August 2021
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TD Magazine

When It Comes to Change, Get Employees Off the Sidelines

Friday, July 30, 2021

Achieve better outcomes by having workers actively, rather than passively, involved in change.

People say it all the time: In today's workplace, change is the only constant. And they're right. Technology advances so fast that sometimes it feels like a sci-fi movie. New global threats and opportunities crop up. Customers demand that companies offer higher quality and lower prices. Market conditions change, and businesses grapple to compete. They restructure, upgrade processes, introduce cutting-edge technology, and institute new policies and procedures.


To help employees adjust to all that change, talent development professionals coach employees to expect change—to let them know that it's normal and something that's continuous. We continually prepare them for change. We tell prospective employees that whatever job they're applying to will change. We reiterate the message during onboarding and repeat it again in our employee development programs. We evaluate employees based on the extent to which they support changes at work. We set change leadership as a selection criterion in our succession planning process.

Unfortunately, as all that change swirls about, employees may feel like they're passive observers. They expect change but feel like it's something happening to them instead of something that they're actively contributing to. And when employees adopt such a passive mindset, they—and our organizations—miss out on building the necessary competencies for success in the ever-changing workplace.

We can help employees develop change literacy—and generate buy-in and support for workplace change—by providing opportunities for them to get actively involved in the change initiatives that are happening at work. With some creative thinking, we can provide roles for staff to learn by doing—doing the real work that must be completed as the change initiatives proceed. Employees will see that managing change isn't just something that "some project team over there" is responsible for. Rather, it's something that they contribute to as well.

As you help guide change initiatives in your company, consider enlisting employees for these change-related activities.

Embed developmental assignments in project teams

As leaders assemble project teams to guide and manage change initiatives, they may focus on selecting employees who already have the functional, technical, leadership, and change management skills required to get the project work done. They assign well-seasoned IT leaders to work on a new software initiative, highly proficient space planners to help lead an upcoming relocation, and experienced project managers to guide a sorely needed onboarding project. That makes sense, because leaders need people who can complete the job in the required timeframe. But working on a change initiative can be a phenomenal developmental activity.

Take advantage of that—and get more employees actively involved in the change—by encouraging leaders to reserve a few slots on the project team for employees who will participate as part of their formal development plan. That could mean inviting junior IT staff and employees outside of IT to participate on a software project team, adding an up-and-coming instructional designer and a financial analyst from your company's leadership development program to a relocation project team, and asking a few newly promoted frontline supervisors to join the onboarding team.

Managers whose employees have been selected into these developmental assignments should let their employees know that the project will provide numerous chances to stretch beyond their current skill level and that they expect them to take full advantage of such opportunities. Project team members may be called upon to:

  • Understand the needs and requirements in job functions other than their own.
  • Research and evaluate alternative paths to achieving business objectives.
  • Propose and defend decisions.
  • Navigate conflict and negotiate agreements.
  • Deliver presentations.
  • Communicate at multiple levels within the organization.
  • Manage complex tasks in a tight timeframe.

They will put project management tools to work and deploy a variety of change management practices to help stakeholders understand and support the change that is happening around them.

We need to reinforce that message. We can help the selected employees understand that, as they work alongside their more seasoned colleagues, they'll take on challenges and tasks that they may not be fully ready to perform yet, so they should ask for feedback and coaching. And we need to make sure that project and change management leaders are on board too. They need to provide challenging work, feedback, and coaching to team members to help them develop needed skills.

Help leaders identify project-related tasks they can assign to less-experienced team members, such as serving as a notetaker during a stakeholder needs assessment meeting, analyzing stakeholder feedback data, or helping manage the Q&A process during a town-hall-type information session. We may also need to help leaders hone their coaching skills.

Identify workers to be peer advocates

In Managing Transitions, change expert William Bridges advises organizations embarking on change to establish a transition monitoring team, which is a group of employees selected from across the company who serve as a two-way channel of communication with their peers. Team members have responsibility for reinforcing messages about what's changing and for checking in with their peers periodically to see how well they are understanding the messages about change. For example, the team members can follow up with co-workers after a leader sends out a status update email to make sure their peers read the email and to help them interpret it correctly.

Transition monitoring team members also are responsible for encouraging their colleagues to adopt the change. They may remind co-workers when it's time to enroll in training or encourage them to try out newly changed procedures. They check in with their peers to understand how the change is working or not working for them, and they convey that information to the project team so it can make needed adjustments. In addition, they serve as an internal focus group, reviewing plans and decisions before implementation and providing input to the project team about how their co-workers are likely to respond.

To set up a transition monitoring team, recruit at least one representative from each part of the organization that's affected by the change. Be sure to select employees who have an interest in the change initiative and who support, at some level, what the project is designed to accomplish. Focus on selecting individuals who are respected by their peers as someone who is competent and trustworthy.

Whom do employees listen to? With whom are they comfortable sharing their concerns? You can ask supervisors to nominate candidates to serve as the transition monitoring team representative for their area or ask employees to volunteer. Then meet regularly with the team to share updates about the change initiative and to hear participants' input about what's happening in the areas they represent.

Invite employees to the red team

While employees on the transition monitoring team participate by providing advocacy—letting their peers know all the ways in which the change will benefit them—other employees can get involved with the flip side: helping the project team identify everything that's wrong, or could go wrong, with the change. Consider establishing a red team, which is a group of employees separate from the project team and transition monitoring team who meet periodically to thoroughly critique the change.

The red team's goal is to identify errors, faulty thinking, risks, and mistaken assumptions in key plans and decisions before implementation so the project team can make adjustments before moving forward. A red team doesn't have to be large to provide real benefit—fewer than a dozen employees will do. Think of the team as those few extra pairs of eyes—eagle eyes—that can help the project team avoid making an embarrassing or expensive mistake.

