6 Ways to Drive Employee Engagement During Business Transitions

Resistance to change, employee engagement, and business transitions.

Leaders may be the ones to develop plans and send out the order for a change, but it’s no secret that how employees respond to those orders determines whether the change actually happens, whether it’s effective, and whether it will stand the test of time.

Resistance to Change

Humans are creatures of habit, so when it comes time to implement a change in work routine, simply knowing that the change is for the best is not enough to counter inherent resistance. Think of your most senior employees who have a strong connection with the company and have been working in a way that’s familiar to them for more than a decade. How can they trust that a new way, which may be difficult to learn and feel like a risk, is more effective than the way they’ve been doing it through thick and thin with this company? Think of your newest employees who have little stake in the direction of the company. Why should they, as low-level orderlies, put in the extra effort to change their habits when they’ve just learned the old way?

In a key study about organizational change, the global management consulting firm Bain & Company reported that 65% of initiatives required significant behavioral change on the part of frontline employees — something that managers often fail to consider or plan for in advance.

Understand the 3 Factors to Accelerate Engagement

Leaders can’t change other individuals’ behavior, but they can give them the mindset to want to change their own behavior. Getting and keeping employees engaged is a long-term process that is critical to ensuring planned changes become a reality. A good thought leader convinces those senior employees that learning something new is a short-term inconvenience that’s necessary for the exciting, fresh direction the company is heading; likewise, they convince those newer hires that it’s worth it to invest time and energy because this company values their contributions and offers a return.

Acceleration requires three factors:

Acceleration, resistance, and transitions.
  1. Overcoming resistance

This factor involves guiding employees from unawareness of the need for change to an understanding of why that change is happening and necessary and finally to an acceptance and willingness to put in energy that will make it happen.

2. Managing transitions

Leaders must acknowledge that change causes emotions, and they have to be prepared to let employees move through the stages of these emotions at their own pace. The emotional cycle of change aligns with the Kubler-Ross model, also known as the five stages of grief.

3. Enabling greater engagement

After introducing the change in a way that makes it clear exactly what is happening and why, and with managed expectations about the emotional states of employees, the last factor is actually driving that engagement.

Of course, highly engaged employees are better for a business, but you might not realize just how much better. Workplaces with higher rates of engagement are more profitable and see fewer absences. Most importantly, highly engaged employees have the work ethic and the drive to do the hard work when needed, which means change is far more likely to be effectively implemented in a workplace with many highly engaged employees.

According to a recent Gallup report, following wild fluctuations due to the stressors and instability related to COVID-19 in 2020, employee engagement is back at an expected level — and it’s low. More than half of all employees on average are disengaged, and as many as 15% are actively disengaged. Inspired change requires employees who go above and beyond in an organization, and highly engaged employees cap out around 25% of the average company’s workforce. That means leaders are relying on only one quarter of their workforce to carry everyone on the team.

Driving Engagement

So we know why we want employees engaged, but how do we actually get our workers fired up?

Here are six drivers for increasing the number of engaged employees as well as their level of engagement:

1. Connecting

Get people connected with the change initiative.

Connections are created in four ways:

· Socially: the relationships created and deepened by the change among coworkers and teams

· Intellectually: the intellectual challenge of the change work

· Environmentally/Culturally: the environmental or cultural modifications resulting from the change

· Inspirationally: the connection to the cause, the purpose, or the goal of the change initiative

Ask about the existing culture. Communicating directly will show you what new connections and relationships need to be established between teams and how to use employees’ passions to direct the change. Involving the people who are affected by a change in finding a solution not only shows that you care about how they’re impacted, but it gives them agency and encourages them to connect their skills and passions to the change.

2. Shaping

Let employees customize, personalize, and tailor their work and work life. Having the option to determine what they do, when they do it, and who they do it with (within reason) gives the employee ownership over their work and some control over the change. This is also a great time to take advantage of new opportunities and potentially grow an employee’s role if they demonstrate the skills and initiative to take on new responsibilities or challenge the status quo.

Ask employees about the challenges and annoyances they face and how those could be overcome. Ask about individual goals, and let them know how the change aligns with those goals. Having these conversations is a great way to gauge what drives your employees and to learn what rewards motivate them best.

Learning, goals, and conversations.

3. Learning

Learning is the process of acquiring knowledge, skills, and experience. The fear of being unqualified or not having the right skills can paralyze some people. Consequently, this driver is about helping people learn what they need to implement the change successfully.

Ask employees how prepared they feel for the new change, what skills they’re missing, and how leadership can help them close those gaps.

4. Stretching

Get people out of their comfort zones! This is a given with a big change, but you can reframe it as an exciting endeavor instead of something to dread. Stretching increases people’s capacity to perform — and that’s when engagement reaches much higher levels. Even though the stretch can create some discomfort, and even some pain, it’s also when people feel the most exhilarated.

Ask employees what factors of the change will be a stretch for them. Just expressing fear and discomfort can reduce stress, and it gives leaders the opportunity to find and remove obstacles that will prevent employees from stretching. Most importantly, take this time to connect the stretch to people’s personal development goals.

5. Achieving

Achieving is the process of focusing and sustaining people’s efforts to accomplish something meaningful. If people are unwilling to stretch and develop in the first place, chances are they won’t achieve much. But once they begin to accomplish consequential work, then achievement creates its own rewards — intrinsic rewards that cause people to say, “Hey, I want to do more.” Research shows that every time people accomplish something, even if it’s small, it replenishes their energy, boosts confidence, deepens fulfillment, and gives them the motivation to keep trying. These short-term wins can accelerate the change process.

6. Contributing

Communicate that employees’ efforts are being directed toward a meaningful purpose. Human beings want to make a difference — it’s an innate need. During exit interviews when employees are asked, “What is it that you value the most from the experience you have had in this organization?” thousands responded with (1) their relationships and (2) their personal contributions. Engagement goes up when people can contribute to something with higher meaning and purpose.

Culture, engagement, and communication.

Behind every engine are thousands of parts. Though an outsider may only see the machine as a whole, the work gets done because all of those parts individually work as planned. Human beings are more than parts, though; if they aren’t invested, the work doesn’t get done. Driving engagement reminds people why what they do matters and establishes the culture necessary for big changes to unfold.

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