Communicating Change and Employee Buy-in as a Leader

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Business entities and associated organizations must have both the ability and the willingness to change when circumstances demand it. A vital part of such change is the adaptation to and acceptance of it by the workforce. Unfortunately, many people are resistant to change and fear it and/or view it as intrinsically bad. However, organizational conservatism can and often does result in loss of market share and in some cases, ends the existence of a company. It follows, then, that a vital task of company managers is to bring conservative employees into a state of buy-in to impending as well as already-effected company change.

Being an effective leader, in the business field or elsewhere, involves first and foremost the realization that one is dealing with a diverse group of individuals, each of whom has his/her own likes, dislikes, inclinations, phobias, and so forth. The ability to cope with adversity, change, disruption, etc. likewise varies from person to person. Some people embrace routine and hate change; others are bored when everything is the same from day to day and see fluid situations as intrinsically interesting. A leader/manager of any but the very smallest groups is quite likely to find several of each type. One group will groan inwardly and roll their eyes when change is announced; the other will perk up their ears. Many leaders do a halfway job by creating buy-in among those people who enjoy change, hoping to somehow drag along those who don’t. This is preaching to a choir and a cop-out: a good leader leads the entire group, not just the ones who are enthusiastic.

The same personality aspects that make people conservative are manifested in a dislike of uncertainty. In the workplace, this is often a reflection of the fact that employees have an investment of time and effort in learning the skills necessary to perform their particular duties and that any major changes may obviate that investment. Therefore, a major task of managers is to establish trust and rapport with employees. DiFonzo and Bordia (1998), in a study of two corporations, one of which had implemented major changes successfully and the other of which had done so without the same degree of success, found that three elements were crucial: “Effective change communication campaigns tend to reveal rather than conceal, reduce uncertainty through collective planning, and proactively establish and maintain trust” (DiFonzo & Bordia, 1998, p. 295). Therefore, some specific useful strategies would be: to keep employees completely and thoroughly informed of change well in advance of its occurrence, as it is happening, and after it has happened; to involve employees, even at the lowest levels, in implementing change and include them in the decision-making process, and to identify those employees who are most resistant to change and reassure them that their jobs will not be negatively affected. This last should include special attention to those for whom the changes will cause the most disruption, such as employees of a branch facility that is about to be closed.

Also, it is inevitable during a transition period that some jobs will be severely disrupted, with duties for some employees changing radically as well as timing, scheduling, and resource allocation changes. It is for this reason that as a practical consideration, organizational change is going to have a severe impact on some employees while affecting others not at all. This is why addressing employees as a group is insufficient in and of itself. A good manager must seek out those who are tasked with making the greatest adjustments and hold one-on-one conversations with them.

The nature of such conversations should be, in a nutshell, that they are actually conversations, not pronouncements from on high. All employees, not just the conservative ones, hate the idea that they are powerless. Above all, the changes to be made should not seem arbitrary; the why of those changes is information that is as important as the changes themselves. Argyris (1993) warns of “…defensive routines that limit learning at the organizational, intergroup, group, and individual levels” (Argyris, 1993, p. i) and cites the overcoming of such barriers as a necessary first step. Therefore, a change leader must be forthcoming, explain changes clearly, solicit feedback, and perhaps most importantly, realize that he/she is interacting with a group of individuals whose inherent reactions to change and varying degrees of being affected by the specific changes made vary widely.

It should be acknowledged that it simply won’t be possible to meld the entire organization into one unified fighting force, marching proudly and enthusiastically behind the banner of organizational change. Many managers engage in stale rhetoric about how the company is a “family” or a “team.” This is condescension. An employee, given a choice between a member of his family being hurt or killed and the company being wiped out, would certainly choose the latter, so the company isn’t a “family.” Likewise, the company is a “team” only to the extent that everyone’s letterhead bears the same logo. The objectives of the company and its employees are, in fact, different and that they can be congruent doesn’t mean they are identical.

Such realizations are part of what makes a good manager. The question is sometimes idly asked whether a good manager is born or made. Some people, no doubt, are just inherently better at talking to others and getting them to see their point of view. That doesn’t mean, though, that a person who finds herself in a position of leadership but lacks the necessary inherent ability can’t acquire the necessary skill set. Examples of three skills necessary to effectively communicate change are a) not just the ability but also the inclination to communicate with others: a natural tendency to honestly share information; b) empathy: an understanding of the needs, wants, and desires of others, especially when those differ greatly from one’s own; and c) a management style that is as much pull as push—that is to say, that employees should be made to feel that they are part of a consensus rather than just acquiescing to change because they are powerless to do anything to affect it. In this regard, “old school” management types are least likely to be effective, in that modern management involves not simply ruling by fiat but rather, creating a cohesive grouping of management and staff with a common goal and a common vision of the proper way to get there.

Management’s and employees’ goals should be aligned, not contradictory. The time has passed when employees were simply wage slaves or servants of a faceless company that fostered an environment of mutual indifference to each other’s fates. Aside from the fact that a caring company-staff relationship is more humane, it also works more effectively. In terms of “buy-in” for change, it certainly isn’t absolutely necessary that every employee believes in it, but all other things being equal, the planned change will go much more smoothly if at least a serious attempt is made to create buy-in.

These tasks more often than not fall upon middle management. Middle managers are the glue that holds together any hierarchical organization, and this is particularly true in that they are a conduit between the decision-makers (upper management) and those who the decision will most effect (the rank and file). Again, employees must not be made to feel that they are simply hearing royal decrees from on high when management announces changes. Employee feedback must be solicited, not merely to soothe apprehensive or disgruntled employees (if this is all there is to such an initiative, the employees will see right through it), but to create genuine participation in the challenging change process. The feedback gathered may actually prove to be extremely valuable, so a good amount of time and effort should be devoted to gathering it. More than just a gesture to mollify the discontented, soliciting employee input (and showing a willingness to modify policy based on that input) is a highly useful management tool. Above all, the conversations must be conducted as if they are between equals, company rank aside.

References

Argyris, C. (1993). Knowledge for action: A guide to overcoming barriers to organizational change. Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 350 Sansome Street, San Francisco, CA 94104.

DiFonzo, N., & Bordia, P. (1998). A tale of two corporations: Managing uncertainty during organizational change. Human Resource Management, 37(3‐4), 295-303.