Creating energy, engagement, and commitment to change initiatives is one of many challenges we face as change agents. Increasingly, organizations, managers, and change practitioners espouse a belief that involving people in the change initiative is important. Many of us would agree in principle with this philosophy: Participation is essential to successful change implementation. However, the practical dimension of how to actually accomplish employee participation in change initiatives poses a challenge to change implementers.
There are many benefits of participatory processes. Participation may help minimize resistance to change initiatives. It affords employees the perception of a greater sense of control during a change process. Control is an important factor in helping to address the feelings of vulnerability and other emotional reactions that employees may experience during change. When employees are honestly engaged in opportunities to contribute their ideas, suggestions, and creative solutions to real and anticipated problems, to express concerns and alternatives, the entire organization can benefit as people learn how to solve problems. However, despite embracing a philosophy that values participation, the reality of how change practitioners actually solicit and use input tells a different story.
What do HR managers involved in major change initiatives actually do to foster employee participation? Researchers Laurie Lewis and Travis Russ (2012) explored this question in an empirical study with 26 human resources managers. They investigated the actual practices that HR managers utilized to solicit and use employee input during major organizational change projects. The study identified four different approaches that are described below: open, political, restricted, and advisory.
- Open Approach
The first style, the open approach, is an informal approach that invites people to offer their input and to talk about the issues involved in a change initiative. HR managers reported that employee input was more likely to be considered if the input was deemed to be “correctly motivated” and likely to improve the process, and rejected if it was “complaining for the sake of complaining.”
- Political Approach
The second style, the political approach, was described as being more strategic in orientation, in contrast to the open approach. HR managers sought input from powerful individuals, regardless of whether the input would be considered relevant or important. Input would be used if it came from the “right people” who might contribute significant resources to the change project, such as money or other services. Given the high power status of those consulted, the change agenda might be altered based on this input.
- Restricted Approach
The third style, the restricted approach, was the most commonly described method used by HR managers. Input was sought from key stakeholders: Individuals perceived to be most affected by the change, high performers, and those described as knowledgeable and savvy. However, input from key stakeholders was rejected if it did not reflect a majority view, was not perceived as relevant to the general population, or was perceived as unworkable. Unique comments, comments perceived as ‘venting’ or ‘lashing out’ and comments that were perceived to be self- motivated or not aligned with decisions that were already made, were discarded. Input was used to support the original change vision.
- Advisory Approach
The fourth style, the advisory approach was the second most common approach to soliciting input. Input was sought from opinion leaders who occupied ‘pockets of receptivity’, those individuals perceived to be ‘thought leaders, strategic thinkers, innovators, and advocates’ who would support the change and be helpful in persuading others to become supportive. The purpose of soliciting input was to seek affirming information and, if necessary, to persuade these employees to change any negative perceptions of the intended change. Deliberate decisions were made to avoid the ‘complainers’ and in some instances, HR managers recounted examples where senior leaders dictated who would be interviewed—those individuals that senior leaders felt confident would provide the answers they expected to hear.
Examining what HR managers actually do in practice provides several important insights that can help us be more thoughtful as we strive to clarify the purpose and intent of participation. This study raises some interesting questions about our work as change practitioners. Are we as change agents engaging in “ritualistic participation,” concerned with soliciting advice from a variety of stakeholders more for “show”, advice that may not be taken seriously (Lewis & Russ, 2012)? Are we working within organizations that in reality support “pseudo-participation,” where managers give the impression of openness, but retain decision-making in their own hands? Are we focused on soliciting input that supports pre-conceived plans, or do we encourage honest and open dialogue about the potential benefits and pitfalls of a change plan? Are we consciously or inadvertently discouraging inquiry, the testing of assumptions, challenging the status quo?
As change practitioners, we need to be clear about our purpose in soliciting input, and how that input will be used. We need to acknowledge the inevitable tensions that exist between approaches that focus on persuading employees to get on board with a pre-determined change initiative, and approaches that are designed to encourage creative and critical reflection on the change vision and how to implement it.
Being effective as a change agent requires us to not only identify our own assumptions about participation, but to help others in senior leadership roles make their implicit assumptions more explicit. We have a responsibility to ask ourselves and others some tough questions:
- What are the goals or intentions of the participation process? Is it to minimize any alterations to the change initiative?
- Is there any potential to actually influence and change the intended direction and implementation plan, or is soliciting input an exercise in persuading employees to get on board with the change?
- Are we just going through the motions of seeking opinions and concerns from stakeholders, concerned only about the optics?
- Are we trying to make stakeholders more receptive to the change, or simply placating them by inviting them to give feedback?
There can be a danger in some of the simplistic, cookbook approaches to employee participation. Similarly, there is a danger in under-appreciating the skill level required by change agents to address the complex task of managing the tensions and challenges involved in soliciting and using input from employees. Engaging employees and managers in open, honest discussion of the potential strengths and the potential pitfalls of an intended change initiative requires a specific set of skills in fostering dialogue, compassion, intestinal fortitude, and the support of senior leaders. As change agents, we need to help others learn how to express their diverse views and opinions in ways that might usefully critique and improve our change efforts so that we can move our change projects, and our organizations forward, empowering our teams, and ourselves, along the way.
About the Author
Kate Sikerbol, M.Ed., MA, PhD(C), is a facilitator at Queen’s IRC. As an organizational consultant and coach, Kate brings extensive experience in business, healthcare, government, and higher education. She has designed and delivered change management and leadership development programs, facilitated team building using strengths-based approaches, and provided leadership assessment and coaching to managers and leaders. Kate is passionate about enabling change agents and managers in leading and implementing change.
Lewis, L. K. & Russ, T. L. (2012). Soliciting and using input during organizational change initiatives: What are practitioners doing? Management Communication Quarterly, 26(2), 267-294.
Pseudo-participation – Oxford Reference. (2016). Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199298761.001.0001/acref-9780199298761-e-999.