Engaging Employees During Change: Silence is not Golden

When I was growing up as a manager and a leader of people, I had many occasions to observe people getting it wrong when it came to managing change in an industrial relations environment. My observations were made whilst holding several roles: from being in a junior position, where I was required to prepare and support submissions to the arbitration commission, through to a time when I was the person directly accountable for the submissions made. The most prominent and lasting impression I gained from those years was how it is always wrong to not communicate with people about the changes you want to implement. Engaging employees was the cornerstone of successful changes.

In the early days, our standard approach was to have adversarial negotiations in public and do cosy deals in back rooms with the hierarchy of the union and rarely, if ever, take our people (who happened to be union members) into our confidence about what we wanted to achieve and why. This approach led to deals, which local managers and local union delegates did not know how to implement, because they did not understand the principle behind the deal.

My observation was that whilst those tactics involved less work than engaging employees and telling them what we wanted and having them tell us what they wanted with appropriate representation, they never ended with a satisfactory result. They only set us up for a more adversarial negotiation next time and more backroom deals to resolve the negotiation. Our industrial relations managers would pat themselves on the back, as would the union officials, for solving an apparently intractable problem. However, locally we were unable to have an adult discussion with our people.

When it came to have my chance to do something differently, I was lucky enough to be supported by colleagues and a management team that – whilst apprehensive about taking a radical approach to managing change, of engaging employees by telling them what we wanted to have change and why – were resolute in staying the course. We set about telling our people what had to change from the current situation, where our productivity was one third the national average. It was not an easy path, with a long strike which sent New South Wales into petrol rationing, and all of the political flak which such an environment created. It was hardest on the families of the workers involved, as they were manipulated by union officials, fearful of losing their power.

Our approach worked in the end. We ensured we always spoke with our people and informed them of the issues we as a team faced, and the decisions they could make and the consequences of those decisions. We did get a result that others may see as a ”Win”. However, what we saw was the beginning of a wholesale change in the relationships we had with our people, reducing the need for union officials and industrial relations lawyers. We also saw willingness of our senior managers to invest money and time into our plant.

Tell them early, tell them often

From that time, it became a mantra of mine in managing change to “Tell them early and tell them often”. Since that time, I have never been a fan of keeping change silent, despite the risks involved. I’d rather create a good risk management plan any day, than stay silent. Engaging employees is not something I see as a necessary thing to do, it is a great investment of time and effort, bringing many rewards.

In one national organisation I worked with as a consultant, our team was completing the analysis of incoming and outgoing phone calls in three call centres and making recommendations in product design, processes and procedures and skill building, to reduce the number of calls being made in the first place and increasing first time resolution of those calls. The end result of that analysis suggested that over 150 positions would not be required and thus one call centre could be closed. The organisation decided to go ahead with the restructure, but swore us to secrecy. As we worked on the implementation, they kept the plan from their people and their union representation. When the news was released, it was released to union officials first. The result was not a good one, as the adversarial position created did not go down well in political circles. The pressure to calm the waters was too much and the plans were withdrawn. Not only was this a bad result for the organisation, it was a bad result for their customers as the changes in processes and procedures and skills would have resulted in better, faster service with fewer occasions where they felt they needed to get on the phone to their service provider.

The impact of not communicating

Today, I see the lesson of engaging employees and thereby taking your people with you by telling them early and often about the change you want to bring about and why, not being learned too many times with detrimental consequences.

It seems governments believe that they do not need to talk with their people and bring them along. The federal government budget approach and Scott Morrison’s’ pythonesque press conferences where he refuses to confirm to the people who elected him if there was a boat off Christmas Island or not, are examples which are currently in our face. The trust of the electorate in the government is disappearing as fast as a snowball in the Sahara because of its lack of willingness to communicate.

So too, is the whole approach from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to the issues raised about their financial planning arm. The several years of effort it has made in building its personal banking brand through its “YOU CAN” advertising and positioning is at risk of disappearing too.

Aside from these specific examples, it seems as if generally speaking, the lessons regarding the impact of not communicating is something most organisations have not learned and yet it costs so much.

A recent Gallup survey on engagement (State of the American Workplace – Employee Engagement Insights for U.S Business Leaders, 2014)  revealed the cost of not communicating. Silence is proven to be anything but golden.

The survey revealed that:

  • Engaged workers are the lifeblood of their organizations. Work units in the top 25% of Gallup’s Q12 Client Database have significantly higher productivity, profitability, and customer ratings, less turnover and absenteeism, and fewer safety incidents than those in the bottom 25%.
  • Organisations with an average of 9.3 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee in 2010-2011 experienced 147% higher earnings per share (EPS) compared with their competition in 2011-2012. In contrast, those with an average of 2.6 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee experienced 2% lower EPS compared with their competition during that same time period.

Another company study revealed that 18% of the variation in sickness and absence rates across the company was due to variations in communication practices.

Sears, a US firm, revealed that a five-point improvement in employee attitude results in a 1.3% increase in customer satisfaction, which then drives a 0.5% increase in company revenue.

Additionally, poor communication is cited as the main cause of failure for IT projects by 28% of respondents in a survey conducted by a national association of IT professionals.

The risks of not communicating or not communicating well, I learned early in my career. It is a lesson others seemed not to have learned. Perhaps I’d best leave it to Winston Churchill to have the final word:

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”

Works Cited

State of the American Workplace – Employee Engagement Insights for U.S Business Leaders. (2014, July 6th). Retrieved from Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/strategicconsulting/163007/state-american-workplace.aspx

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