About a month ago, I was interviewed by Jim Karrh, the consultant, coach, and discerning host of the podcast Manage Your Message. Jim recognizes that the way leaders manage their messaging makes a significant difference in their productivity and success. He’s a thoughtful interviewer, and we had a wide-ranging conversation on a number of leadership and communication topics.
We went deep on the subject of how leaders can encourage employees’ participation during a change initiative. That can be a real struggle, particularly when an organization has even a small history of failed initiatives in its past.
But these five suggestions may help; they all focus on helping employees see that they actually matter in the process.
Recognize that change is individual. The beginnings of change happen one at a time and one to one. Adjusting structures and processes will codify a change and formalize it. But getting people to do things differently from the way they’re used to requires them to change their behavior and habits at the individual level — and everybody’s different! This means that the leadership process has to include persuading people of the proposed change’s value to them personally as well as to the organization overall — and that individuals may need training and support to make the change once they’re willing to try.
Identify influencers to cultivate as messengers of the change. It’s wonderful when the entire management cadre is in full support of a new effort. And yet, even when they are, it can still be more compelling when the most highly trusted individuals at all levels are clearly on board. Look for people who see the path and are optimistic — although not unrealistic — about it. They may not have formal roles in the hierarchy, but in most organizations, employees rely on these individuals and look to them to see if things are okay and if they should go along. It can be helpful to buddy these people up as temporary mentors with others who are not as quick to change.
Be willing to start with small steps that people can take quickly so everyone sees that they’re already adopting — and adapting to — the change. Sometimes these actions fall into the category of “low-hanging fruit” because they’re easy and obvious. That doesn’t make them trivial, though. Giving employees recognition for even the smallest of steps makes the confusion or displacement of change feel worthwhile, and helps them work up to accepting larger, more disruptive aspects of the new way.
Be intentional about building momentum. Once people have started making the easy changes, leaders can publicize the fact that change is taking hold, and show off the concrete representations of the impact. Document your progress wherever you can: Mark accomplishments, milestones met, and growth statistics up on public whiteboards throughout the facility, write them up in your weekly newsletter, and highlight them and the next set of changes in every internal communication outlet you’ve got. And find ways to thank and praise participants frequently. The publicity and the appreciation will help everyone see and feel good about the wave of interest and accomplishment, and also reinforce employees’ confidence and willingness to continue.
Coach for the concrete details rather than the concept of change. It’s not particularly helpful when people who aren’t getting it 100 percent right are told to “just get it right.” Start by observing closely how people behave and how they talk about the new initiatives. Those close observations can become the grist for neutral behavioral descriptions. For instance, rather than telling Steve that he treated Patty in a mean way and needed to be nicer, you would coach him on the specifics: “Steve, when you were talking to Patty in the meeting, I noticed that you raised your voice and said X, Y, Z, and then turned away and started talking to Rhonda. I don’t know if you were aware that Patty rolled her chair back from the table, crossed her arms, and shook her head? Those behaviors showed that she wasn’t responding the way you had hoped.”
Most change processes advance in fits and starts, full of occasional experimentation and often necessary reworking. But if you focus on the individuals, line up your influencers, are willing to start small and build momentum, and coach the details along the way, you can give your initiative a much greater chance of developing both speed and thrust.