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If you’re a first or second line manager, these demands from upper management may sound familiar. And odds are, you are going to fail at accomplishing them — two-thirds of transformation efforts do. In fact, 8 out of 10 times I can predict if companies will be successful. But I’m not a fortuneteller; I just look and listen for two things: Are the frontline employees engaged in crafting and implementing solutions? And do they express a sense of ownership about the purpose of the change?
It turns out my observations are supported by data. A 2010 McKinsey global survey of 2,512 executives found that, when the frontline experiences a sense of ownership of the necessary changes and are engaged in driving the change effort, the success rate rises to astonishing 79 percent.
One common challenge for the managers I train is how to transform employee resistance and reluctance to change into engagement in driving the change effort. While demands to increase productivity and quality can sometimes be perceived as difficult, it doesn’t have to be that way when you get the process right. For proof, here is a case from a surgical unit a hospital I consulted with, in three acts:
Act 1: The e-mail
On a Thursday afternoon, the unit manager sends out a message via e-mail to her 16 employees. The message states that a task staffed with an employee borrowed from another department will be terminated in two weeks, and that the employees are expected to take on that function. Quite a few people are left feeling insecure. Several employees interpret the shutdown as the first step in management´s secret plan to shutter other functions in the department. The following Monday, a handful of employees are talking about — and actively looking for — work elsewhere to avoid being fired. And none of the employees are taking initiative to solving the actual task: how to reorganize the work. The only one unaware of this unfortunate situation is the manager who is now on 6 months educational leave.
Act 2: Management defines, engages, and tests
The interim manager calls for a meeting. She explains that the shutdown of the function is the department’s contribution to the total planned company cutbacks decided by senior management. She makes it clear that the shutdown is inevitable and that the present level of productivity and clinical quality is to be maintained. To make this happen, she needs and expects the employees to share their knowledge of working procedures and craft ideas of how the tasks can be reorganized in practice. She facilitates a two-hour process where the employees craft a prototype of a work process to be tested. Then she implements a testing phase.
During that one-week test period, she has short daily meetings with the employees supporting daily learning and progress. After that week, the new work process is fully implemented, and productivity quality is maintained at the usual level.
Act 3: The birth of an innovative culture
Twelve weeks later, I interviewed the manager and some employees. In the end, no one believed that the old job function was necessary. In fact, collaborating to solve the challenge was such a great success that management and employees now meet every three weeks to discuss upcoming difficulties and how to solve them before testing the solutions in practice.
Please note how the employees’ trust in management and subsequent resistance (versus active problem solving behaviors) are influenced by communication. The initial issue started with a one-direction email. The context of the cutback is unclear, the rationale behind the decision is deficient, and the manager does not engage the employees in how the challenge can be solved. During the following days, the employees do not take agency to solve the problem, but instead express distrust in management intentions.
When the interim manager initiates an entirely different process strategy, the employees take an agency position almost immediately. Their behavior and trust in management change dramatically. The point is that employees are not opposed to change; they just tend to resist change or take agency according to how you lead the process.
For quick reference, here’s a breakdown of the steps the manager took:
1. Explained the context behind the workplace change.
2. Defined what had to be accomplished within the next two weeks.
3. Engaged the employees in crafting solutions to the demand from top management.
4. Engaged the employees in testing solutions in practice, and supported their daily progress.
5. Explained her criteria and rationale for accepting, revising, and rejecting their inputs.
I’ve seen this five-step process prove its worth in private and public services and manufacturing. Chances are that with it, you will also succeed in engaging your employees to drive the change effort. And when that happens, your transformation is a lot more likely to succeed than fail.