Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Changing Times and Employee Engagement

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What concerns organizations during times of change? Since organizations are nothing more than an amalgamation of people, organizations themselves actually have no concerns; however people within those organizations, at differing levels, with differing responsibilities, can have widely differing concerns. And since organizations are made up of people, they have all of the foibles of people, the shortcomings that can become painfully obvious and even exaggerated during times of change.

Change, especially transformational change is always spoken about in positive terms by an organization’s management, for who would want to implement change in order to make things worse than they are? Our goals are ones of improvement, yet the act of change carries with it significant risk that the change will not work out and will instead degrade organizational performance. Depending on where you sit within the organization your views towards a change might be radically different. What may be viewed as a very successful change from the point of view of someone within finance may be viewed as a disaster from the point of view of a customer facing employee, struggling to meet customer needs.

Is there a way to help assure that all within the organization or at least most view the act and outcomes of change in as positive a light as possible? If you can keep people engaged throughout the change process and in the change process itself the answer might just be “yes”.

People are much more similar than they are different in terms of the fundamental needs they are looking for work to fulfill and the characteristics they desire from the working environment (I exclude those with psychopathology). These needs cut across industry, geography, ethnicity, gender, generation etc. They are uniform because underneath it all we are all human. For instance you would be hard pressed to find a worker anywhere on the planet who did not want to be treated with respect and dignity.  Likewise a worker desires a sense of equity, that in general they get a fair return for the effort expended. A worker also desires meaningfulness that they are accomplishing something and they want to have a sense of pride emanating from their efforts and pride in what their organization accomplishes. These are among the fundamentals that are part of who we are as human beings. And part of who we are comes from our evolution. Millions of years of evolution have created characteristics are not erased simply because we moved from the savannah to the suburbs, or simply because the younger generation has taken up snowboarding or freak dancing.

A worker in a developing country who submits to sweatshop like or other horrible conditions does not accept those conditions because fundamentally they are any different from you or me. They accept those conditions out of economic necessity. They have pressing needs that make them accept conditions that you or I would not currently tolerate, needs like feeding themselves and their families and putting a roof over their heads.  If placed in circumstances with similar opportunities that you or I have, they would make the same choices that we would.  Because these uniform fundamentals exist, there is a methodology that can be used to make organizational changes more positively viewed in general and to keep employees engaged during the process.

What about perceptions of differences by generation, by occupation, by public vs. private sector employment etc? Do these claims of uniformity fly in the face of the common wisdom, the common wisdom for instance that says that younger generation employees care less about job security than those of previous generations? No they do not. A younger generation employee who grew up during a period of high employment has less concern about job security because they simply have not experienced a time where unemployment was high. If unemployment soared to 11-12% like it was when I was in college or hit the levels it is at currently 9+%, this younger generation who cares not about job security finds that it is very important to them and suddenly matters. They are not fundamentally different than previous generations; they simply have had different experiences and economic opportunities available to them.           

Let’s examine a case where among other things, the equity equation got out of balance and engagement declined. As reported in the Wall Street Journal (February 9, 2007), prior to 9/11 the US Air Marshall Service had 33 agents covering 26,000 flights. After 9/11 in an effort to beef up airline security it was decided that somewhere between 2500 and 4000 new Air Marshalls were to be hired (the exact number is classified). Two hundred thousand people applied for these new positions. The number of applicants can be surmised to be so high because people were feeling a sense of patriotism after 9/11 and a desire to do something to be of service to their country. They came into these jobs excited about the prospect of doing something meaningful and with a strong desire to do a good job. They did not take these jobs expecting extraordinarily high wages, fair wages would suffice. After joining the Service they found themselves faced with what has been described as grueling schedules, a lack of advancement, onerous rules affecting ones ability to get job done, and a lack of identity protection, resulting in “many” (in the words of other Marshalls) quitting the Service, the ultimate act of a disengaged workforce. 

