating effectively from a leadership perspective, it’s going to feel like you are overcommunicating. Leaders will need to communicate changes multiple times to multiple audiences using various communication channels. Some communication experts recommend five to seven times as the sweet spot.

Just like the market, timing is everything when it comes to organizational change communication. Communication usually happens after a strategic change or decision has already been enacted. This is different from when employees expect to be informed of significant changes. At a minimum, leaders should communicate before, during and after a change.

Think about it like this: 

(a) what changes are we planning, and why
(b) what changes are we enacting, and how
(c) what changes have we executed, and are they having the intended impact

When leaders don’t appropriately communicate changes, it can often derail change efforts. Employees will seek information and depend on informal networks to get information about organizational changes. This can lead to gossip and misinformation that can further exacerbate disengagement and backlash.

5. Prepare for the backlash

Kurt Lewin said, “If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.”  Organizational change is often met with feedback and even criticism. This feedback can be a rich source of information about how to improve and refine your organizational changes. Leaders should be open to employee feedback and genuinely listen to concerns and suggestions to improve the workplace.

Many organizational leaders need help with how to manage adverse reactions to organizational change. Communication can often come off as defensive and dismissive if leaders try to change how employees feel or react to a decision. 

With any given organizational change, there will likely be a group of employees who will immediately embrace the changes, a group who are ambivalent and a group who are resistant and may even sabotage change efforts. The latter group becomes a real problem when it is comprised of managers or other organizational leaders. 

According to Gartner, change success increases by 24% when employees own change planning and implementation. The key is to involve employees early through planning and communication. Rely on change champions — those who embrace and celebrate the change — to communicate the opportunity. Listen to change critics — those who oppose the changes — to improve implementation and direction.  Both groups are essential to the success of any organizational change.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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