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Help employees weather the storm of an organizational revamp

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Organizational change seems to come in waves, or maybe we just pay attention when we encounter a flurry of changes. For instance, we recently learned about the merger between Sobeys and Safeway, two successful Canadian retailers. Next, we learned about the merger of Loblaws and Shoppers Drug Mart, two more retail giants. We've recently learned about layoffs at the Sun Media newspaper chain and more layoffs in the transportation and engineering sectors. During the past year, we have also seen change and amalgamation within the health care and liquor/lotteries sectors.

Will organizational restructuring and change ever stop? I don't think so. It can't. That's because our global economy is changing every day, our personal interests and needs are changing and new inventions and opportunities are being presented every day. We have to keep going or we'll be left behind.

I admit change is a tough experience. I often encounter people who are so negative about change, they fail to see the opportunities before them. So, whenever I get a chance, I ask these individuals to visualize a return to a lifestyle before BlackBerrys, iPhones, laptops, iPads and high-definition TV. The thought of being without these tools always brings a look of shock to their faces and they respond with a laugh and a quick, "No thanks." No two ways about it, the question always helps to put things into perspective.

I don't deny managing organizational change requires leaders to focus on the many administrative, logistical and legal issues. Yet, my experience suggests leaders don't pay enough attention to the emotional upheaval it causes employees. Leaders must remind themselves front-line employees have not been privy to the rationale behind the changes and so may feel "blind-sided" by the announced changes. And believe me, this hurts.

It's a time when many employees will learn first-hand just how psychologically important their job title is to them, because when it's changed, their personal identity often changes with it. As well, employees will often be confronted with changes to their personal control and this causes them to become disoriented, confused and disengaged.

Once an organization restructuring has taken place, leaders need to pay attention to reconnecting employees and recreating a new sense of identity and personal control. If leaders fail to pay attention to this issue, the sense of emotional loss experienced by employees will eventually evolve into low morale. This in turn will result in employee turnover.

So what can leaders do to stabilize the organization, re-engage employees and to link the hearts and minds of employees to a new organizational vision? First of all, leaders need to understand exactly what work satisfaction factors will serve to keep employees engaged during times of restructuring or layoffs. Some of these work satisfaction factors or drivers as they are frequently known include confidence in the future vision, a supportive management and the satisfaction with the work itself. The key challenge for leaders is to rebuild trust in each of these areas.

Leaders must start building trust by sharing a rationale for the restructuring that helps employees understand and see the merit of the changes as objective and fair. This communication must also be seen as an open and honest. Once this information is shared, develop several congruent and continuous strategies to focus employee attention to the future vision. Ensure this message is consistently communicated at all levels in the organization.

As you might expect, employees will naturally think, "What's in it for me?" In order to help employees get beyond this style of thinking, leaders must reach out to support and help employees see a future from a career perspective. Will there be learning and development opportunities? Will there be career progression opportunities? Employees who encounter managerial support for their emotional needs will recover from the restructuring much more quickly.

One of the successful strategies is to conduct focus groups in order to gain emotional commitment. Use these focus sessions to ask questions such as, "How does this change affect your work?" or "What issues, barriers and/or constraints does this change impose on your work?"

Once all of the ideas are identified, then classify, categorize and label the issues. Employees can also be asked to prioritize the issues. This exercise allows employees to state their issues and concerns.

A second part of the focus group strategy is to ask participants to think like a manager and envision how to overcome their issues. Brainstorming ideas and assessing potential solutions help employees appreciate the challenges leaders face. It also helps them to more easily accept the difficult decisions managers have had to make and helps to develop respect for leadership overall.

In many cases, the employees will identify impractical solutions; however, this gives managers/leaders another opportunity to explain the rationale behind decisions. The key benefit here is employees feel listened to as they've had an opportunity for input and can better understand the new organizational direction.

On the other hand, leaders must continue to communicate with employees. No matter whether this is accomplished through regular staff meetings or small groups, employees need to be updated and questions must be asked and answered. As well, leaders need to look for opportunities to re-engage employees through the development of new skills and opportunities for new and/or special assignments.

Finally, leaders can't forget about their own emotional support. They must focus time on their own needs because as role models, employees will emulate their behaviour. Therefore, be sure to do something every day to develop, reinforce and sustain a positive personal attitude. Your positive attitude will help to create that sense of certainty that employees are looking for during a change initiative.

Source: Turning survive into thrive; Managing survivor engagement in a downsized organization, Kenexa Research Institute Working Paper, 2009

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed. is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 H1

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