7 Ways to Engage Employees in Change – Beyond Pizza & PowerPoint


From culture change to organizational re-structuring, if the change program you are leading is like most change agendas, there will be PowerPoint documents involved.

It goes without saying that a well-structured strategy document is foundational to achieving the change your organization is working to achieve. At Hilgart, we also create many such documents to achieve clarity of organizational strategies, necessary buy-in, and of course, to solidify and communicate action plans.

But it can be tempting to place a too much value on the paper on which the strategy is written, and assume that because the change strategy and plan have been written and signed off, that it has been communicated and is understood by employees. Indeed, it is a commonly cited statistic that 70% of change efforts in organizations fail [1]. So why is this happening? As change experts will agree, this has much to do with the lack of engagement from the people responsible for implementing the change.

Here at Hilgart, we have gathered a sampling of the best practices we’ve used over the years for kick-starting the soft side of change programs – to truly engage employees in living the change – not just on paper – but everyday:

1. Recognition… Beyond Pizza
Second only to PowerPoint presentations, pizza has its place at the table when topics of change are being discussed – especially when we want to show employees that they are valued in the process. And while pizza and other employee appreciation gestures can be nice added perks for employees, they are rather common. Employees recognize this, and while nice that they do not need to buy their own slice of pizza that day, it is not likely to have long-term impact on morale.

The Alternative: There are other meaningful ways to recognize employees, including finding ways to break bread together. For example, host small group dinners with the CEO or business area leaders to recognize the contributions a team of employees did to contribute to the change. Not only is this an excellent form of recognition, but it is also a good way for senior leadership to get in touch with the pulse of the organization.

Another powerful recognition tool is providing opportunities for employees to help address organizational problems. In Daniel Pink’s Drive, he shares his research about how people are actually motivated by opportunities to contribute beyond the scope of their role [2]. We will elaborate more on how to do this in #4 below.

2. Let Employees Complain… Without Offering Solutions (at first)
Yes, you read that correctly. It may be counter-intuitive, but people need a chance to mourn all types of change. Even if an employee logically knows that change will positively impact his long term, he will resist it for some time.

3. Celebrate the Past
When a leader is already fully bought into the idea of change, it is easy to move forward without acknowledging the contributions that people made to get here.

A decade ago, when I was based in Asia, there was a team of people who made great contributions under the old strategy and delivery model. When new colleagues were hired, it was easy for them to criticize what the original team had contributed. And while it was true that the new strategy was better aligned to the future of where the business was headed, the past contribution of that team had been important to getting it to that point. Fortunately, the leader in charge of the team recognized this and made sure that employees were recognized for the contribution they already made, which in turn helped everyone to move forward.

During times of change, it is well-documented that there can be too much focus on happy talk [3]. To get people to be positive about change, it can be tempting to only allow people to focus on the positive. But allowing employees to work through the change, just as they would any loss, is crucial. One model for explaining this is the Bridges Model [4], which focuses on how to help people through what William Bridges calls endings, before they will buy into the new way of doing things.

4. Engage Employees In Finding Solutions
This may seem like a contradiction to #2, but #2 is what you do before employees are engaged enough to begin experimentation with solutions. Once employees are acknowledged for their past contributions, and have been able to express their disappointment and feel heard about moving on from the way things used to be, they will now be one of your best resources to finding solutions to solve existing problems in your organization.

So quick – once you recognize that some of your employees are ready to engage, get them involved while they are curious and open. It can be easy at this point to engage consultants to find solutions. But trust us – as consultants ourselves – both your results and change program budget will be better off if your employees are also involved in finding solutions.

At this stage, consultants can best be leveraged to partner with you in getting your employees involved (see #5), and ensuring that there is a balance of the right types of solutions (see #6), rather than generating the solutions for you directly. Actively involved employees will become the change champions that will carry your strategy forward, long after the consultants are gone.

5. Create an Open Space
The technique of Open Space Technology can be tremendously useful once you have employees bought-in and eager to participate. It is a conference model based on the work of Harrison Owen [5], which focuses on the idea that the most valuable part of a conference is often the break. The break is where the real issues get talked about and addressed. Using this technique can help surface the most important issues in organizations, and can engage your team in solving them.

6. Replace Tactics with a Comprehensive Marketing Strategy
This is an easy trap to fall into. We started this blog post talking about how PowerPoint and Pizza can get overused. So, too, can clever and gimmicky marketing tactics.

When focusing on Internal Communications, my Hilgart colleague, Rob Solomon, advises clients about how to use marketing wisely to create a consistent brand identity internally and externally in organizations. He explains that while marketing tactics and perks, such as clothing apparel with the company’s logo, company picnics, and poster campaigns to support your messaging are nice, they are not sufficient. Such tactics can be an incredibly nice boost to reinforce a company’s commitment to culture and employee engagement, but they do not replace a comprehensive Internal Communications strategy. And that Internal Communications strategy, Rob advocates, must be in close alignment with the messages of your external marketing [6].

7. Align Training with Your Reward System
Chances are, if the behavior change and skill requirement needed for your change agenda are significant, there will be training involved. Ensure that the focus of the training is consistent with how employees are rewarded in your organization. If you schedule sessions to teach employees X, but they are rewarded to do Y, employees will probably still do Y. For example, if your change program (and the corresponding training) is about increasing the quality of client relationships, but employees are only measured on the quantity of clients they maintain, employees will receive a mixed message.

Alignment of your reward system – both financially and through non-financial rewards and recognition – to the behaviors you want employees to demonstrate, are key to ensuring that your change will be successful.

In the end, the success of your change program will have more to do with employees believing in the change, than it will the strategy document itself. And when that belief in your change is realized in the hearts and minds of employees, your change strategy will be worth the paper on which it is written.


To learn more about how Hilgart can support you in engaging employees during times of change, click here.

[1] [3] Kotter, J. P. (1996, 2010). Leading Change. Harvard Business School Press.

[2] Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Cannongate Books.

[4] Bridges, W. (2003). Managing Transitions Making the Most of Change. (2nd Ed.) Cambridge, MA.

[5] Owen, H. (2008). Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide (3rd ed.). Berrett-Koehler.

[6] Solomon, R. (2014, June). Personal Communication with E. Hilgart.

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