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How to Help Employees Cope with Change

Change is the most prevalent and pernicious cause of employee under-performance; employees don't need to be encouraged to work harder, they need more practical help

Goldfish jumping from one bowl to anotherThere’s no one in global business that has been immune to change in the past five years. Even if the title on their email signature is the same, everything else will be different: the number of people they must collaborate with, the amount of information they must sift through, the goals they are given, and the tasks they are asked to accomplish.

In a 2012 survey of 23,000 senior leaders and managers globally (pdf), 80% said they had been given more responsibility in the past 12 months, 76% had been asked to achieve more and given broader objectives, 65% had been asked to “deliver business results” more quickly than before, 54% reported frequent shifts in job responsibilities, and 50% said their role had become more global. And, to back that up, in a 2015 survey of over 6,000 employees, 71% said that the pace of change had increased across the past three years, and 66% said the impact of that change had also increased (CEB Communications Leadership Council members can see a lot more here).

Corporate communicators worry more than many about effects of change on employees and, it seems, for good reason. CEB data show that employees suffering from change-related stress perform 5% worse than the average employee. While 5% may not seem like a lot, for the average company, it translates to $32.5 million lost for every $1 billion in revenue created.

What Comms Teams are Doing

Most communicators are trying to minimize that drop in employee performance by explaining to employees the rationale behind the change and, where possible, involving employees to give them some feelings of ownership over the change.

But CEB analysis shows that, while commitment does improve performance during times of change (employees who are more committed to a change perform better than those who aren’t), maintaining employees’ capability to do their jobs during times of change has about three times as much impact on their performance.

Employees’ Capability During Change

CEB’s research breaks capability into five components, summed up by an acronym: “CAN-DO”.

  • Comprehension: Information and training to efficiently complete work.

  • Agility: Ability to learn and practice new approaches.

  • Network: Strong relationships for collaborating and getting help.

  • Direction: Performance objectives to focus on the right activities.

  • Outcome expectations: Ability to predict outcomes and implications of work decisions.

In times of change, each of these components is disrupted. What employees used to know, the people they used to work with, are no longer helpful. And this means that simply encouraging employees to be more positive towards change is not going to help them cope.

Employees must rebuild their capability to do their job in the new changed world: they may need to access task-related information and training; to identify and build relationships with the people they must collaborate with; and/or to understand their new priorities.

What Comms Teams Should Be Doing

There are five building blocks that underlie employees’ capability to do their jobs, and the two most important of these are their self-confidence and the availability of the right tools, information, and people.

  1. Self-confidence: The most important determinant of how likely employees are to do their job well during times of change is their confidence in themselves to do that job. Not their confidence in the company or their colleagues to manage through change.

    This is surprising; despite the immensely practical nature of “employee capability,” this softer component – based more on employees’ perception of the world – is the most important. Employees who feel that they are able to succeed, are more likely to do just that, as long as they also have the practical support.

    Comms teams should: Prompt more self-confidence. Use messaging platforms to remind employees of times that they themselves have made this kind of change, or built this kind of capability, in the past, or give them examples of peer success. You want them to think “I’ve done something like this before,” or “People like me are doing this.”

  2. Availability of tools, information, and people: This is the purely practical side of capability. People need to be able to access the raw materials they need to do their jobs.

    They need help understanding what to prioritize, they need tools to accomplish what they’re being asked to do, and they need to know who to work with and who to ask for help.

    Comms teams should: Help employees find support. There are a number of options: in some cases, corp comms teams can actually create mechanisms to help – e.g., online corporate directories / employee profiles, or internal social media platforms. In other cases, the answer might be to publicize existing resources like training e-modules, or to help their managers create and share tools.


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