Change Leadership Challenge 4: Meaningful Employee Participation

This is the fourth in a series of posts about change leadership. Previous posts covered active, committed leadership, building a compelling business case, and embedding change.

Meaningful employee participation is important during change. Image by SandiaLabs on flickr.

Meaningful employee participation is important during change. Image of Habitat for Humanity by SandiaLabs on flickr.

Remember when you first learned to ride a two-wheeled bike? It took some work to find your balance. You wiped out a few times and scraped some knees. But you did it: You figured out how to steer, brake and fly like the wind down a hill. When you did, you felt exhilarated, proud of yourself and pleased with your accomplishment.

Now compare that experience with how change often works in organizations. A boss says to an employee, “Here’s the new process. Now go do it.” It’s a one-sided conversation that takes ownership away from the people who have to make the change happen. There’s little opportunity for the employee to experience the satisfaction of learning as you did when riding your bike.

People enjoy being part of changes that they create. Most of us like to give advice and make decisions. Science reinforces these concepts. Use your employees’ innate desires to shape change, give advice, and make decisions by engaging staff in planning and implementation. In doing so, you’ll master the fourth factor of becoming a change leader: meaningful employee participation.

There are many ways to engage staff in change, and every situation will require a different combination of methods. Make sure to use multiple mechanisms since each will provide different opportunities for involvement and different kinds of feedback. Here are six suggestions you can implement immediately.

Compose your Change Implementation Team Carefully

This group will become your primary implementers. They’ll be out front in the organization talking with their peers about the change. Because of this, you should populate your team with people who are respected by their peers. Look for the informal leaders in the organization—the ones whom employees naturally seek out for advice, information or support.

Create an Advisory Group of Influencers

These employees may not be right for the implementation team, but their peers follow and respect them. Get advice from this advisory group on specific decisions about implementation and approach. You’ll benefit from receiving input on key decisions and you’ll gain the support of the company’s informal leaders.

The caveat with creating an advisory group, of course, is that you have to listen and respond to it. Ignoring advice will do more damage than if you hadn’t asked for it in the first place.

Institutionalize Periodic, Anonymous Surveys

You can use surveys to help gauge how well employees are adopting new behaviors, applying new procedures, integrating change into their daily work, or progressing over time. You’ll also get hard numbers that show where your initiative is succeeding and where it’s falling short. You can usually find survey expertise in your company’s HR or OD department.

Conduct Periodic Pulse Groups

Pull employees together in small, cross-functional groups to discuss successes and challenges associated with the corporate initiative. This gives you access to the buzz surrounding your project as well as information you can use to help prioritize next steps.

Hold Periodic Feedback Sessions

In these sessions, managers bring direct reports together for frank discussions about what’s working and what isn’t relative to the change. Follow up the feedback sessions with a meeting in which managers identify the themes they heard from employees and give their own feedback. Use these ideas to revise your change plan and tweak your implementation activities.

Create a Improvement Structure

Complex change initiatives benefit from a clear improvement structure. Good structures prevent ideas from falling through the cracks or being adopted haphazardly. An improvement process might look like this:

(1) Employee sends the idea to the review group.

(2) The review group conducts an impact analysis of the idea and decides whether to implement it.

(3) The review group communicates its decision to the employee.

For change management “extra credit,” publicize adopted ideas to show how you are listening to employees and adapting the initiative to their feedback.

Quick Check: How Well are You Engaging the Organization?

Ask yourself the following questions to gauge how well you’re engaging the organization:

  1. Have you developed several ways for employees to participate in planning and shaping the change?
  2. Do you have multiple mechanisms for gathering perspectives from the workforce on the success and challenges associated with the change?
  3. Do you have several channels for eliciting and implementing improvement suggestions from the workforce?

Did you answer yes to all three questions? If so, good work. You’re engaging the organization in a way that will help make your change a positive one. If you answered no to any of the three questions, take some time to think about what mechanisms will work best in your organization. After all, engaging employees now is much easier (and more pleasant) than forcing them to change later on.

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