By Peter B. Grazier
Originally published in EI Network December 1, 1993
It seems that this topic just never goes away. I have just returned from New Orleans where I conducted a seminar on overcoming resistance to employee involvement (EI), and was once again surprised (and dismayed) that we are still struggling with moving it forward in our organizations.
Most of the attendees had some role in spreading employee involvement within their organizations, and most were frustrated to say the least. What is it about our workplace today that seems to resist movement to a concept that has proven itself over and over?
As I have been working with organizations over the years to create participative work environments, this question has been central to my successes and failures. If one can understand the dynamics of change, both personal and organizational, the probability of success will be greatly enhanced.
What I have learned is that there are three basic elements in creating successful change:
1. The Desire to Change
Most humans will not change their beliefs, habits, or behaviors unless they are motivated to do so. Most will not change, even if change is for the better, unless there is come compelling reason. As long as the perceived rewards of staying as we are remain greater than the rewards of changing, we will likely stay as we are. Or, conversely, as long as the perceived risks of changing are greater than the risks for staying the same, we will be unlikely to change.
I was recently given the below cartoon which, to me, symbolizes this concept perfectly in terms of today’s changing workplace.
The supervisor or, symbolically, the slave master, is attempting to change (humanize) his management style with his “Slave of the Month” program. Meanwhile, one slave says to the other, “I trusted him more when he had a whip!”
Not only does the slave master have difficulty changing, but the slaves are also feeling some discomfort, even when the change is beneficial to them! Our desire to hold on to things that are familiar and, hence, comfortable is strong.
Resource Tip: Resistance to change can be lessened by using an instrument such as Mastering the Change Curve.
Of the three elements required for change, my bias is that desire is most important. Little happens if there is no real motivation to change. And strong motivation frequently makes up for shortcomings in the other two. A central question, then, is how do we create this desire to change?
First we must create awareness of the need to change. What are the compelling reasons to move away from the familiar and comfortable and move to something different and perhaps uncomfortable?
In today’s competitive world economy, more and more people are becoming aware of the need for improving the way or organizations work. However, if we really want to turn up the heat on change, we must discuss internally the specific challenges facing our organization.
Who is our competition? What are they doing? What new products and services are they adding? Is the market for our product or service expanding or contracting? What are our costs and revenues per employee versus our competition’s? Will our products be subject to new environmental controls? What will rapidly expanding telecommunications technology mean to us and our existing work processes? Can we reduce our overhead expenses to match those considered best in our industry? Could we really become “paperless?” How could we reduce our basic work process by 10 steps this month? How could we improve turnaround time by 90%?
It is my opinion that the more profitable an organization is, the more creative it must be in creating the appropriate challenge. One organization I worked with wanted to increase the rate of implementation of employee involvement, which for several years had been painfully slow. The company was old, well established in its market, and experiencing continued earnings growth. What, I asked myself, would provide some motivation for these people to move forward?
By chance, I came across an article discussing one of their strongest competitors. The article related performance data of the competitor showing, for example, that its revenues per employee were twice that of my client! I shared this information with the management team and they were shocked by the numbers. They could now see the potential threat posed by a competitor with such strong financial performance.
In this case, the risk of inaction became a greater motivator than the discomfort of changing to a participative style of management.
Strategies to Develop Awareness
From a practical point of view, how can this type of information and resulting dialogue be generated?
Ask people (perhaps in a small group format) “What would happen if we don’t change?”
Again, the purpose of these strategies is to create some discomfort or dissatisfaction with the status quo–a realization that to stay as we are is more of a threat than to move forward with new concepts.
The above strategies make one major assumption, however, and that is that management is not already destroying employee motivation and allegiance with destructive dictates and mandates. For example, those organizations prone to laying off employees at the first sign of financial weakness will find it difficult, if not impossible, to implement and sustain any form of participative management. A layoff as a first alternative to cost reduction contradicts the notion of participative management. Employees will find it hard to commit fully to the organization and its mission, goals, and ideals.
2. The Ability to Change
If the motivation for change exists, then people will need some assistance developing the skills to change. Ignorant of the dynamics of human behavior, we assume that once people understand the need for change, they will miraculously move in that direction.
However, what holds us back is our ingrained beliefs and resulting behaviors. For example, I may want to become a participative manager but all my previous training has conditioned me to be controlling and directive and, clearly, the decision maker.2 And down deep inside, I might really have doubts about this employee involvement stuff. To change my beliefs and ultimately my behaviors significantly, I will need some help.
Strategies to Develop Ability
Join the Association for Quality and Participation and tap into a valuable network of people going through the same change.
Get on mail lists for other organizations providing support services dealing with change in today’s workplace.3
Define a clear vision of the new work environment. In specific terms, what does employee involvement, empowerment, and self-direction mean in our organization?
Example: Employee Involvement Vision
Example: Empowerment and Self-Direction Vision (partial list for example only)
The vision serves as a clear picture of what the organization will look like in the future.
Resource Tip: The changing roles of supervisors and front-line employees in the new system is demonstrated in the video A Team Leader’s Day.
Resource Tip: Simplification of process improvement and quick-change concepts is demonstrated in the video The Winner’s Circle.
Because our prior training and conditioning is such a significant barrier to our ability to change, we need to take some very proactive steps (such as the strategies listed above). Our learned behavior is like a spring that pulls us back to a comfortable position whenever we stretch a little too far. Breaking free of that spring is difficult, but possible, if we take conscious actions that eventually replace the old behaviors with new ones.
3. The Permission to Change
Finally there is the issue of permission. When a change is personal, we only have to give ourselves permission to change. But when the change is in an organizational context, permission must be granted by those in power.
I may have the desire to change, and I may have the knowledge and ability to change. But if I work in an environment that doesn’t enable me to change, very little will happen. Desire and ability are there, but permission is not.
I am told frequently by seminar participants that they are constrained by those above them and they don’t know what to do. Here are some suggestions:
The point of this list is to show that if you work in an organization that does not yet support the new workplace concepts, all is not lost. There is probably something on this list that would fit your personal comfort level. Too many of us throw up our hands and say “What can I do?” rather than “Here’s what I can do.”
The question of permission is a very personal one that we must answer for ourselves.
In this article I have tried to address the ongoing concern of how to overcome resistance to employee involvement, empowerment, self-direction, and improvement concepts. This is an issue we all struggle with, and I wish there were a simple answer. What I have learned is that no one strategy will work for everyone. The reasons we resist change are very personal and unique, so to change the thinking of many people in an organization will probably require a variety of approaches.
1. A good resource for identifying such books: Theodore Kinni, The Business Reader, P.O. Box 3627, Williamsburg, VA 23187. Phone (757) 258-4746 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. See Supervisors in Transition
3. U.S. Department of Labor, American Productivity and Quality Center, Center for the Study of Work Teams
4. Contact the Association for Quality and Participation at 513-381-1959 for a list of such companies.