Most individuals and organizations accept the notion that change—while not always welcome—is inevitable. They know that industries, companies, and jobs must adapt, evolve, and innovate to survive. However, the pace of change in our workplaces has exceeded the horsepower of traditional change management practices. Ironically, these practices themselves now need to change, and catching up will require shifting to a people-centered approach that emphasizes a strong culture, empowers leaders at all levels, and provides transparency and voice to employees during the change process. Managing rapid and disruptive change may never be easy, but it can be far more effective when it focuses on people and their wellbeing.
Between refining hybrid ways of working, adopting powerful new technology, and contending with an ongoing talent shortage, a perpetual state of change has become the new normal. According to Gartner, the average employee experienced 10 planned enterprise changes last year, up from two in 20161 (not to mention unplanned changes). Yet despite the ubiquity of change in the modern workplace, the mere mention of the word can still create feelings of skepticism, anxiety, and fear among employees, in part because organizations’ change management plans have fallen flat—only 15% of employees feel confident their leaders can manage change and disruption in the future.2
Traditional change management practices, which tend to be linear, top-down, and process-oriented, no longer fit our evolving work environments. They also fail to involve employees (and many managers) in the planning. In short, they underestimate and under-prioritize people. This explains why Gartner finds only 34% of all organizational change initiatives are considered a “clear success” and 50% are “clear failures.”3
Fortunately, there are some clear solutions.
It’s time for organizations to make their people the center of their change strategies. As our research shows, doing so will increase employee wellbeing, strengthen workplace culture, and remove friction from change management processes.
In fact, employees at people-centric organizations are 12x more likely to say their experiences with change were well-managed and 11x more likely to say their experiences with change were positive. The odds of other beneficial outcomes such as feelings of inclusion, desire to stay, and less burnout also dramatically improve with this approach (5x, 5x, and -78%, respectively).
The fundamental truth is no organizational change is effective or lasting without the support of employees. So the sooner and more completely organizations earn that support, the more successful any change will be.
“Change cannot be put on people. The best way to instill change is to do it with them. Create it with them.”
—Lisa Bodell, CEO, FutureThink
Focusing on People Requires Focusing on Culture
By definition, a people-centered approach to change management means keeping employees in mind throughout the change process. This requires strong communication and healthy workplace culture. In cultures with high trust and mutual respect, employees are more receptive to change.
According to our research, three specific communication and cultural factors make a difference in employees’ experiences with change. As detailed in the following table, the most impactful are having support and genuine communication.
One key element of cultures that feel supportive and genuine is employee recognition. When people believe they are seen and valued, they can be more confident the organization is implementing change with them in mind. Employees at organizations with highly integrated recognition4 (where recognition is frequent, meaningful, and embedded in the culture) are significantly more likely to:
- Feel they have adequate support to deal with change (9x)
- Believe leaders have the tools they need to help employees with change (8x)
- Trust the organization (10x)
- Believe the organization cares about employees (9x)
- Think change is managed well (9x)
- Believe changes made are positive (8x)
In fact, 92% of employees at organizations with integrated recognition believe change in general to be positive. Additionally, they are 18x more likely to say they hope to be at their organization in a year and 5x more likely to say they plan to stay for at least three more years. Having a healthy workplace environment with culture-building activities like integrated recognition is a critical foundation for people-centered change.
Leaders at All Levels Must Be Empowered to Manage Change
Traditionally, change management is a top-down process, where senior leaders make decisions that mid-level and frontline leaders execute. This can lead to increased stress on middle managers and explains why they often feel like “shock absorbers,”5 responsible for the impact of the organization’s choices and changes on employees but removed from the conversations behind those changes. To alleviate this conflict, leaders at all levels must be intentionally and generously informed and equipped to help their people manage change.
Our research finds only 27% of leaders feel strongly prepared to help their people navigate change. And according to studies by Willis Towers Watson, only 22% of leaders believe the training they received to manage change was effective.6 It’s simply not enough to inform leaders of what changes are coming and why. Organizations must include leaders in the change management process by soliciting and listening to their feedback, giving them the tools and resources needed to help employees embrace the change, and training them on how to co-create a smooth change process.
