Updated: Aug 31
Achieving meaningful change in organisationas today isn’t easy. It’s hard enough to keep everyone on the bus at the best of times; let alone when you want to start making some very sharp turns.
We say "let the workforce take the wheel and shape the change; co-operation, engagement and resilience will follow."
Naturally then, it should be approached as carefully as possible with all the risk designed out and held protectively and guarded vigilantly by the safest, most experienced, most senior pairs of hands possible, shouldn’t it? Hopefully some alarm bells are already ringing and you’re shaking your head in disagreement. By now things have come a long way since the out-dated “us and them” organisational cultures that have been the norm for most of the history of work.
You know your organisation’s workforce is its most important asset and that you work with them, rather than them working for you. However, when it comes to improving your agility and making fundamental, lasting changes most organisations still default to a top down, reactive approach focusing on individual elements and situations.
The hardest thing to change isn’t the infrastructure, the tooling, the systems, the structure; it’s the people. And at the risk of sounding trite… the more you try to change the people, the more you end up having to change the people. It’s time to stop trying to change your workforce and flip the whole thing on its head. Ditch the traditional approach and let the employees lead the change...
1. “It’s all about empowerment” you read time and time again. You’ve heard it often enough in your organisation too. It’s a deceptively rich and multi-faceted concept. Agreeing its value is one thing. Effectively implementing it is quite another; quite literally putting the power to make change in the hands of your workforce. In many businesses it becomes the latest rallying cry, while the leadership continues to push controllability, stability, routinisation, risk avoidance, zero tolerance for error and deference to authority.
This is like pressing the accelerator and brake pedals at the same time. Empowerment is not putting all the responsibility on the workforce to deliver the different processes that you have devised – that’s missing the point. It is giving them the autonomy and responsibility required to be different, to reject things, to challenge processes and systems, to kill the sacred cows and in their place evolve their own ways of doing things.
That said, employee-led change is still driven from the top; 2. "it begins with a vision" and a business case and that’s what leadership is for. But bring the workforce in right away at the earliest stages. Consult them and let them help shape the vision at the outset; don’t just present them with the finished article. Stop seeing employee engagement as an outcome and start practising it as an input, as a process. Communicate a vision that already has high employee ownership and you’re preaching to the choir.
That vision is vital in 3. "positioning the change." What is it that you are aiming to change? If you go straight for your organisation’s processes, implementation and delivery it can be perceived as an attack on the workforce because this is their domain. Couch the vision in terms of outcomes (especially customer outcomes) and re-wire their heads to align with those rather than processes. If they focus on desirable outcomes that they want to bring about, they will start to become the change they want to see rather than seeing themselves purely as the means of delivery.
This then, is a workforce primed to 4."challenge, critique and reject," to think differently in a way that is constructive and driven by common goals. They can be free to let go of the current and past processes in order to change towards the new future. This really is the scary bit; what the workforce traditionally fears. It’s very often not the future but rather, letting go of the past. If they feel that what they’ve been doing was wrong, it risks invalidating their motivations, eroding their commitment and damaging their self-esteem!
Together you need to build on the past and evolve from it.
Leaders in organisations must tackle this both physically as well as psychologically to maintain a resilient workforce through change. How will the workforce actually contribute to the process of envisaging, designing and implementing change? Integrate it into their daily jobs. Facilitate ways in which they can provide their input as a daily habit. Embed it physically and you begin to normalise it psychologically.
Letting employees lead change by contributing to its inception, design and implementation using their own control and influence, creates opportunities for the development of all those employees involved and builds resilience. Who doesnt want that in todays world of work?
Organisations where everyone is truly pulling in the same direction have lower churn and are better equipped to survive in volatile climates. If the journey and the destination of your organisation really is a team effort, then both its workforce and leadership must be engaged, committed and believers in the 4 principles above so they can succeffully flip it on its head.
Then they are not just on the bus, they put that bus together piece by piece with a redesigned engine and a shiny new coat of paint with their own hands; it’s their bus, watch them drive it away!