…was the energy created by a team in the zone: applying their unique and best thinking to a change challenge and collaborating to create a superior solution. I didn’t know then that positive social connections stimulated production of oxytocin – the ‘happy hormone’ – but I could feel the collective inspiration.
Leaders instinctively know engagement and collaboration are good. When companies need to change – new product, improved processes, overhaul culture – leaders rely on employees who have bought in, who see the opportunity of change over the threat of it. Yet, leaders routinely attempt to drive change in organizations with employees too skeptical or fearful to care about the outcomes.
So, they check the ‘change management’ box and funnel project resources into managing stakeholders, building awareness and trying to convince them of the right solution. When that inevitably fails, resistors are branded, consultants are blamed or the problem is ignored. One overstressed Big Four senior executive said to me: They should just be glad to have a job.
What’s wrong with this picture?
× The foundation: People change, not organizations. If we want to reinvent the business, we must, among other things, build genuine buy-in from employees to change – requiring real engagement in the change process and collaboration on the way forward. That takes skilled effort and different leadership – and certainly more than conventional stakeholder management and communications.
× The framing: Intense stress, like what accompanies org change, puts us in ‘survival mode.’ As David Rock shares in Your Brain at Work, this state prevents people from readily meeting, getting to know and working well with new colleagues. We need to address, not resist, this reality with mindfulness and coping support. Never mind that expensive, time-consuming stakeholder management and communications are sunk costs once the project ends or that these basic activities alone rarely help people cope with stress.
× The perspective: A conventional, project-based approach to engaging and collaborating with employees – or any of our best practices in transformation – is terribly shortsighted. In today’s VUCA world of volatile, constant, unpredictable and ambiguous change, the need for businesses to pivot and change is constant so the benefits of an engaged and collaborative workforce are must-have’s. Business’ ability to innovate, adapt and compete in the 21st century depends on employees who habitually see opportunities where others don’t, who want to contribute and who can work well together to meet a dynamic set of challenges.
Cultivating a lasting culture of engagement and collaboration takes intentional leadership energy but is the right thing to do.
Involving the workforce in the business’ success and unleashing their creativity makes businesses more competitive in a 21st century, VUCA world. Not only do we depend, perhaps down to our DNA, on collaboration to survive as a species, but working creatively together helps businesses create new ways of solving old problems. Aside from the benefits of more “happy hormones,” coursing through our bodies, companies like Ideo, TELUS (Canada), Cisco and the new GM show us the innovative and transformational potential that is unleashed with true collaboration.
Gallup’s annual State of the American Workplace survey has shown a well-established link between employee engagement and retention, productivity (22% more profit) and attendance. High levels of engagement lead employees to contribute more ‘discretionary effort’ – or, getting involved above and beyond one’s normal duties. The so-called ‘IKEA Effect’ named in a Yale/Harvard/Duke research study demonstrates that we see more value in things we’ve helped create, possibly leading to more interest in its successful outcome.
Would you like to run a company full of creative, collaborative, passionate people who care about and go above and beyond to make the business successful?
If so, you may want to read this Fast Company article featuring co-CEO of Melbourne, Australia-based Appster, Mark McDonald. Every time McDonald emails his app and game development company employees with a weekly survey, he gets back tons of employee complaints – and he likes it. Before you brand complaining employees as the opposite of engaged and collaborative, consider that all the kvetching has added millions of dollars to Appster’s bottom line. Leadership intentionally solicits employees’ candid feedback each week and expects management to use that input to improve the business, often with employee involvement. McDonald credits collaborative relationships with employees with helping Appster grow rapidly (nearly 15,000% staff growth in 4 years) while still delivering breakthrough improvements in customer service. Appster is cultivating a culture of engagement and collaboration their leaders can rely on when market forces demand change.
To understand why that’s so important, consider that study after study on effective organizational change cites stakeholder disengagement, silo mentality, ineffective leadership/management behaviors, and poor communications as top reasons why change efforts fail to meet business goals.
So, if your business wants to succeed in a VUCA world, having employees who are accustomed to productively engaging and collaborating with management can substantially reduce the ongoing risk of failure.
How can you effect culture change in your organization?
While it may seem vain in the face of the culture change challenge, intentionally changing the leadership conversation can have a powerful and lasting impact on mindset. Here are 2 culture conversation starters:
- Senior level change agents can explore culture change by first applying the framework for cultural understanding introduced by MIT Professor Emeritus Edgar Schein – artifacts (behavior that’s visible on the surface), values (what’s behind behavior) and assumptions (what sustains behavior over time).
- Start by jotting down an undesirable behavior you see and get specific about the visible evidence of it (e.g. we have excessive employee absences).
- Write down why that behavior exists and don’t stop writing – especially when you don’t like the values you’re identifying (e.g. people don’t care about this company). That’s when you’re likely getting to the truth.
- Finish by trying to pin down what assumptions support that continued yet undesirable behavior (e.g. people assume management doesn’t care about them because of past experiences).
- You now have a starting point for a meaningful conversation with colleagues about culture.
- For leadership teams, I suggest a radically honest conversation. Answer these questions as a team without the pressure of solutions just yet:
- What is possible in our organization if our employees were to always contribute their best thinking to our goals and worked together to create innovative solutions?
- How do we as an organization operate in ways that show we value engagement and collaboration? What practices may inadvertently suggest the opposite value (e.g. cancelling in-person new hire orientations and thus initial relationship building)?
- How well do we as leaders engage and collaborate with each other?
These are just some ways to initiate a meaningful conversation on cultivating a lasting culture of engagement and collaboration in your organizations, which is an essential aspect of becoming a 21st Century Change Master™ – an organization that thrives by effectively adapting to a complex and uncertain world of rapid change. If you’re wondering, we couple engagement with collaboration in practice #4 of Desai Transformation’s Execution Framework because the two are highly interdependent, particularly during change and transformation. I hope we’ve sparked some ideas and if you’re still curious, please give us a call.