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Are You Adept and Adapting?

Change Management Principles for a Changing World

Prior to our new unusual world, many of us were talking about a future environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) and how to prepare the awareness of our leaders and readiness of our organizations. Then, Covid-19 happened and layered on a whole new level of unexpected disruptions. No one could have predicted the kinds of decisions they’d be facing, the change management they would have to go through.

Yet the contagion revealed an incredible amount of resilience with organizations adapting to changes swiftly and effectively.

Can we always move this quickly?

We can if we make certain we have a shared context that all employees are working from, agreement on the need to adapt, aligned objectives, an environment of trust, and the meaningful participation of employees.

With COVID we had a shared reality. We appreciated the need and had a real desire to support the organization, to move online, to be able to work from home. To focus on agility. Outcomes. Passion and purpose.

The bigger question is how do we replicate that environment, that culture on a more ongoing basis?

Technology, competition, and markets will continue to evolve.

To be an organization or team that’s effective, we need to be adept at adapting.

When we think of change management, we have our sophisticated models, our market indicators, KPIs, and skilled teams to identify where improvements can be made. Change management concepts and plans are thought through. But generally, it’s designed at the top.

We’re often not going as deep as we could to gain those insights from our organization as a whole, from those who are primarily responsible for developing products, services, selling, interacting with customers. We’re not always identifying connections between departments and the contacts employees have, or how our systems are often interconnected and how our people are interconnected in ways we don’t anticipate.

So, what can we do?

Well, during a September 2020 webinar, our Chief Engagement Officer, Rob Catalano hosted our friend, Pauline James from Anchor HR to discuss how to Engage Employees in an Agile and Participative Workplace Culture, and this is what we learned.

Change Management Principles for a Changing World - employee feedback

Ask and then Ask Again

The key premise is to treat employees as important and trusted advisors. To replace hierarchical implementation with meaningful participation. We need to leverage insights around barriers. To have continuous conversations where we’re tapping into an incredible wealth of knowledge. When employees feel heard, when they’re participating in the solution, we know that we garner efficiency and agility.

From a cultural perspective, we’re often not sharing as often or as clearly as we can about how we’re doing as a business, what our metrics are telling us, sharing customer feedback. We’re not tapping into what our employees are seeing and hearing and experiencing, or testing what we’re introducing in advance of full-out implementation. The lesson of COVID, that allowed for speed, is that we had to go to that shared context, that shared community needs to adapt, to ask questions and to find out how people were doing, how everything was shaking out.

There’s research out there that talks about employee voice and asking the right questions. When we think about feedback from employee initiatives, we tend to think about one type of employee voice which is called satisfaction/dissatisfaction – asking employees how they feel about something. The second type is called participative management – asking why or what they’d do differently and then digging deeper to get to the details.


Democratize Access to Information

Those of us who drive change and are closest to it often have access to the best information. We have the control and time to consider these inputs which are antecedent to how willing we are to embrace change.

Most employees are hungry to understand much more about how the business is actually doing, the reasons behind decisions. And their sentiment, employee sentiment, is often a reaction to how supported they feel in their work and their opportunities to contribute and connect – which goes back to the importance of feeling that they’re actively included in problem-solving, that they’re actively involved.

When COVID first hit, organizations were completely dependent on their employees and needed to trust them. The accomplishments we achieved during this time showed the difference it makes when we share context, when we allow people to participate, when they have the same information as leaders when they’re trusted advisors, and see the impact they can make for themselves and their colleagues and the organization at large.

A chief sign of engagement is volunteerism. Employees identifying barriers to their job (which can sound a whole lot like complaints) is volunteerism. And while it can be a little hard to hear at times when we turn that into insights and actions, we build trust with employees and they tend to become more focused on solutions. It becomes this kind of virtuous cycle of engagement.

There are two ways to achieve this. If it’s just simply getting feedback through survey mechanisms, there’s science around the right way to ask questions that lead away from complaints towards participative management. The other is to structure feedback solicitation around the concept of brutal facts: “let us know what the brutal facts are…here’s your opportunity to whine. Then we’re going to take all that, curate it as a group and identify the most important priorities”. The conversation now becomes focused on issues and how to fix them, hearing sentiments and then engaging employees on how to channel this into constructive, supportive solutions.

Change Management Principles for a Changing World - Planning

HR’s role is to ensure practical support and structure allow for multiple avenues of input and involvement and to equip management to be responsive. If leaders have to deliver a difficult change management message, we have to make sure our leaders are aligned with the change, and feel ready and supported as they go out to talk to their employees.

One common well-intentioned mistake with change management communication is endeavouring to tell employees in some way to be positive. But when employees are told how to think or feel about a situation they tend to withdraw, and they’re a whole lot less likely to share their candid input and concerns. With our COVID reality right now, we’ve seen that individuals who tend to have the most credibility, speak in an authentic, candid way. They speak with empathy. But they’re not sugar-coating messages.

During change, people can go into fight or flight or freeze mode. That’s why we need to involve employees in decisions as much as we can. To be connected, available and responsive to concerns. To expect to have to repeat information over and over and over again. To be clear about what’s changing and what’s not. Whatever we can identify as not changing is calming. It gives people an anchor.


Prime for Agility and Change

Building a culture for agility comes back to being focused on a common purpose. COVID gave us this common context. How can we ensure our teams are connected to our company’s purpose and customers’ expectations? By sharing more data on dashboards, democratizing access to information.

Focus on agility around purpose and goals:

  • define what success looks like (is it ROI, customer satisfaction scores, something else?)
  • align objectives
  • build in milestones with feedback loops to course-correct (it can’t be just a moment in time)

Build goodwill

  • make sure leaders are clearly focused on what slows down their teams, what prevents them from doing good work each day
  • interconnect teams
  • increase awareness around how each group functions together
  • make sure when changes are happening that employees are actively included and involved

Give employees meaningful participation as trusted advisors

  • gather insights from all impacted employees
  • test before change and tactics are too far along
  • ask for problem-solving suggestions on how to improve
  • dig deeper for feedback on operations and changes
  • use different mechanisms like surveys and focus groups and one-on-ones to collect and act on friction points

The reality is, if we don’t do this frequently, we’ll find there’s no accountability to act because no one’s getting checkup information that might make them do anything differently. Our leaders need to understand the impact of the changes they’re implementing on behalf of the organization and specific to their teams. They need to understand what’s working and what’s not in order to navigate the organization’s way to success.

As author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou poignantly observed: “People may not remember what you said, but they remember how you made them feel.”  And in these times, it’s more important than ever for leaders to understand this is core to leading employees through change.

Additional Resources

Check out our guides on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys. Learn about every aspect of a successful employee voice initiative!


We write on the current challenges HR and organizations are facing in order to support our community. Check out more of our articles here.


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