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The Best Way to Manage Change is to Let Employees Talk About It

Big changes mean anxiety for all employees; instead of only providing information they are certain of, managers should allow employees to discuss the uncertainty and channel their anxiety into something more productive

During major changes at a company or big public sector organization, people ask themselves a simple question: “Should I still work here?” Change causes anxiety, and anxiety increases the chance that the best workers will choose to go somewhere else.

Even before the federal hiring freeze across the US government, the Office of Personnel Management’s 2016 “Federal Employment Viewpoint Survey” found that about one in three (32%) federal employees plan to leave their organization.

Potentially losing up to one-third of your workforce without being able to replace them would cause even the most self confident manager to blanch. And the best employees are often the first to leave.

Let Employees Discuss the Uncertainty

All managers (those dealing with a federal hiring freeze or those looking to retain good employees in any industry) should understand that without information, people shut down. Almost one in three employees (28%) resist an organization’s efforts to make big changes because top-down communication makes them angry and anxious, according to CEB data.

The common refrain from managers who are asked for more information is to say that they don’t have “all the details,” but that misses the point of many of the requests. They key is to let your employees discuss the uncertainty. It’s not what information you share but how you share it that’s critical.

Most change conversations are top down and emphasize the need to buy-in to an initiative. But that isn’t working, and certainly not in federal government right now. Most employees (64%) wait to be told by leaders what to do during change, according to CEB analysis, but only 49% of the federal workforce says the information they receive from their managers is sufficient. So employees are waiting for information they just aren’t getting.

And think of how those employees feel: if you are looking to your manager for information but not getting what you need, would you be more inclined to stay?

Shift from Tell to Talk

It’s important to let people voice their anxieties during a change and channel that energy toward appropriate next steps. So managers should take a different communication approach — focusing less on telling people what the change is, and instead talking with employees to help them understand what to do through the change.

One leading organization in CEB’s networks of HR teams communicates change not from the top down but by using “interactive change conversations.” This organization recognized that employees need to talk about ongoing change to feel empowered to do something about it. First, they set up change forums designed to discuss an emotional reaction to change. Next, to help employees feel a sense of ownership over the change going on, it had groups brainstorm and collect methods to work through solutions. Finally, employees completed a set of questions to produce personalized “change action plans.”

The switch in communication methods saw good results. The percentage of employees who felt ownership over the change increased by as much as 29%, and the percentage of employees who understood the change increased by up to 40%. And prompting employees to think like leaders and act on change also builds useful competencies that are important in an environment where there is likely to be more change in the future.

 

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