Keeping workers motivated when a company goes through business change is challenging. There are many factors to juggle. Tinkering in one area may unbalance matters elsewhere. Workers worry about losing control during change.
And then there’s uncertainty.
Each person has an uncertainty threshold. Your threshold may be high; someone else may have a lower threshold. When extra uncertainty pushes people above their threshold, they feel uncomfortable.
Most workers – particularly knowledge workers – take everyday uncertainty in their stride. External events, like terrorist attacks or economic downturn lift background uncertainty levels. They reduce people’s capacity to deal with workplace uncertainty. Yet most workers cope well during normal times.
What we once knew as normal times are now fewer and further between. Even so, when a business goes through change, uncertainty levels rise. You can rest assured change will push a lot of people over their uncertainty threshold.
The first reaction of workers pushed over the uncertainty threshold is to redress the balance. They look for certainty. This is understandable. What happens next is a simple knee jerk reaction to resist further change.
Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls this the “Walking off a cliff blindfolded problem”. She says for many people change looks too dangerous. They prefer to stay with the devil they know than commit to the devil they don’t know.
Good managers have no trouble understanding how to deal with this problem. They open lines of communication to the workforce to articulate the plans for change.
Large organisations hire communications professionals or even PR companies to help. I’ve seen staff meetings, PowerPoint presentations, company newsletters, glossy magazines and fancy videos used. Twenty years ago I edited a weekly tabloid newspaper designed to sell a corporate change programme to employees. I know how this from the inside.
Communications can fall flat for three reasons.
- No amount of spin can sugar a frightening message. If an organisation plans layoffs – words won’t help. People aren’t stupid – that’s why you hired them.
They recognise official flim-flam when they see it. Anyone with sense will either be preparing their own escape route or doing all they can to stall the change which will destroy their job.
- Internal company propaganda lacks credibility. Many of us have worked in corporations where, if the management message is “don’t worry your job is safe” know the real story is sackings are coming.
It is about trust. It is also about common sense – if you work for a company that hypes its products to customers, you might well be wary of internal communications.
Another credibility point is corporate propaganda often sells the benefits of change, not outlines the process. Employees need information – this is distinct from the material most companies produce.
People want to know exactly what will happen: which departments will close, which jobs move to Tasmania, who gets another role and so on. Feeding them motherhood statements might make you feel important, nobody else will fall for it.
- Communication fails when senior managers forget it is a two-way street. There’s little point in articulating a vision if you don’t listen to people’s legitimate fears and deal with them.
The best way for senior managers to communicate is in person – even in a large organisation.
And it isn’t just about words, it is also about action. Leaders – remember that word? – lead from the front.
If there’s a cliff to leap off, workers will be much more willing to leap if they are following their managers.