How to Motivate Employees to Embrace Change

How to Motivate Employees to Embrace Change

Over the last five years, nearly every single Australian workplace has experienced significant change at some level. Whether that’s a merger, new CEO or executive team, different business model, updated premises or even redundancies.

Yet, according to a 2014 Towers Watson study, Australian employees are tired of change and want clear direction and leadership from their managers. The fallout has been a lack of trust in leadership.  According to a 2016 SunSuper Study, 46% of Australian employees always trust their immediate manager, dropping down to an alarming 24% for senior managers with only a paltry 20% admitting to trusting both.

Blame it on our convict past, or a lack of employee resilience, we need strong leaders who tell the truth and can navigate employees successfully towards a new vision.

Why Increasing Trust is Critical to Change

Our ability to commit to change is based on our belief that we can trust the leader or organisation to do the right thing by us and not make us vulnerable to loss  in an uncertain situation.

Trust bears a close, inverse relationship with risk.   The higher the stakes, the less likely people will trust the situation.  Without trust, social groups become dysfunctional and start to break down.  People become unwilling to cooperate resulting in slow decision-making, a lack of accountability, self-interested behaviours and difficulties meeting deadlines.

Despite Australian employees experiencing change fatigue, the reality is that it is only set to accelerate.  So how do you create trust in environments where external and internal change, risk and uncertainty exist?

Through well-thought out communication.  And lots of it.

Five Steps to Creating High-Trust Communication

Trust is enabled through conversations. Typically, when trust breaks down it is because management has not comprehensively explained why change is necessary.

The result is a huge trust gap that reduces productivity and morale. A study by Geckoboard found that when employees hear nothing, more than half “resort to doing their own detective work” to find out what’s going on.

Few companies strategically approach how to build trust through communication. Yet, considering how to communicate to build trust can dramatically reduces employee fear and improves confidence, commitment, and execution.

Here are five steps for leaders to build trust during times of uncertainty:

1. Explain Why we need to Change

Start by describing the current state and how and why it isn’t working.  Admit mistakes.  This provides people with the emotional connection they need to the information. This is important because the part of the brain that manages trust can’t understand language, only emotions.

Describing the rationale behind a decision also increases trust, as people will accept it, even if they disagree, as long as the process appears rigorous and fair.  

One further important point with this step is to make sure you don’t omit important information, as any sign of a lack of transparency will decrease trust. 

2. Focus on the Company Purpose & Values

We are more likely to trust others who are like ourselves.  A clear sense of purpose, values, and goals connect everyone together through being able to collectively see the meaning of their work.

Promoting group self-interest also reduces any misperceptions of suspicious intent by leaders.  Focusing on a group goal aligns everyone and it’s what the word’s best companies do well.

After 20 years of research, Great Places to Work Institute found that the primary defining characteristic of a great workplace is employees trust their manager.  In the annual Best Companies to Work For , trust is the primary measure used to select companies.  Interestingly, employees within these companies acknowledge that change may bring inevitable uncertainties, but they are comforted that they are working in concert with coworkers, pulling together toward a common goal.  In fact, these employees act with an entrepreneurial mindset embracing change and its associated knock-backs.

3. How you will be affected/risks involved

Meet people where they are at and openly discuss any fears or reservations that are left unsaid in their head. This means discussing how the change will affect people and confessing that it might mean working longer hours or throwing away previous work.  Avoid sugar-coating the situation and ignoring any potential risks.

At the same time, it’s important that employees’ self-interest is linked with the company purpose and “what’s in it for them”, such as how much they will learn or improve their career opportunities.

Addressing potential risks helps the risk-adverse to understand the issue at hand. People are more likely to accept risk if they understand it.

4. Reset the destination

Once everyone understands why the change was necessary, then it’s time to describe the new vision.   Research studies have found that leaders who communicate using image-based words are more likely to succeed with strategy execution than those using abstract words or numeric goals.

Talking about the destination (how it will look like such as the new customer user experience) gets people thinking in terms of outcomes, rather than activities. This helps reset our inherent bias towards wanting to stick with past efforts.

5. Provide clear expectations

Lay out clear goals and guidelines so everyone knows what their part is in the transition. When trust is lost, it’s often because clear expectations were not initially specified.

One of the issues during complex change is that leaders tend to either sugar-coat the situation, over-inflate the benefits or make promises they can’t keep.  Unfortunately, leaders are unknowingly increasing expectations, leading to an increase in a sense of entitlement.   This often results in promises being broken, resulting in employees feeling betrayed, even when from an objective standpoint the leader has been trustworthy (but might have accidentally glossed over a few things, or made those things sound glossier than they really were).  Think of it like promising your seven-year-old, who is resistant to moving house, that when you move to the new house he’ll get a box of chocolates and then you forget and run out of time.  No seven year old will find your excuse fair or reasonable when expectations are high.  Adults are the same.

For really tough changes, it’s also important to admit that you don’t know how the change will go or how to even do things, but you believe everyone will be able to work it out if they work as a team.  Having belief that people can successfully complete the new initiative is critical to building trust.

Of course, underpinning all of the communication is a leader who openly tells it like it is, seeks honest feedback through active listening, shows that they care about any concerns, and checks that everyone understands the new expectations.  Essentially, a high-trust leader is approachable enough for employees to discuss any work situation and is always comfortable addressing the tough conversations.  They communicate constructively with positive intent to directly resolve the issue.

The result is employees who commit to actions, make faster decisions, and who have the confidence to buy into a big vision to get an innovative project off the ground. In other words, employees who can embrace the next wave of change.


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Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders create high trust organisations, in order to get everyone the same page and easily navigate during times of change. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

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