By Ilze Lansdell-Zandvoort, Professor of OD Change and Leadership, Hult Ashridge Executive Education.
It’s not uncommon for employees to become disconnected from their organisations during times of upheaval. The good news is that leaders can play a very big role in mitigating against the risk of losing talented employees, by focusing on doing a few key things well.
Many employees get their sense of identity from their role or from their organisation. Therefore, any change that threatens employees’ sense of belonging or identification can lead to a loosening of their connection with the organisation, either intentionally or unintentionally. Intentional disconnection is the most harmful to the organisation, as it is often associated with higher levels of turnover and absenteeism. It is a conscious act, undertaken by employees who chose to separate or disassociate themselves from the values or attributes they associate with the changing organisation.
Key signs for leaders to look out for might be an employee’s willingness to do more than simply stay with the business. Are they showing willingness to go above and beyond their job description, for example, or to engage in ‘citizenship’ behaviour that might benefit the organisation? If not, they may be disconnecting and simply marking time.
Keep talking to people
Shifts in commitment and organisational identity often appear over time and may wax and wane, depending on a person’s experience of the change that is taking place. Therefore, leaders should regularly check-in with employees to establish their state-of-mind as the change unfolds, instead of waiting for the customary fixed performance review to come around.
Some employees do of course choose to leave changing organisations. In this scenario, conducting in-depth exit interviews will give leaders the opportunity to understand why employees feel the need to depart, to address any misconceptions that may have arisen, or to amend corporate messages.
For those who are staying, it is important to tap into people’s innate need for stability by providing reassurance regarding the core values, attributes or behaviours that will remain the same despite the change. Leaders can emphasise, for example, how the changes will continue to support the overall purpose of the team and organisation.
Disconnecting isn’t always harmful
There are some instances where disconnection is not actually a bad thing. There is evidence, for example, that in some cases it contributes to beneficial behaviours such as whistle blowing, innovation and conscientious dissent. Leaders should be careful not to force out employees who may not want to toe the party line as the change unfolds, instead offering them the opportunity to express what it is they feel uncomfortable with, and trying to understand the reasons why this is the case.
Nurture a sense of significance
Crucially, employees also need to feel significant to the organisation in order to connect and commit. During a major change process, there are at least three reasons why employees might feel as if they are becoming insignificant. Firstly, employees who feel they are not being valued, respected or appreciated will begin to feel insignificant. Leaders should strive to make their employees feel validated and valued, by showing respect and appreciation, especially during times of change.
Secondly, employees need to feel heard in order to feel significant. This means that especially during flux associated with change, leaders need to establish both a relationship and a process that facilitates open and honest dialogue, where employees know that their concerns are being heard and considered. It does not mean that leaders need to do everything employees want, but it does mean they should have an open and transparent decision-making process that includes the voice of their employees.
Finally, feeling insecure or vulnerable may also erode an employee’s sense of significance during change. Although leaders can often not predict or comment on job-losses as the change unfolds, they can establish psychological safety by meeting employees with compassion and by demonstrating empathy and trustworthiness during times of turmoil.
It is also important to note that leaders themselves may need support during times of change, and therefore, it will be reassuring for them to know that they do not have to take care of employees by themselves. Human beings are social beings. We like to feel that we belong. Leaders need to actively foster connections between employees, whether that is within formal teams or via informal social groups. This will offer a sense of belonging and connection for all as the organisation around them changes and unfolds.