Employee Participation Is Key to Success in Any Change

Type: Features
By Kim Hanson, ABC
3 November 2015
Credit: convisum / 123RF Stock Photo

Imagine that someone is helping you plan a barbecue—but they don’t ask what foods you want to serve, or how many guests you are inviting.

You wake up the morning of the event and they hand you strange cooking tools, recipes you don’t recognize and ingredients you have never worked with before, and expect you to cook the main meal. They rearrange your deck furniture, play music you don’t recognize, replace all your favorite drink recipes.

What are the chances that the barbecue will be successful? That you will be enthusiastic and engaged in your cooking and serving? That the guests will have a good time?

While this scenario sounds like the nightmare many of us have the night before a party, in reality it is the way that many companies implement cultural or organizational change programs.

Few companies think to ask employees to be involved in the design of significant cultural or organizational change programs. Instead they hand employees a series of new processes and procedures, a new set of tools or company values, and expect them to “accept and implement.” Is it any wonder that the majority of change programs fail? Or that, when confronted with a change program, many employees opt to leave instead of helping move the company forward? This is especially true for the newest generation of workers, known as millennials.

“When it comes to the design phase of change initiatives, it’s absolutely critical that millennials feel that they have a voice and a vote in the initiative and pathway to get there,” notes Jason Dorsey, millennials expert, author, speaker and a researcher at The Center for Generational Kinetics.

“Millennials have come of age in a time where they expect to contribute and be part of the conversation. So, when you intentionally involve [m]illennials as part of your change initiative, you not only make them feel valued and included, but you demonstrate that they are a key part of the future of the organization, which is key for retention, morale and talent development.”

Let’s look at some examples of this type of collaborative change:

  • One of the largest divisions of a Fortune 10 global company wanted to lead by example in implementing more environmentally sustainable work practices in all of its facilities. It began with a grassroots effort that surveyed all of its environment, health and safety engineers for ideas, and then asked every division employee for their input as well. An employee-led initiative that started small was then created for sites to drive results that were good for the business and the environment. The initiative netted over US$9 million in costs savings, reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 184 tons, saved 43,000 gallons of water and led to more than 80 community outreach programs. The effort is now being extended to customers.
  • A natural resources company found that involving all of its hourly workers in helping to develop a new mission statement and common values built tremendous pride. By talking to employees, where they worked, at the end of each shift, the company was able to gain clear insights into which values truly mattered on the ground floor of their business. Employees were able to see their input into the future direction of the company.
  • A Fortune 250 business services company learned that a large systemic change in processes worked much better when field employees knew and understood the rationale behind the change, and had the ability to test-drive, and improve the design of, many of the changes before they were implemented. Pilot programs in each of their main divisions ensured that all parts of the business had a voice in the changes and a chance to contribute to what the company ultimately implemented.

Here’s what these three change projects had in common.

They stated the desired outcome. It is always important to have the goal of the change clearly stated from the beginning. What must the change accomplish? In the case of the natural resources company, they wanted to develop a mission statement and values that resonated with their entire organization.

They were clear on the strategy. If outcome is the “what,” then strategy is the “why.” Why is the company initiating the change? In the case of the Fortune 10 global company, they wanted their division to act in ways that were not only good for the business, but also for the environment. And they wanted to engage customers, where they could, in the initiative.

They encouraged true collaboration. All three of these examples made sure that their employee participation went beyond token levels. While it is not always practical or possible to involve everyone, in all scenarios, be sure you include a substantial number of employees to participate—and be open to truly new ideas. Throw out rigid ways of thinking and old processes in favor of getting to your outcome with everyone still on board.

They made it personal. Each of these programs strived to give every participant a personal stake in what was happening. Without that personal commitment, change cannot happen.

They made progress visible. Big change takes time and the changes, especially in the beginning of a project, are often incremental. Keep everyone motivated, and your project energizing, by sharing completed milestones and celebrating them. The Fortune 10 global company made sure that the recognition for their environmental sustainability program instilled a sense of pride in accomplishment at its sites, within the division and also at the corporate level.

They cited what was next. All of these companies used the momentum and success from one change program to inform the next one. Because any successful company doesn’t change once, it changes often.
To integrate successful change programs into the fabric of your company, you need to foster true collaboration, and buy-in, at all levels; you need to communicate, well and often, ensuring everyone understand the outcomes they are working towards, and also see and celebrate progress, along the way. Honesty, candor and respect go a long way toward helping cultural change take root and in retaining employees. And having employees take personal pride in what they accomplish together, during a time of change, is a big win for any organization.

Kim Hanson, ABC Kim A. Hanson, ABC, is a business communication consultant with expertise in change management, employee engagement, IT and operational communication, as well as leadership communication and training. She is a senior consultant with On the Same Page, a certified Woman Owned Business which specializes in developing communication strategies that support positive business outcomes through effective employee engagement, efficient change management and proactive leadership communication. You can reach her at kim@on-the-same-page.com.

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