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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
What will help engage employees in the company’s changing goals?
Article Type: Q&A From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 10, Issue 3
Leading industry experts answer your strategic questions
All management is change management
From recent years’ economic turmoil, it has become evident that companies are maneuvering in an uncertain and constantly changing landscape. In fact, a recent Burson-Marsteller survey on communicating strategic changes shows that 85 percent of European companies have experienced a number of strategic changes in the past five years, and that more than half expect to see even more changes in the years to come. The research is based on a quantitative study of 213 European companies from ten industries and an in-depth qualitative study (Burson-Marsteller, 2010).
Today, management is therefore about leading and helping employees make sense of the rapidly changing corporate reality of which they are a part, so that they can change their own behavior accordingly. It is about involving employees in all phases of the constant and ongoing change processes that companies are experiencing, to ensure a permanent, positive development. However, changing employee behavior can be a highly complex and challenging process. To this, Burson-Marsteller’s change communication survey is a testimony, as just 23 percent of respondents state that their company is handling change effectively and with success.
Resistance to change
People tend to seek a predictable and stable world, and thus, resistance to change is a natural part of human nature and behavior. Faced with unwanted change, we all go through psychological states of denial, fear and anger before we eventually reach a state of acceptance and engagement. A major challenge for management, however, lies in the fact that employees do not go through these phases simultaneously.
Thus, top management’s desires to change employee behavior places great requirements on both communication and middle management’s ability to involve employees. An ability to successfully involve employees in the changes that surround them is paramount as it makes them feel safe, valued and wanted. By doing so, uncertainty and resistance among employees may be reduced, and the probability of employees understanding why and what they will gain from changing behavior may be enhanced at the same time.
That these are both important elements becomes evident from the Burson-Marsteller change communication survey in which lack of employee involvement (39 percent) and insufficient communication (31 percent) were cited as key barriers to changing employee behavior.
From resistance to engagement
As with change in all stages of human behavior, getting your employees to adapt corporate goals as their own and act accordingly is about taking them from awareness to understanding to commitment to acceptance, which eventually will lead to change of behavior. It can be a long journey, on which many companies struggle to find their way.
One of the reasons is that companies tend to focus on one-way communications based on creating awareness, thus missing out on the opportunity of taking employees any further than a state of awareness. It is therefore crucial that companies are able to supplement cascade communication from top management with communication more relevant and inspiring to the individual employee. Furthermore, it is pivotal that companies involve employees through their closest leader. It is through relevant communication, dialogue and involvement that employee engagement is obtained.
Despite the undeniable importance of employee involvement and dialog between middle management and employees, all experience and the Burson-Marsteller change survey both show that companies often fail to do so. In fact, just 33 percent of respondents stated that they are successfully communicating change via middle managers.
Communication at eye level
Internal communication is often a difficult task to perform as employees frequently, and for various reasons, are not receptive to the messages that management is trying to convey. Most often, employees distance themselves from strategic decisions made by top management, either because they consider them irrelevant or fail to comprehend how they influence their personal work life. Communicating strategic thinking in a way that makes sense to employees is therefore extremely important to ensure their engagement.
Stating a corporate purpose is an effective tool in trying to communicate strategic decisions and corporate goals in a manner understandable to employees and engaging them in the goals of the company. It is more relevant for employees to relate to simple and emotional messages such as the reason for the company’s existence than it is to understand and relate to long and short-term financial performance of the company. Communicating strategic, financial and technical messages in more emotional and simple terms will often help employees answer the question “what’s in it for me?” and that is key to changing and winning the engagement of employees.
Maria SennelsBased at Burson-Marsteller Copenhagen.
About the author
Maria Sennels is CEO and Managing Director of Burson-Marsteller Copenhagen. She joined B-M in November 2005. Her expertise is within strategic management and communication and she is well versed in running full-scale development processes for executive management groups focusing on change communication, branding and leadership development. At B-M she specializes in large-scale change communications for clients across several sectors. She has a Master’s in Economics and HR and an executive MBA, both from the Copenhagen Business School. Maria Sennels can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Burson-Marsteller (2010), Corporate Purpose Impact Study, Burson-Marsteller, London, commissioned by Burson-Marsteller as part of a joint venture project with the Center for Corporate Sustainability Management at IMD