This Is How to Be Present for Your Employees in Times of Change
When it comes to organizational change, too many leaders stay on the sidelines. The best leaders are quarterbacks, and they’re with their employees for every play.
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People are naturally opposed to change — familiarity is enticingly comfortable. It’s no surprise, then, that igniting organizational change can be particularly difficult. Insights from McKinsey suggest that a discouraging 70 percent of change initiatives fall short of their original goals. On a more positive note, getting real company buy-in makes change efforts 30 percent more likely to stand the test of time. But how can a leader win over his or her team members?
Attempts at change are often met with resistance, and the way a leader anticipates and responds to this resistance plays a significant role in overcoming it. Because leaders are frequently strong-willed and outspoken individuals, it can be tempting to try to plow through resistance or stubbornly ignore it. That probably explains how so many companies switched to cost-cutting open floor plans despite their many drawbacks.
A leader’s aim is ultimately to unify a group of individuals behind a purpose, and in many companies, leadership falls short. According to a survey from Gallup, as many as 59 percent of employees aren’t sure of their organization’s purpose, and a mere 22 percent of employees strongly agree that their leaders possess a clear company vision.
In 2015, when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced the restructuring of the massive company, he conveyed a new mission to his employees: “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” In doing so, he united the Microsoft workforce and showed an understanding of the divisive struggles the employees had been experiencing.
By empathizing with those reluctant to change, leaders are better able to understand what their employees are going through, and they’re in a better position to coach them along the path to successful transformation. Communicating an organization’s purpose and goals is the first step, but being present for the journey is equally important.
According to Kevin O’Neill, managing partner and co-founder of executive search firm Acertitude, “Presence is the embodiment of the vision and the motivating force to keep people engaged to achieve individual and collective goals.” The best leaders aren’t just advocating for change from the sidelines — they’re on the field taking the following actions to help bring it about.
1. Achieve transparency through storytelling.
In order to be an agent of change, explain to team members what the end result will look like. That doesn’t mean sugarcoating difficult transitions or spinning fantastical yarns about a workplace utopia. Get to the heart of the matter and explain what result the change is designed to bring about. Where do current team members fit into this picture of the future, and how will their roles change? Narrative is powerful — especially when your employees see themselves as integral parts of a winning team.
2. Walk one step farther with your team.
Don’t just deliver news — that’s what Twitter accounts are for. The role of an executive is to lead change, but many make the mistake of just talking about it. When leaders make it a point to explain how they understand the impact a major change has on the lives of their employees, they’ve already taken an important step in assuaging their team members’ fears. Healthcare changes are a great example: Rather than just announcing that you’re offering coverage with a new provider, help employees find new practitioners when needed. Be prepared with as many resources as possible, and answer any difficult questions that employees might have. They deserve full participation and a sense of responsibility from you.
3. Act on empathy-driven insights.
Listening to employees isn’t enough. Figure out what aspect of a company change is causing the most stress, and get to the root of that emotional burden. For example, employees often balk at digital transformation because they worry that technology will replace their jobs, a concern shared by 35 percent of millennials. An excellent response might be to proactively train employees to use the new technologies so they understand that they’ll still play an integral role in the updated organization. Many of the fears that accompany change are rational; careful listening will illuminate important insights that can help you determine how best to mitigate them.
Change isn’t easy on anybody. When executives are aloof and unavailable through a big change, it’s only natural for employees to approach it with trepidation. On the other hand, empathetic leaders who show up, engage with their team members and ease fears will enjoy a much more receptive group of participants. Instead of mandating change, try motivating it — the results may surprise you.