Seven Ways to Engage Employees in Change Management

Culture change expert Dr. John Kotter stated in an interview that “70% of all organizational change efforts fail, and one reason for this is executives simply don’t get enough buy-in, from enough people, for their initiatives and ideas.” Securing buy-in from most of your employees will require extra effort. However, you increase the odds of your success if you take the time to engage employees in your change management plans.

Convincing Your Employees

If your organization decides to move forward with culture change or other change initiatives, you will have employees who will welcome the shift, but you also will have to win over these types of employees:

  • the tenured employees who have seen change initiatives fail in the past
  • the negative employees who tend to forecast doom and gloom even when the sun is shining
  • the “I told you so” employees who feel they are smarter than the decision-makers
  • the “I hate change” employees who are more comfortable sticking with the status quo
  • the “does this mean more work?” employees who are already feeling overwhelmed
  • the “last-minute” employees who don’t want to jump on the train until it’s leaving the station

Embracing everyone in your organization won’t be easy, but here are seven strategies that can help your staff feel more secure throughout this time of transition.

1) Solicit Buy-In Prior to Launch

At The Ritz-Carlton, one of our Service Values is: “I’m involved in the planning of the work that affects me.” This means that major decisions should not be made in private, executive meetings and then simply announced to employees. As you begin making plans, consider holding focus groups or taking surveys and soliciting employee opinion.

An organization had to make a decision that they knew many employees wouldn’t like. They decided to hold focus groups with key stakeholders—even though management felt this wouldn’t change the ultimate decision. The focus groups provided the opportunity for stakeholders to share concerns and for leaders to explain the reasons the change was needed. In the end, management made the unpopular choice. However, because they’d had a chance to give input prior to the decision, the key stakeholders were not only more receptive, but also helped minimize the concerns of their colleagues. In addition, management was able to address several of the concerns brought out in the focus groups, and this showed employees that leaders were listening. The decision—while still disappointing to many—was embraced without protest.

2) Communicate Consistently

It’s likely there will be some confusion during a change process. Employees may feel disoriented as your organization lets go of old processes and embraces new procedures. In order to help your staff feel more comfortable, make sure to communicate with them often.

Think of your organization as a sailboat, and you’re simply changing your course. When you turn your boat, the sails often luff or flap as they adjust to the shifting winds. As captain, you can keep your crew from panicking by reassuring them you’re headed in the right direction. Employees will feel safer knowing that someone is at the helm.

3) Lead by Example

It is vital that your senior leaders model any change initiatives for your employees. If your senior leaders do not “walk their talk,” employees will quickly stop trying as well. Your staff will think, “Why should I make these extra efforts if the people running the organization aren’t bothering?” Leaders who don’t back up their words with actions lose employee trust. A change initiative requires a team effort, and management should be fostering trust and leading their teams. Senior leaders can introduce a change process, but it’s their active participation that demonstrates the organization’s commitment to change.

4) Reinforce and Remind

It’s natural to want to see immediate results, but it may take time for employees to catch-on to new methods. William Bridges notes in his seminal book, Managing Transitions, that employees will need to go through a psychological transition. He asserts that “when a change happens without people going through a transition, it is just a rearrangement of the chairs. It’s what people mean when they say, ‘Just because everything has changed, don’t think that anything is different around here.’” Your organization needs to give employees time to psychologically adjust and absorb the new processes—while also ensuring that employees don’t hold on to old methods too long. Meetings, training sessions and written standard operating procedures (SOPs) can help reinforce changes.

At The Ritz-Carlton, our culture is reinforced through a daily meeting called “Line-Up.” These meetings take place at the beginning of every shift at every Ritz-Carlton hotel around the world. Each day this line-up meeting focuses on one aspect of our Gold Standards and gives employees a chance to share how they have enlivened the culture.

5) Establish Accountability

If you do not enforce following new methods and procedures, your employees might be tempted to slip into old patterns. Accountability often can be established through metrics and reports, but leadership may also need to check in with employees more frequently when launching new initiatives. This can be handled through one-on-one meetings or through smaller team meetings. The advantage of team meetings is that there’s an element of collaboration—the idea that we are in this together. But there’s also an element of peer pressure—if everyone else is committed to change, then even your change resisters will feel pressure to conform to the crowd.

You have to be careful when establish accountability because you don’t want to create an environment where employees are being asked to police each other or where your staff feels like Big Brother is watching over them. On the other hand, remember that people are creatures of habit—habits make up 40% of our daily activities—and some monitoring may be necessary.

6) Invite Employee Feedback

As you’re going through your change process, make sure there’s a channel for employees to offer feedback. There are several ways this can be accomplished:

  • an employee suggestion box
  • employee surveys at key checkpoints
  • town meetings where employee feedback is encouraged, responded to and recorded
  • an open-door policy by senior leadership

When you give employees an outlet for their concerns, they have a proactive way to express themselves—rather than complaining, venting and grumbling behind closed doors. They’ll also feel that they have a voice and are a valued part of the change initiative.

7) Measure & Celebrate Progress

When you have a big goal ahead of you, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making enough progress or that you may never make it to the finish line. To prevent feelings of defeat, it’s important to measure your progress. Establish key metrics right from the start, and let your team know what the goals are. Consider creating signage or a digital dashboard that keeps your employees informed of progress. This kind of transparency will allow staff to see that their efforts toward change are making a difference. In addition, this focus on metrics will create a feeling of teamwork and will squelch rumors and speculation on your organization’s chances for success.

It’s also important to celebrate incremental successes along the way. Small celebrations will renew your staff and reward them for their efforts. For example, if part of your goal is to raise your HCAHP (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) or Net Promoter Score, why not have mini-celebrations as your score begins to improve? Think of these smaller celebrations as a cup of cold water along your marathon route.

Emphasize the Positive

Tackling a change initiative can be daunting, but try to focus on the end results. You can even try to make the process fun by giving it a theme. At The Ritz-Carlton, when the sales team participates in an annual thank-a-thon, the event includes costumes, treats and motivational videos. Just because a project is hard work—doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. Keeping your teams focused on the benefits and outcomes will help everyone think beyond the day-to-day challenges and remember the purpose of committing to change. 

Join us for a one-day symposium, “Your Journey to Service Excellence.” The day includes a keynote speaker, a Q&A session with The Ritz-Carlton executive panel, an optional networking reception and presentations about legendary service, employee engagement and developing a customer-centric culture.