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  • Change - the Story of our Time

    Posted In: Human Resources

    Posted Date: 20/02/2017 14:24:37

This blog previously appeared in The HR Director magazine


RSG managing director Jon Ball believes effective storytelling is the key tactic in helping staff through a tricky cultural shift.


As we journey into 2017 it feels, more than ever, like we’re living through huge change. In truth, change is always with us – it is the one constant upon which we can rely.

So why is it that we often find the management of change such a difficult thing to grapple with? Is it that, as human beings, we’re resistant to change? Are we scared of it, or are we simply lazy and don’t like the idea of dealing with new concepts and ideas?

In organisations which successfully create sustainable change you’ll find these and other questions being asked way before the business transformation strategy is formed.

That’s because when change is managed properly there’s a realisation that for it to last it must be supported by complementary cultural shifts. Company culture is deeply embedded in the values, assumptions, behaviours and attitudes of employees and their leaders, so despite the fact that constructing any kind of change to these may be essential, the process is unlikely to be simple.

Business development may be the end goal of such transformations but, as many who have gone before can testify, there are very few fast tracks.

That is why this challenge is best suited to the talents and expertise of HR professionals who are able to truly understand what it takes to achieve success. They are able to communicate what’s needed to everyone - board level to shop floor.

To put it bluntly, there is little to be achieved when embarking on significant change if clear objectives have not been established and communicated well. Cultural change needs to be set against a shared understanding by senior people of the purpose of change - and what kind of culture will need to exist for it to work.

Only this shared understanding of the issues affecting staff will allow the business to begin seeking the right solutions. But HR professionals should be no stranger to unpinning office cultures, and detrimental social traditions.

Longstanding policies and unwritten rules in much need of modernising can go unquestioned, and it’s the role of the HR department to identity those which aren’t achieving what they should so that they can be reworked to provide greater benefits to the employees they affect.

The first step is to look to the obvious and identifiable aspects of an organisation’s culture, and then to the implicit processes and rules which are ingrained within a business but not necessarily spoken of.

Conducting a meaningful, ongoing employee engagement survey is an essential start that will indicate areas requiring attention. Feedback from this gives insight into employer and management beliefs and where procedures and values require significant improvement.

This can be harder to get off the ground than you might think – often leaders even question why an employee engagement survey would be necessary as they think the results would be poor.

A leadership team may also not necessarily be receptive to the idea of overhauling an existing work culture when this coincides with an already hectic workload. Such changes require significant time and energy, investment which doesn’t always tailor itself well to the busy schedule of those managing the day-to-day running of a business.

But, as with checking your bank balance, it’s vital that you know exactly what you’re dealing with – only then can you choose the best course of action.

Core questions to start off with on an employee survey can be very simple and yet yield great insight. For example:

  • Do you understand the company’s mission?
  • Do you feel like you believe in it?
  • Do you feel like you could influence it?
  • Do you feel that your work has any impact on it?”
  • Do you feel an emotional connection with us?

Using thoughtful, honest communication to paint the whole picture can help make sure that employees understand the business’ challenges, achievements and direction (and their part in it) from beginning, to middle, to end.

The power of stories shouldn’t be underestimated when building emotional connections for people, helping staff to feel positive about the future and bringing them into the business strategy.

A modern organisation is well equipped with the technological tools it needs to engage the power of storytelling, and it’s vital to partner with the teams which use them most frequently to maximise effectiveness. The marketing, PR and internal comms team are certainly the first port of call. Working with them, and using their knowledge and skills to write a consistent story the whole company can identify with is imperative.

Done well, storytelling will:

  • Unite teams to the same goal
  • Maintain optimism over what is possible for employees to achieve and adapt to
  • Share with all colleagues the data which proves change is needed
  • Share what ‘great’ looks like in other organisations
  • Build strong relationships with leaders within the organisation so that change filters all the way through
  • Influence key individuals before trying to launch proposals to the rest of the company
  • Keep the HR team centred on the vision for the future
  • Encourage them to be brave with the business and to recognise the impact they are having

Apart from achieving a sustainable shift in cultural change, successful storytelling should also result in stories filtering across the organisation and positively translating through word of mouth.

The effect of this can result in a strong, lasting message overall. Staff who have positive things to say about the business will play a major part in cultivating a happy work environment and as a consequence will carry this positive message with them into their lives outside of work.

When you’re trying to build pride in an organisation, you often have to coax success stories out of people initially to try and regain some sense of positive morale.

But this is not purely led from the teams on the ground. Employees need to hear such tales from both the organisation and directly from its leadership. Often the senior team can seem removed and distant from the greater workforce during times of upheaval.

What is needed is raw interaction so that storytelling can occur and leaders show themselves to be relatable to develop a feeling of being in it together. Taken to its logical conclusion, in communicating something as deeply powerful as social or behavioural change, you have to also approach this as never before as it’s about creating a campaigning dialogue around the organisation.

Ultimately, the ideal situation for HR’s role during times of transformation is to become both ‘driver’ and ‘partner of change’. Knowing when to drive and when to navigate is a vital part of guiding a company through a period of change as departments and leaders have their own needs, decisions and issues to contend with during the process.

All of this engagement activity is well worth the effort. In its 2015 Employee Engagement Survey Report, market pollsters Gallup showed that a highly engaged workforce means the difference between a company that thrives and one that struggles.

When employees are engaged, they are passionate, creative, and entrepreneurial, and their enthusiasm fuels growth. These employees are emotionally connected to the mission and purpose of their work.

Gallup also found the UK had the highest rate of employment disengagement in Western Europe at 26%. Gallup concluded that the overall impact of eliminating active disengagement would add more than £50 billion to the UK economy.

Setting realistic goals is also imperative. True cultural change requires radical behaviour shifts over a period of several months - or even years. New behaviours have to be ingrained in the culture so most of your leaders and employees are demonstrating them readily and consistently.

And, although people might not want to accept it, risks are a necessary part of this. If you guard against every potential downfall, you’ll do nothing. But it’s possible to minimise those risks by using the vast range of capabilities open to us in terms of data, employee engagement and collaboration with other departments.

HR cannot wait to be asked to sort everything that needs sorting. Often, you have to set the mandate or change agenda yourself. A HR team’s confidence may have to be built from scratch, especially in the face of major change.

Finally, you will ask yourself the question “how do we start to get back to normal?”. You need to create hope. First by sending the message that ‘we are one’ and second by making leaders more confident so their optimism permeates through the organisation. Even your willingness to undertake this demonstrates, and so encourages, confidence.

Creating a culture able to embrace change positively should be something we all work towards. Change is constant and disruptive - which means those who deal with it most effectively can depend on a long and successful career.

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