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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Getting buy-in in times of change

Organisations do not drive change, people do. That makes an organisation’s ability to tap into the discretionary efforts of its employees all the more essential, says Simon Woolley.

If you look back 15 to 20 years ago, change was something that occurred infrequently and often after long periods of comparative calm. Today, organisational change is happening at an increasingly rapid rate and is often significant in nature, such as a merger or acquisition, a restructuring, a strategy transformation or even a response to a disruptive innovation. At the same time, many organisations are finding that they need to do more with less and strive for greater efficiency.

All this is being driven by the dynamic state of the new business and economic environment, which is increasingly complex, global and volatile. This state of change is unlikely to go away any time soon and will likely increase in speed. But if there is one constant in the new environment, it is that organisations do not drive change. People do and, as a result, an organisation’s ability to tap into the discretionary effort of its employees is all the more essential.

Change will not succeed without the help and buy-in of people. In an environment of rapid change, organisations need to consider the likely impact on employee engagement and enablement and, as a priority, manage their way through any associated risks. An employee group which is not engaged will likely resist change and thereby delay the expected benefits to be achieved. By focusing on how employees think and behave during these periods of transformation, and maintaining employee engagement and enablement, organisations will find they are better placed to ensure the success of any change initiative.


Employee engagement does not refer to employee satisfaction. An employee who is happy at work and indicates a high level of satisfaction might not necessarily work productively on behalf of the organisation. While an organisation may provide a games room, Friday drinks or even an onsite therapeutic massage specialist, ensuring employees satisfaction is very different to making them engaged. Satisfied employees will still look outside the organisation for work and can be easily lured away by headhunters for an increase in pay. Having satisfied employees is, therefore, not enough.

Right now, organisations need employees who have a high commitment level toward them and their objectives. This commitment needs to be emotional in nature as it means highly engaged employees will care about their work and their organisations. They can be expected to display high levels of attachment to an organisation and a strong wish to remain part of it.

Though frameworks for understanding engagement vary, the concept generally refers to and measures the level of commitment employees feel towards their organisation (eg, their pride in working for it, their intentions to remain a part of it and their willingness to recommend it to others). It is also about an employee’s discretionary effort—their willingness to go above and beyond the formal requirements of the job and deliver superior performance for the organisation.

When employees care—that is, when they are engaged—they will apply extra effort. This means an engaged customs officer will pull suspicious bags to be searched even if it is the end of their shift, or an analyst will work overtime to complete a project when needed without being asked.

To get the most from engaged employees, organisations must ensure they are positioned to channel their extra efforts productively. Too often an employee’s motivation to contribute is not matched with their ability and, as such, they are not enabled to be fully effective and successful. Korn Ferry Hay Group’s research supports the view that engaging employees is not sufficient to sustain maximum levels of performance over time. Achieving the most from employees means leaders must ensure that organisational systems and work environments support personal and organisational effectiveness. In other words, to really drive performance employees need to be engaged and enabled to channel their efforts productively.

There are two key components to employee enablement and both of these need to be in place if an organisation wishes to have a positive impact on the ability of engaged employees to maximise their contributions and ensure the objectives of the organisation are met:

The right people need to be in the right jobs to ensure their skills and abilities can effectively be put to good use. Put the wrong employees in the wrong roles and they can quickly become disillusioned and unproductive.
A supportive environment that encourages high levels of productivity. This means work arrangements need to be structured to ensure employees have the essential resources required to get the job done. It also means poor business practices need to be stopped and red tape kept to a minimum.

Get these right and your employees will be able to focus on their most important accountabilities without having to work around personal and work-related obstacles.


Now is one of the most important times for organisations to be focusing on employee engagement and enablement. With roles and responsibilities continually evolving in the changing environment in which we find ourselves, organisations are increasingly dependent on employees acting independently, doing more with less and applying their discretionary effort. Given this environment, organisations need to focus on those employees who may be frustrated by the rapidity and level of change occurring and therefore are unable or unwilling to contribute as required.

