In times of transformation — when an organization needs its people to buy-in — is when employee trust is typically the most challenged.
People are often distracted by how a change will affect them, and that can cause doubt and anxiety. Ambiguity and worry love to travel together, and if left unaddressed they can gradually build into a tsunami of anxiety. Workers can become inert, and at that point, many managers see productivity slumps, and they panic, pouring fuel on the fire. This can have lasting ramifications for a company’s culture and the long-term confidence of its employees and customers.
One of the things that separates a great company from the pack is the way its leaders at all levels respond to change. This process begins with an understanding that no matter how healthy a culture is, a good portion of employees will naturally resist any change, or indifferently ignore leaders’ pleas to do things in a new way.
People cling to their beliefs, right or wrong.
We all engage in what is called confirmation bias. We see it in abundance during an election year. Rather than search for information that strengthens and challenges a particular belief we hold, we tend to seek out information that only endorses what we already believe — sometimes without concern for the data’s veracity. It’s so much easier on our brains. Consider the experts who are booked on cable news shows to debate the merits of various pieces of information during an election. Have you ever seen one of these people stop — after strong evidence is presented by the opposing side — and then change his or her mind? Most likely your answer is, “Yeah, never seen that.”
So, in the workplace, when managers try to realign workers’ beliefs with a change they think is necessary, workers’ brains can switch into protective mode. Many might not hear the benefits of what their leaders are saying, though they can make their managers think they do. “Sure, Boss. Sounds great!” They might superficially accept the change but reject it later, claiming, “I never really bought in.”
Organizational change takes effort and patience, helping people reach transformational moments when their belief systems are truly altered. It is a balancing act that includes the following:
1. Set the narrative
If leaders want to be proactive in calming the anxiety that surrounds the unknown, they must set the narrative before fear and rumors have a chance to start. Setting a positive narrative is a natural, healthy activity we do every day. Think about the last time you waved at someone and the person didn’t wave back. While it may have been easy to jump to a negative conclusion; i.e., “I must have done something to tick him off,” by giving ourselves a more positive narrative, we change our thinking to something such as, “She probably didn’t see me,” or to something empathetic such as, “Maybe he is having a bad day.”
Leaders can create a more positive vision of what change may look like when they start having early conversations with their team members about change, and these dialogues can also help gauge where potential areas of rumor may emerge in their teams. It’s usually not hard for a leader to know what kinds of additional information employees will need, but it’s much more difficult to predict what worries and resulting rumors people will create that can cause a great deal of undue stress. Addressing these starts with transparency. They key in this process is not to get rid of the squeaky wheels. Instead, leaders should consider why those wheels are squeaking.
2. Reward change
In companies that are more adept at change — those that make the leap to higher levels of performance to meet market demand — there is a higher volume of gratitude. This involves managers’ taking the time to consistently and frequently reward their people when they see them acting in new and better ways.
After surveying more than a million employees for our books, we’ve found in the best workplaces that teammates have much greater levels of goodwill and spend much more time thanking each other for core behaviors that are necessary in challenging times, such as grit, dependability, and resourcefulness. The seemingly warm and fuzzy skill of gratitude is actually a hard skill. It’s about seeing value that’s being created and rewarding it in a way that is meaningful to the individual. Done right, it not only creates a tangible esprit de corps in a team but a single-mindedness about living the behaviors that can make a change successful.
3. Address pain points quickly
Successful IT company executives know they must address pain points in their products without delay; in fact, most have designed their organizations to address user problems — thus the need for constant patches and upgrades. Team leaders can follow a similar pattern by painting a clear picture of what they know when they know it with their employees, and then addressing worries and challenges that emerge as soon as they see them, instead of hoping they get better on their own. Nothing improves in a team by hoping it will fix itself.
As a team leader, being deliberately vague or unclear isn’t going to make bad news go over any easier. Managers who do this create more anxiety and a space for rumors to be born.
Cultures that successfully change are places of truth, constant communication, and healthy debate. Managers in these workplaces share even the hard truths with their employees as soon as they are able, and they encourage honest and challenging discussion even if it rattles harmony. They leave the pillows at home; in other words, they don’t soften the blows.
In the best cultures, employees know their managers will be truthful and direct, and that builds trust and a larger culture of openness. In short, oversharing is always preferred. A good rule of thumb: Unless you’ve been told not to tell your people, tell them.