The head of the Service at the time called these complainers “disgruntled amateurs, insurgents, and organizational terrorists”. I don’t know about you but I get the feeling that calling someone who joined the Air Marshalls after 9/11 an organizational terrorist is probably the worst thing you could call them. With the work situation including the equity equation being out of balance the Marshalls responded to these working conditions by joining a union. The head of the Air Marshall’s service has since been replaced and the new head has begun to make changes such as loosening the dress code so the Air Marshalls blend in better with other passengers and taking other steps to protect their identities.  Clearly the change that the U.S. Air Marshall Service undertook, that of vastly expanding their ranks and providing additional security on airline flights can not yet be called a complete success story. 

Just as aspects of organizational culture are not binary conditions, the success or failure of change and people’s concerns about it should not be viewed as binary either. In other words people are not either concerned or unconcerned, change is not either successful or unsuccessful and employees are not either engaged or disengaged. Treating and speaking about such concepts in a binary fashion is far too simplistic. Change and concerns about it fall along a continuum. The degree of concern regarding change can vary from a great deal of concern to no concern, depending on the individual and the change itself can be viewed as a ranging from complete success to complete failure.

The fundamentals of creating a work environment where change can be positively implemented and employees engaged can be depicted in the Message Performance Future© (MPF©) model which has been successful used at describing organizational culture and working through change.

Message: Is there absolute clarity regarding what the organization is about, how it will operate and how each person contributes to delivering on those goals? Importantly are the organizational communications delivering that Message consistent throughout all the levels of the organization? Are policies and practices in-line with that Message? During times of change is it clear how the organization is changing, what the expected benefits of the change will be and what each person’s role in the change effort is?

Performance: Are people getting what they need (in the broadest sense) to be able to deliver on that Message – to get the job done? US Air Marshalls who could not blend in with the other passengers were handicapped in their ability to deliver on the Message, to provide increased security on flights. Performance should be thought of in the broadest sense, including such areas as teamwork, communications, decision making, training, equipment, resources, processes and procedures.  

Future: Do people feel like they have a Future and a sense of belonging, of being valued by the organization? Is there a reason for them to stick around for the long-term?

As stated earlier organizational cultures are not binary and every organization will have varying degrees of each of these being present. Those most successful at implementing change and keeping their employees engaged during change are those that are strong in all 3 areas during the process of change. For instance, one client had some employees who viewed the organization positively in all three areas and as an outcome that group had engagement scores in the mid 80s (on a percent favorable scale of 1-100). Within the same client those who did not view the organization as clearly Messaging, as providing what is needed to get the job done (Performance) and a sense of Future had engagement scores in the low teens. Ensuring that Messages about the change process get out regularly and consistently, and about people’s roles during and after the change is critical, as is providing people what they need to Perform and giving people a sense of Future after the change.

Sometimes change efforts impacting mission critical processes or change efforts involving critical processes can carry with it terrible consequences if the change effort were to fail. Failure for instance of a change process, when that process is one that protects the public’s safety or puts the life of an employee is at risk, is often times simply not an option. In those cases a change process that has multiple small steps with assurance check points along the way confirming that the change is working can be done. Another approach is to implement the change in an off-line fashion, running two processes in parallel, and not to implement the change in the “real-world” until it is assured that the newly changed process is functioning as planned.

Change is a never ending state of being as there is no such thing as a perfect organization, only a vision of perfection that one can strive for only to find that it is constantly somewhat out of reach.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 30, 2010 at 7:35 am

One Response

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  1. I would like to also suggest that I have found 2 additional criteria that need to exist for change to be well accepted. The first is simply trust. If people trust those who are initiating change they will be far more accepting. However, trust must be built over time and it is one area that leadership has a strong tendency to lose sight of on a regular basis. The second is an environment where change is a regular occurrence and not a surprise. Having led many change initiatives, I have always found people will be far more accepting when the change is clearly explained and people feel their best interest is at the center of the change.

    Additionally I would note that I have had the privilege of visiting manufacturing facilities all over the world including Southeast Asia and Brazil. One of the key differences I have found in these operations versus the US and Europe is that the workforce is hungry to compete and have not grown complacent. While it is true all people all over the world are fundamentally the same, their acceptance of current workplace conditions is more about desiring to create success so they can enjoy a better life. In the US and Europe we have already reached this status and have become far more demanding and less accepting. As the saying goes, success breeds complacency and therefore it is the responsibility of leadership to create passion and motivation to avoid this outcome.

    tim Garrett

    May 2, 2010 at 11:25 pm

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