To set up a red team, include two or three employees who have already expressed criticism about the change. Their concerns may be valid—something the project team really needs to hear. Also invite a few seasoned staffers with functional experience in the area related to the plan or decision under review. Include some employees who have lived through similar change initiatives in the past and have the battle scars to show for it. They may have done many things right, but they've also likely made some big mistakes and have lessons learned to share. Add in an employee or two who is known for their analytical thinking skills—maybe a creative nonconformist or someone you can always count on to see the other side of things and who isn't afraid to say it.

After assembling the red team, share details with team members about the key decision or plan you need them to review, and let them have at it. Ask them to poke holes, tell you all the reasons the plan may not work, and show the project team the traps they may fall into. The red team may meet only a few times over the course of the change initiative—maybe once to review and critique the project plan after the project team has finalized it, another time to review communications plans in advance of their launch, and again to review any key decisions that represent a departure from the original plan.

Get employees involved in testing

When a change initiative entails implementing a new technology or process, there may be an occasion for employees to get involved with quality assurance testing. Recruit one or two employees from each area affected by what's changing. Provide them with scripts outlining the different scenarios you need them to try out and a mechanism for providing feedback to the project team about what's working and what isn't.


The project team may appreciate having access to all those extra helping hands, and the employees serving as testers may appreciate having the chance to help root out hiccups before the change goes live in their area.

Show frontline supervisors they're special

Frontline supervisors can make or break a change initiative. They'll explain to direct reports why the change matters for their area and the broader organization—or they won't. They'll provide employees with the time and resources to develop the knowledge and skill needed to succeed once the change is implemented—or not. They'll coach and encourage reluctant direct reports to try out the change—or they won't. And they'll model behaviors required in the new environment—or not.

When it comes to leading change, frontline supervisors really are special. And yet far too often, companies frustrate those managers by leaving them in the dark, treating them as passive recipients of what's changing, and putting them in that awkward position where they have to admit to direct reports that they don't know what's about to happen. Get frontline supervisors actively involved in the change initiative. By helping them understand the key role you need them to play and providing them with tools to succeed at that role, you can turn them into your biggest advocates for change.

Make sure to meet regularly with supervisors—either one-on-one or as a group—to help them understand the overall purpose and plan for what's changing, and ask them to provide ideas and specific details about how best to implement the change in the area they lead. Share major communications with them in advance, and allow them to get their questions answered.

Create scripts and Q&A sheets tailored to each area affected by the change to help managers respond to questions from their direct reports. Ask supervisors to check in with their employees after they've received training to see what seems to make sense and where employees are struggling, and provide supervisors with formal vehicles for sharing that information with the project team so it can address the raised issues. Provide supervisors with scripts and other resources they can use to reinforce training during their regularly scheduled department meetings. Also, check in with them frequently to hear what is and isn't working, taking swift action to address their needs and concerns.

Include employees in action reviews

As change initiatives move forward, project teams likely will pause at key junctures to discuss what's working that they need to continue, what isn't working that they need to address, and actions they plan to take to stay on—or get back on—track. After their projects conclude, they're likely to meet again to identify lessons learned they can apply to other change initiatives they work on in the future.

Action review meetings—where participants discuss what was supposed to happen, what did happen, why, and what they will do about it—represent yet another activity for employees to get involved in. The goal of these meetings is to get the ground truth from different perspectives, and employees experiencing the change have an important perspective to share.

Encourage project teams to invite an employee from each area affected by the change—internal customers of sorts—to join, and actively participate in, action review meetings the project team conducts. By participating in the exercise, workers will see that their views and perspectives count. They'll also see that mistakes happen during every change initiative and that what matters most is that they learn how to avoid repeating those same mistakes in the future.

Opportunities abound

Give employees a job to do and they'll learn by doing. By assigning workers these formal responsibilities for contributing to change initiatives, they'll discover that managing change isn't work that other people do—they do it too. And it's work they can develop the skills to do well.

Toolkit for Accidental Change Managers

Accidental change managers lead change initiatives at work even though they don't have a formal change management title, training, or experience. Procurement introduces a new procedure for everyone to order supplies. HR contracts with a new vendor for securing temporary employees. Finance establishes a new policy for getting business e xpenses reimbursed. IT upgrades the software everyone uses to conduct virtual meetings.

Help accidental change managers who lead changes such as those mentioned above build the skills they need to do their job well. Give them access to a simple change management toolkit that comprises:

  • A project charter to help define expected outcomes and deliverables
  • A project plan to identify milestones, key tasks, timeframes, and assigned resources
  • Stakeholder analysis to identify who is affected by the change, how, and who can influence change adoption
  • A RACI matrix to clarify who is responsible and accountable for each task or decision and identify who needs to be consulted with or kept informed
  • A communication plan to plot out change messages and the vehicles used to deploy them
  • A training plan to describe how affected employees will develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to support the change
  • A resistance management plan to identify employees most likely to object to—and potentially try to disrupt—what's changing and steps for engaging with them
  • An action review to help project teams identify what's working, what isn't, lessons learned, and corrective actions
  • About the Author

    Kathryn Zukof is a learning and organizational development practitioner and educator with over 30 years of experience in industries ranging from manufacturing to higher education to technology services. Her work focuses on helping organizations create and implement innovative approaches to leadership development and succession management, foster an environment of continuous learning, and plan and navigate through transformational change. Before she transitioned to a career in L&OD, Kathryn held management roles in client relations, product development, and marketing in the technology services sector.

    Kathryn has a PhD in social psychology and an MBA in marketing. She has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in industrial and organizational psychology, research methods, and marketing.

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