How to Get Employees to Embrace Change

Change doesn't have to be uncomfortable, if you know how to demonstrate its value

Change Employees

Human beings tend to cling to what is familiar and comfortable. Yet change is inherently about the unknown and requires shifts in behaviors (and often habit). At the same time, large‐scale change sends about 80 percent of your employees into some degree of discomfort, unease, anxiety, stress, fear, pain or denial. This poses a significant challenge for leaders.

A heightened sense of urgency among a critical mass of employees around a common opportunity or objective is vital prior to any attempt to implement change. When change is "pushed" out on employees, most often they will push back. That is human nature. When employees do not see the reason or need for change, or understand the compelling business case, they often fear or resent change. Even worse, they may deliberately sabotage or derail change efforts.

Often senior leaders identify a new opportunity, goal or strategy that will propel the organization to the next level a greatness. As leaders, this opportunity and the compelling business case for it becomes crystal clear. Once this direction or strategy is identified, in most cases mid-level managers and supervisors are tasked with making the change a reality. These managers begin to implement tactics and strategies to advance progress toward the desired outcomes. What they typically discover is pushback, cynicism, apathy and lack of engagement from those they lead.

Create an Urgency to Change

In order to break through this resistance, consider this proven notion: Opportunity before strategy. By first creating urgency and alignment around opportunity or possibilities, leaders will find they are able to connect to not only the head (logic) of those they lead, but more importantly to the heart (passion). Tactics and strategies will never engage the heart. Failure to create urgency is another major obstacle in change efforts. It is vital that leaders gain buy‐in and engagement. That is only achieved by engaging the heart. This results in voluntary contributions of discretionary performance. Employees will tap into their full potential and go above and beyond when they are fully engaged.

When we speak of creating urgency among a critical mass, this does not mean spending an inordinate amount of time gaining consensus amongst everyone. Leaders must leverage those that "see what we see" as leaders (the opportunity and the possibilities) to encourage others to join us. In other words, develop and foster a "want‐to" culture versus a "have‐to" culture. 

A great example of this is Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. That speech created true urgency and engaged a critical mass. The civil rights legislation that followed a few years later provided the strategy and the tactics to accomplish the opportunity. Do you feel things may have been different the day of the speech if Dr. King spent the time assigning tasks, assembling change teams, and introducing flow charts and processes for change? That speech focused on the opportunity. It was the vision of a better tomorrow.

Getting a critical mass to see the opportunity that you see is not easy. But there are a few key practices that can help. The first: You can never over-communicate the opportunity or vision. The second is also that you can never over-communicate the opportunity or vision. You must resist the temptation to jump into execution of strategy before you have created true urgency.

It is difficult for people to let go of what they believe to be true in their minds. Employees will cling to what they know - their realties. If the "truth" or "reality" for your employees is that there is no need to change, what impact will that have on your efforts? Simply communicating your change vision or picture of success to launch and effort will not provide the thrust needed to engage a critical mass or create enough urgency to assure success. The message must be communicated and reinforced often and through a variety of channels.

The Power of Volunteerism

Change requires a large and diverse number of committed personnel and is not achieved by appointing members to a change team or taskforce. Inclusion, trust and empowerment are essential. Change occurs best when powered by passion and intrinsic motivation. Change is sustained when people volunteer to help. A "want‐to" culture trumps a "have‐to" culture. By engaging both the head and the heart, employees begin to see how the change can help them, their team, their department and the organization. They quickly move from understanding, to believing, to buying in and, most importantly, engaging.

These volunteers begin to identify the top opportunities and projects that will advance the change effort. Teams begin to form naturally and choose to focus on a variety of efforts to accelerate the desired change. Once these teams complete a project or break down a barrier, they select the next-most important project to accelerate the change. Employees from the pool of volunteers select the projects and initiatives they have most passion for, or where they believe that can add value. Nobody is being told that they have to do anything. This process ultimately creates a highly adaptable organization that complements the existing hierarchical structure

This process must begin with leaders creating a vivid picture of opportunities ahead that connect to the head and the heart. Exemplary leadership is critical.

Mike Evans is a best-selling author/speaker and managing partner of QuestMark. Over the course of his career, he has worked alongside a star-studded list of world-renowned thought leaders such as Dr. Stephen Covey and Tom Peters.

Mike will be the keynote speaker at Destination Southeast, being held at the PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Sept. 5-8. Destination Southeast is the premier hosted-buyer event for meetings and incentive planners looking to book business in the Southeast. Click here to attend.