Research by Korn Ferry Hay Group indicates that, in the current environment, frustrated employees may represent 20 percent or more of an organisations total workforce. Often these employees are committed to their roles and are keen to make a positive contribution, but given their levels of frustration they are unlikely to accept or stay in this state for the long term. Where strong levels of motivation to succeed are not balanced with equal levels of support for success, we typically see one of three things occur:

Some engaged employees find a way to break through the barriers of low level support and raise them to match their motivational levels;
Some frustrated employees reduce their motivation levels to match the limited opportunities to succeed;
Other frustrated employees leave in search of new opportunities.

Given the size of this pool of employees there are immediate, tangible benefits in understanding this group and managing their frustration levels. Even minor improvements in their engagement and enablement will result in measurable outcomes to an organisations performance and will significantly improve the chances of an organisation making change happen successfully. In fact, a highly engaged workforce is a key differentiator in determining who will win and lose at such times. With all kinds of measures coming under pressure at times of change, Korn Ferry Hay Group’s research indicates that having an engaged and enabled workforce in the top quartile on these dimensions will help an organisation to achieve:

  • • 
    Revenue growth 4.5 times greater than an organisation on the lower quartile;
  • • 
    A total reduction in employee turnover of 54 percent; and
  • • 
    A larger pool of employees likely to outperform their performance expectations. In fact, highly engaged and enabled employees are 50 percent more likely to outperform on performance expectations.


With highly engaged and enabled employees creating significantly better business outputs during times of change, and the organisations they are part of likely to sustain that performance over time, the importance of organisations managing employee engagement and enablement cannot be overstated. As a result, HR professionals today must be effective change agents in order to drive engagement and enablement in the workplace. But no two changes are the same, and so there are a number of dos and don’ts organisations need to follow to increase the chances their organisations change programmes will succeed (see box).

Maintaining and growing employee engagement and enablement levels in times of change is difficult, especially if you are already doing more with less. But the outcomes from a business perspective are clearly positive and warrant a focused approach. You will increase your retention levels and revenue potential. Just as importantly, you will ensure the success of your change programmes and ensure your business objectives are met.

In order for you to achieve a successful change programme, a commitment to understanding and identifying the key drivers of employee engagement and enablement in your organisation is required. Following the practical steps described will also help ensure an engaged team during times of change.



Engage before the change. Don’t wait for change to happen. Develop good employee engagement levels beforehand. Get the buy-in of your senior leaders first and then get your people ready for change by putting in place well-thought-out communication plans.
Be crystal-clear in your communications. Build your change story so people understand why you are doing this, why it is needed and what it means for them. Be honest, transparent and authentic.
Set your leaders up for success. Coach and develop your leaders. Find ways to inject new thinking and encourage fresh ideas.
Support and equip your managers. Engage and enable your managers so they can do the same for their teams. Recognise that managers go through change as well and that it is important to keep managers onside to reinforce your change messages and act as advocates of the initiative.
Involve your people. Keep your key talent close and ensure your competitors are unable to use a period of change to snatch your best people. Know who your high performers and high potentials are. Proactively engage this group—consider having them work on specific change initiatives.


Treat change like a one-off event. Keep everyone focused on the end goal and the future. In times of change, keeping a future focus can be key to keeping people engaged and motivated. Be flexible and adapt your approach as necessary while always keeping an eye on the customer.
Think all your people will react in the same way. Everyone will go through their own personal transition and, as a result, they will require different kinds of support from their managers and the business. Consider personalising your approaches and tools to the individual.
Assume engagement’s all down to you. Ultimately everyone will decide how they react to change. The more aware they are, the faster they will adapt to change. Help people to engage themselves.
Expect to take everyone with you. You have a responsibility to be clear about the change programme. It is up to individual employees to decide if they are on board or not.
Stop (become change-agile instead). Leaders need to stop thinking about change as something with a beginning and an end. They need to recognise the key role employee engagement and enablement plays in creating a change-agile organisation.

SIMON WOOLLEY is the country manager for productised services at Korn Ferry Hay Group.

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