Shift happens. 10 Ways to Shift Gears for Employee Engagement and Change Management

Shift happens. 10 Ways to Shift Gears for Employee Engagement and Change Management

We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. ~ Howard Zinn

What do shifting gears, change management, and employee engagement have in common?

The expression “to shift gears” means to suddenly change what you are doing. Change management focuses on helping organizations and individuals “shift gears” to go from a current to a desired state. Employee engagement, on the other hand, often feels like a shift in work gears for leaders, managers and the organization.

What I mean by this point is that leaders and managers need to work in different ways — embracing employee voice and organizational narrative, and giving greater freedom and autonomy to employees

Together, change management and employee engagement form an intriguing alliance. For change to be successful, we need to engage people fully in the change. Frequently, a shift to fuller employee engagement is contingent upon making significant changes in how people work.

The changing face of change management

Change management philosophies and approaches have shifted over the years, from gaining compliance or buy-in to engaging major stakeholders early — and often — during the change process. Project managers have seen their work move from a central reliance on critical path analysis and other logic tools to mastering the human side of change and engagement.

A pivotal statement from positive deviancy warns us: “never do anything about me without me.” We must engage employees fully in change management initiatives, especially ones designed to increase or improve employee engagement.

The engagement movement is shifting the foundation of work.

The engagement movement is shifting the foundation of work. Management is less about telling and getting and more about asking and letting. The changes required for employee engagement involve conversation, authenticity, invitation, co-creation, and social interaction, while still achieving robust results, performance and accountability.

10 tips to help you shift gears for change and employee engagement

1. Begin with ignorance. Don’t confuse ignorance with stupidity. Ignorance means not knowing; stupidity is thinking you know when you don’t. Start your change or engagement work with ignorance. Be willing not to know while also being open to having your mind changed.

Treat your initial thoughts and knowledge as tentative assumptions or hypotheses. Although you start with ignorance that does not mean that you stay there.

2. Build your bridges. Read the insights of William Bridges on the transitional elements of change. Bridges taught us the dynamic between change and transition and how change seldom occurs unless we successfully navigate the human experience of psychological transition. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change should be required reading for anyone who is leading or involved in a change management initiative.

3. Extinguish resistance. Recognize that most resistance to change is not resistance to change at all; it is resistance to being changed. Don’t be an agent of coercion with your change management or employee engagement. Invite rather than command; engage rather than impose.

4. Step back and step in. Find the tempo and rhythm to step back from engagement and change to gain perspective and see the big picture while knowing when to step in to engage with others. You may need to step back and step in a number of times on a change initiative.

As Nelson Mandela stated, “action without vision is only passing time, vision without action is merely day dreaming, but vision with action can change the world.”

5. Determine the impact of change and engagement. Assess how your engagement work will change people’s roles, routines, relationships and assumptions. What will they be losing with the new change and engagement, and what will they be gaining?

Pay particular attention to changes in assumptions as these are often below the surface, frequently not discussed and yet can have a disproportionate impact on the success or failure of change.

6. Distill to three. Distill change or engagement to a maximum of three engaging behaviors that will ensure success. For example, involving engagement I believe we can make significant progress if we: (1) have strength-based conversations at work; (2) hold multiple high-quality conversations with others we work with every day; (3) maximize focus on progress and managing setbacks.

Certainly, there may be three different behaviors that are significant to change or engagement where you work. Spend time to learn what the three behaviors are and ensure people not only know those behaviors but are also taught how to act on those behaviors at a personal and a social level.

7. Never underestimate the power of fear. When change or engagement is not occurring as expected, fear offers us a very good lens through which to examine the situation.

  • What are we afraid of?
  • What do we fear in taking the next step?
  • How do we lessen or eliminate the fear that surrounds engagement and change?
  • What would be possible to achieve if fear was not present?

8. Make strong connections. The strength of a climbing rope is the 30 or 40 small rope strands that, woven together, create the strength of a rope that help people get to the summit of major mountains. In other words, it is multiple connections that hold the rope together.

Ensure your change and engagement work is making multiple connections to results, the organization, relationships, external customers, employee wellbeing, etc.

9. Play with change and engagement. This does not mean playing artificial games. We can play with ideas, concepts and practices. We can be playful in our communication with others. Fuse play and work for a healthy workplace that may trigger new innovations. Teams and groups that play together, stay together.

10. Fuse engagement and change management. Dick Axelrod from Chicago wrote the quintessential book on the weaving of change and engagement, Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations.

Axelrod proudly declares that engagement is the new change management and backs up the assertion with examples, a process, and illustrations. Go to page 189 of the second edition for a bullet point summary of the book or watch/listen to a recorded webinar of Dick and I talking about the overlaps between engagement and change:

Employee Engagement and Change Management from David Zinger on Vimeo

Use the ten points above to help you shift gears to achieve successful engagementand the shift in change management thinking it requires. Marianne Williamson once stated: “when an idea reaches critical mass there is no stopping the shift its presence will induce.”


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