Involving Employees in a Change Initiative

“The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.” — John Wooden

A colleague recounted an experience implementing a company-wide quality initiative in a multi-national manufacturing firm. The initiative required employees to make significant changes not only in how they did their jobs, but also in their attitudes toward their responsibilities and the outcome of their work. My colleague was outlining to a senior executive the importance of affecting employees’ mindsets, and his plan for doing so. The executive cut him off, saying, “I’ll write them a memo to change their attitudes. Now, where is the project plan?”

We can hope that few managers would admit to such a simplistic belief in the power of a memo, despite how easy that would make change management. If there were a magic wand or a magic memo that could transform people’s attitudes, then the success rate of implementing new ways of working would be greater than the 15-50% reported by researchers.* Getting people to use a new technology or process—not as an overlay to their “real” work, but as an improvement to it—is no trivial task.

When the failure rate for organizational change is more than 50%, apathy is the sensible, rational attitude for an employee who has just learned about a new initiative. If he or she ignores the change, there is a greater than 50/50 chance that it will go away. Strong change management has to correct this reality by recognizing that the best advocates for the merits of a new technology or process are employees with expertise in the area affected, who have experience with the change and appreciation for it. There is no substitute for their know-how and enthusiasm. Find those early adopters, and involve them in implementing the change. Give them opportunities to share their experience and reward their successes.

But even the best advocates cannot  take the place of leadership. No degree of enthusiasm can outweigh the apathy of an employee who lacks the tools to make the change initiative work or has only a vague notion of the business case for it. Employee apathy is increased by leaders who give lip service to the change, but whose attention and budget are elsewhere. Change is successful when everyone has a vision of the end state, the plan to get there includes the needed infrastructure, and results are rewarded along the way. Aligning the management team, the infrastructure, and the reward system with the vision is an ongoing process that is not for the faint-hearted. Perhaps there is some utopia where this sort of active leadership could be done with a simple memo, but I probably don’t need to tell you what happened with my colleague’s quality initiative.

[The ideas presented here are from my book Creating Contagious Commitment (ISBN 978-0-9741028-1-8, www.CreatingContagiousCommitment.com). *See Creating Contagious Commitment for more on success rates of change.]

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