Engagement is a key part of the change process and most often overlooked. When we speak of engagement as part of a change program we are using the term to describe a very specific outcome. Engagement is the process of transitioning ownership for a change initiative from an executive to his team, from a project team to an operational unit, or even from an operational team to a person. In order for change to be sustainable, those who are going to carry it forward must own it. Helping people understand what is needed to carry on is what we call engagement.

In recent years, the Gallup organization has made the term “engagement” famous. Their engagement index has demonstrated that “engaged” employees are more productive and that “engaged” organizations produce better outcomes. According to Gallup’s website their definition of an engaged employee is one who is “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” For our purposes, we might define engagement similarly, as “one who is involved in, enthusiastic, and committed to making a change happen in their job/team/organization.” And like Gallup, I believe that organizations that engage employees will be better equipped to realize long term benefits from change management than those who do not.

Several years ago, I was part of a change program in a refinery. My team and I came armed with our pretty PowerPoint presentations and handouts, dressed in creased khakis and starched, blue, button-down shirts. Good to go, we walked into a room full of jean jackets, coveralls, steel-toed boots, scruffy beards and attitudes heavy with skepticism. As we started to speak, there was lots of eyes rolling. It took maybe all of 10 minutes for a general disinterest to permeate the whole work group. We knew we had lost them. This was certainly not the way to engage.

But we managed to regain their attention by asking for their help. “How do we accomplish what we need to get done?” They said, “Just walk.” We thought they meant, “get out,” but then they explained that they just wanted to see a difference in the way their leaders behaved and only then, would they get on board. We were given a great truth that we could have easily dismissed, but we didn’t. We listened week-in and week-out as they described what they were seeing. They got on board. The results after many years was not just a refinery change, but a sweeping enterprise change in behavior. Would it surprise you to know that that workforce became the biggest advocates of what to change and how to make the change better?

Engagement is not a complex idea. At its core, it is about initiating conversation between work teams. In turn, they determine what is needed to be successful, how they are going to make the change happen and what it will take for them to sustain the change. A notable study from the social sciences has documented that if people are allowed to opt in and co-create their future, they are five times more likely to be committed to that future. What, to many people, seems like a “feel good” discussion or an illogical approach, is actually a scientifically proven method to enable employees to own change and commit to its long-term success.

The work for those leading change efforts is to enable, encourage, and otherwise set the stage for these types of conversations to occur. Engagement begins with the very first conversations that happen between leaders and their team; two-way conversations with lots of listening, and lots of truthfulness. The idea isn’t to tell a team how to make a change but to enable them to determine how they can make a change work. Often the work team will come up with new and better ways to make the change work than anyone on a project team could have anticipated.

Getting started

Engagement begins with:

  • A clear definition of the change for the work group
  • A simple, plain explanation of intent, a compelling case for change (which may be different than the business case)
  • A behavioral definition of what behaviors need to be demonstrated
  • A reasonable timeline contributes to the clarity needed to transition ownership

With those tools in hand, a leader meets with their work group for the purpose of discussing how they will approach making the change real. A smart leader will have someone in the group present on the topic, sharing with the group what they know about the change and why it is important. Then comes the all-important question, “What does that mean for us?” As work teams begin to wrap their minds around that question, they will begin identifying potential impacts, activities that will need to change. These should be captured and noted. The follow- up questions are: “What might stand in our way?” and “How can we make this happen?” The change leader should be very slow to come up with answers to those questions and very quick to listen and encourage others to speak. It might take more than one meeting and there will certainly be some homework for the leader and the team in between, but remember that a leading indicator of success is shared ownership.

Keep it going

Keeping employees engaged over the course of a change can be challenging. Engagement sessions should take place repeatedly over the course of the change (which may be during and after the project’s lifecycle) to ensure that both the team and stakeholders remain aware of and address issues that will impact outcomes. At first these conversations will require lots of support and coaching to get the meetings to happen in the right way. The pattern of asking questions and capturing answers may need to be modeled a few times before the teams get the idea. Over time they will become a natural part of the way the team functions. That’s when you know the change is embedded. It becomes a part of the way they operate.

Conditions for successful engagement

What conditions must exist to foster successful engagement? Here are a few conditions that lead to successful engagement sessions:

  1. A willingness to listen. If the best ideas come from the work group, we, especially leaders, must be willing to listen to what they have to say and act accordingly. Be prepared for unpopular feedback and avoid the urge to give all the answers at once or to squash resistance. All comments tell you something about where people are in adopting changes – which is something you need to know.
  2. Empathy for those going through the change. Leaders are often insulated from the changes they propose, meaning that most changes do not affect their jobs. Leaders and project team members must understand and appreciate the complexities of trying to implement multiple changes.
  3. Transparency and honesty. People can appreciate that we don’t have all the details; they just want to know when they will learn about them. Until all the details are made available they want to know that people are being real and that there’s not some other agenda. Be prepared to be candid, but committed in these sessions. Be prepared to be transparent with what you know.

In order to sustain change, the workforce has to adopt and own it. By giving employees a chance to participate, to create the future, we allow them to move from just hearing about change to owning the change itself. Only then is the change sustainable. So, when you’re thinking about how you are interacting with the workforce, ask yourself, “Just how engaged are they?” and “Are you just disseminating information or are you giving employees a chance to drive the future success of the company?” It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it? If you need help, please contact us. 

We’re Expressworks International. We believe change is inevitable, but results… are intentional.