Here’s a case study of a sugar mill that recently had great success in getting its employees to embrace change. The mill, in the heart of an agricultural district, is surrounded by a small town. The prognosis for change wasn’t good — the workers belonged to a union renowned for irrational behavior and outrageous demands; there had been many failed salary negotiations, intermittent strikes that occasionally turned violent, and general intransigence of employees against management.
With the price of sugar dropping, strikes playing havoc with productivity, and increasing staffing costs, management had run out of options. As a last ‘triage’ resort, management consultants were called in to help.
The agreed approach was to embark on a communication campaign of absolute frankness and honesty. Nothing would be hidden. Explaining the balance sheet to the workers, many of whom weren’t well educated, was a first step, but along with it came divulging the fact that bonuses hadn’t been paid in years, and that shareholders hadn’t received dividends in a long time. Staff were actively engaged on an on-going basis. They were encouraged to ask questions and to request information, and everything they asked for was provided to them in a totally transparent way.
Bit by bit, management was able to educate the employees as to the true reality of the business. Everything from plans for capital expenditure to possible future retrenchments was on the table for discussion. The style of communication was different from the confrontational, demanding style of the unions – it truly became interactive, respectful, and completely open.
The process was not quick – the discussions took place over a period of 2 – 3 months, but the end results were amazing. The employees suddenly saw that it was in their hands to save this mill by working in tandem with management rather than against them. Their thinking went even further - they themselves announced that if they didn’t change and if the mill shut down, this would literally kill the entire town.
With this realisation, the turnaround in attitude and behaviour was almost immediate. The 1,500 people at the mill started working in unison, with a shared goal. Executives were frankly shocked by the success of their communication, while the unions were extremely put-out that their members were now “talking like management”.
Some of the steps of successful change management are encapsulated in this example, but by far the most important part is getting employees engaged in the process. So how do you pull this off?
6 steps to getting your people engaged in change:
1. Convince your employees of the value of the change
Drawing up the procedural steps and action plans that will lead to a desired outcome is the ‘easy’ part of change. The difficult part is to get the human element on board. Inspiring employees with a new vision that will allow for a transformation of culture can only be achieved through cooperation.
Getting your staff engaged requires telling a compelling change story – a bit like the one that employees discovered for themselves at the sugar mill. You might have staff who have seen change initiatives fail, or who are deeply suspicious and believe that all change is good for management and bad for the rank and file. Employees really need to understand the current situation and why there’s a problem before they’ll be willing to accept that change is inevitable. There’s nothing like having ‘skin in the game’ so your job is to find the reasons that will motivate your people and convince them that change is necessary.
2. Get buy-in through ‘what’s in it for me’
Most people are just trying to keep their jobs to provide for their families – they have a very different agenda from the Board of Directors. The staff at the sugar mill weren’t dancing with delight that they were going to have to become more productive and would need to accept lower increases than the union promised, but the information provided to them was convincing. It’s a little like the child’s game of ‘connecting the dots’ – you can’t speak solely about what’s good for the company, you have to provide ‘ah-ha’ moments that make people see why change has to happen, and could be beneficial.
Even when staff accept that change is inevitable, it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily pleased. Their instinctive reaction is to wonder how it’s going to affect them. Addressing these concerns is vital to move people beyond just accepting, to getting involved and engaged in making the change happen. Particularly when a change is going to disappoint many of the staff, feeling listened to and having their anxiety acknowledged will go a long way to ensuring successful change initiatives.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate – and make it a two-way process
Communication really is at the heart of any change process. Whether it’s new structures, acquisitions or disposals, different policies or targets, people need explanations as soon as possible. This allows for participation and early involvement. When you impose change on people there are always repercussions, which is why it’s surprising that so many companies still do this, and keep people in the dark ‘so as not to affect morale’.
Change is bound to bring confusion and some degree of disorientation (see a previous blog on why people want to hold onto the status quo). Frank and open communication is key, but there is a caveat – you absolutely have to tell the truth. Unfortunately, in many companies there is often mistrust between workers and management – a feeling that they’re not being told the full story or that the executive team or shareholders are looking to feather their own nests at the expense of the many. This isn’t always an unfounded prejudice. If you’ve decided to be transparent, you have to provide the facts, and not just those that make your case. If you’re found to be withholding information, the chances of a successful change will go down like a lead balloon.
How much is too much communication? There isn’t an answer to that – it depends on how much your staff need, and you keep talking until they’re satisfied. Getting input from the ground up is as important as top-down communication, so keep listening along with talking. Leaders should have an open-door policy during a major change in a company, and meetings should be held to elicit feedback. Just having an employee feedback app or conducting a survey is also a way to keep your ear to the ground. By doing this you’ll help minimise the inevitable complaining behind closed doors that could build up into a wall of resistance that you really don’t need.
4. Have a clear plan of accountability and follow-up
Many companies ‘make it up’ as they go along, which is why change often causes confusion and panic. Planning should involve proper training sessions, new standard operating procedures, and well thought-out milestones. Those involved should know exactly what their role is, and what deadlines are involved for each stage of the process. Leaders need to check in regularly with those who are accountable for driving the change to ensure that everything is on track.
Really good change management is often displayed in visual form in a place that is accessible to all employees to keep them engaged. They should be able to see exactly how the plan is unfolding – where they’re ahead or behind schedule – and what their responsibilities are at any given time.
5. Have clear metrics and celebrate when these are met
You’ll probably have a ‘change team’ in place that will be overseeing the process, and they will be driving the meetings and feeding back information about how well (or not) progress is being made according to agreed metrics. When large tasks are broken down into smaller initiatives, it makes it easier for everyone to keep track of what’s happening and to celebrate any positive outcomes. Too often, change management doesn’t run smoothly; there are time delays and cost over-runs, and then there’s pressure on certain staff members for negative performance. When there’s a big goal ahead of you, make certain that the good things are recognised to keep employees engaged and enthusiastic to get across the finish line.
6. Have well trained leaders to lead the change
While bottom-up communication is extremely important, everyone knows that no change happens in a company unless it’s driven from the top. You must have leaders who are well trained to lead the process. If they don’t ‘walk the talk’ or truly embody the new initiative, your change will likely fail. This is so important that it needs an entire explanation of its own and will be the subject of the next blog.