Home Our Work Time to change the way we change

Time to change the way we change

Jason Frank

Listening, science, and skills: three steps to helping employees create change that really sticks.

The data tells us that business change programmes often don’t work as well as envisaged. Many of us have experienced the confusion, resistance, cynicism and inertia that derails change. Does it have to be this way? No, it doesn’t – and post-pandemic, we have the opportunity to make change work better in our organisations.

Creating the conditions for successful change

People and culture are often cited as the main causes of change failure, but let’s not kid ourselves: many changes fail because they are just the wrong change at the wrong time. Others fail because they are under-resourced, so even the most receptive workforce can’t make them work. The classic Lippitt-Knoster ‘Managing Complex Change Model’ highlights resources as a key criterion for success; without the right investment and right people, there is simply frustration. In some cases it’s the lack of a realistic or sufficiently detailed plan, or the absence of true unity amongst the leadership team, that compromises success from the get-go.

Let’s put these types of change aside for now and focus on change programmes that have a fighting chance of success. The consensus amongst the experts, as reflected in the many overlapping change models, is that some form of the following three elements are prerequisites for successful change: vision, incentives, and skills. The popular ADKAR model describes the need for employees to have the desire to support and participate in change, the knowledge of how to change, and the ability to implement the change.

Experience suggests that these factors aren’t always given the attention they deserve, or are considered separately from core change plans. In the current business environment it feels like we have an unprecedented opportunity to take three important steps towards minimising risks and maximising our chances of making successful change happen.

Step 1 – Leave the echo chamber to listen and learn

Leaders and change teams struggle to develop ‘change visions’, messaging, and engagement activities that generate the desired employee engagement and motivation. Part of the problem may be the relatively closed-door nature of many change processes; sometimes this lack of collaboration and consultation is necessary to some extent, but in many cases, it isn’t. It can be a barrier to success in a world where people expect to be heard, and where empathetic, empowering leadership is now widely valued.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Organisations now have an opportunity to consult with employees more quickly, easily, and meaningfully than ever before – to test and validate their vision, messages, and any planned interventions. By using smart, psychologically safe online research tools we can give employees a greater voice and gain more insights into their attitudes, concerns and motivations. An added advantage is that when change is communicated to the wider workforce, we can truthfully say that employees were consulted along the way. This moves the process away from old-school, top-down thinking and towards a greater sense of involvement and empathy – without loss of control.

Step 2 – Add more science to give people more motivation to change

A broad range of incentives can help motivate employees to support and enable change, such as more opportunities for growth, financial rewards, improved career prospects, or simply more optimism about future success. Unfortunately, the organisational changes required to make these incentives real – such as new performance or remuneration processes – might lag significantly, or might not happen at all. Even if they do materialise, they might not push all the right buttons for many employees, and so we must then look elsewhere to create meaningful and lasting motivation. We must also be led by as much science and data as possible, given that the stakes are so high.

Self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan, 2012) offers a useful behavioural science lens through which to look at the challenge of motivating employees in times of change. The model posits that fulfilment of three innate human psychological needs is necessary for optimal human functioning:

  • Autonomy – We need to feel that we can make our own decisions, have some control over the way we work, and influence our own destiny.
  • Competency – We want to feel that we have achieved a level of mastery, are capable of carrying out tasks, and have opportunities to become better.
  • Relatedness – We need to feel a sense of belonging and attachment to others.

To get employees on board, we must tap into these deep-seated, intrinsic motivations – it’s no coincidence that they align closely with the generally accepted drivers of employee engagement.

Here are just a few suggestions for how we can tap into the power of intrinsic motivations, such as autonomy and competency:

  • Give people a voice and get them involved in shaping the change, to create a greater sense of participation and self-determination.
  • Emphasise autonomy and competency in your ongoing change communications. Help employees understand where and how they can exercise more autonomy, and demonstrate how changes and investments will provide them with new opportunities to build their skill set.
  • Provide employees with stories about others like them who are working with greater autonomy and building their professional competency as a result of the change.
  • Deliver the right learning opportunities and managerial support to enable people to expand their competency and autonomy through change.
  • Give leaders the support, tools, and training they need to enable their people to work with greater autonomy and feel a sense of belonging.

Step 3 – Help employees build the skills they need to affect change

These thoughts lead us nicely into discussing what’s arguably the most broken element of change – skills. The paradox is that this is the biggest win-win. There are many reasons why skills need to be more central to change programmes: re-skilling and up-skilling is a growing strategic imperative, employees value opportunities to build up their skill sets, and change is likelier to succeed if we help people develop the capabilities needed to deliver it.

Recent eye-opening experiences while working on change programmes have made it clear to me that we could – and should – up the ante from the standard one-off events, packaged workshops, and manager toolkits that tend to form the backbone of many change-based communication and engagement programmes. I have worked with three specialist colleagues on different change programmes: our behavioural science lead, a digital learning specialist, and an expert in leadership mindset and capability development. There has been change – but not as we normally know it. The behavioural science expert has conducted award-winning experiments that have helped employees in a global pharmaceutical business to behave in new ways. The digital learning team is implementing cutting-edge programmes that enable remote workforces to customise digital learning to help them build essential new skills. And finally, the leadership expert is showing leaders how to Interact differently with their employees to enable change.

Only with this more robust, science-led thinking and investment in the areas of skills, employee listening, and behaviour change will we really begin to see revolution in the currently lacklustre change success statistics.

Creating change that really sticks

There are no guarantees, but if all of us involved in the messy human business of organisational change can make even incremental progress on the three steps outlined here, it seems that everyone has a greater chance of winning. With more science, listening, and focus on skill-building, our people will be more equipped and inspired to play their part in creating change that really sticks.