Employees who perceive their leaders have the tools to help them manage change are:
Importantly, when leaders have the tools to help employees manage change, their own risk of burnout decreases by 73%.
“Despite realizing that change is necessary, employees are often afraid of big changes in the organization, preferring the dissatisfaction of the status quo to the risks of a new reality. Often, the most important thing a manager can do is not identify the need for change but provoke the momentum to begin and maintain the change.”
—David Garvin, Professor, Harvard Business School
Having a Voice Helps Employees Process Change
As illustrated in our experiments, even when people know change cannot be avoided, having a voice in the change can improve their perception of it. Examples of voice include participating in surveys or focus groups, giving feedback in town halls, or having one-to-one conversations with leaders.
When employees have a voice in organizational changes, there are greater odds of:
- Belief the organization is people-centric (8x)
- Feelings of trust (8x)
- Sense of community (5x)
- Thriving at work (3x)
Employees with a voice are also more likely to feel a sense of belonging and fulfillment at work, both of which help decrease burnout.7
Ultimately, we see change management that’s positive and people-centered significantly impacts employees across several cultural metrics, as shown in the next table.
By focusing on culture, empowering all leaders, and giving employees a voice, organizations can make change a more positive experience.
1. Create a healthy culture for change
A culture where employees have high trust and feel valued can safeguard against negative feelings related to change. Similarly, practicing modern leadership—mentoring, advocating, connecting, appreciating, and inspiring people rather than gatekeeping, commanding, or controlling—can help build a thriving culture where employees feel a sense community and lessen the sting of change.
Employees with modern leaders have 3x greater odds of seeing change as positive, partly because modern leaders foster the six Talent Magnets—core elements of workplace culture that together determine employee decisions to join, engage with, and remain at any place of work.
“What people resist is not change per se, but loss.”
—Ronald Heifetz, Founding Director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University
2. Empower all leaders to lead (and manage) change
Just like employees, leaders need help to make change successful. Give them as much information as possible about what the change is and why it needs to happen, as well as time to absorb the news. Decentralize the change management process so leaders at all levels can be involved. And empower organic, grassroots solutions for change. For example, ask leaders what they need to support change for their employees and deliver on it. Get their feedback on how to make the change easier and help them have better conversations with their people. When leaders feel prepared to both lead and manage change, they also feel more empowered, as demonstrated in the following table:
3. Develop a consistent, transparent communication strategy
Create a robust communication plan and use it early and often. Give leaders at all levels information and tools to talk about the change with their teams. And train them to communicate in a way that’s transparent, builds connection, and allows employees to give feedback. When leaders do this, employees are 3x more likely to say communication with their leaders around the change feels genuine and 3x more likely to believe they have adequate time, support, and opportunity to speak up during the change process.
As shown in the next table, when communication during change is early, frequent, clear, and honest, employees are also more likely to believe their organizations care about them.
Holistic communication throughout the process—before, during, and after the change—is key. And end the experience positively. When employees feel a sense of closure following the change, the odds are 5x greater they’ll be satisfied with their involvement.
4. Give employees a voice in change by seeking their feedback
Surveys, focus groups, town halls, and one-to-one meetings all impact perceptions that change is positive; however, when organizations use all four methods of gathering feedback, the odds that the change is perceived positively improve by 1,284%.
As the following table shows, when organizations solicit, use, and acknowledge feedback, employees are less likely to feel anxious and more likely to stay.
Embracing Change—Key Takeaways
The future of change management focuses on people.
A strong culture is the foundation of a people-centered approach to change.
Organizations must empower leaders at all levels to help teams manage change.
Employees want transparent communication and a voice in the change process.
Embracing Change Sources
- “Employees Are Losing Patience with Change Initiatives,” Cian O. Morain and Peter Aykens, Harvard Business Review, May 9, 2023.
- The Odgers Berndtson Leadership Conference Index 2020, Odgers Berndtson and Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, 2020.
- “5 Tips for Managing Change in the Workplace,” Tim Stobierski, Harvard Business School Online, January 23, 2020.
- “Integrated Recognition,” 2023 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
- “Leadership at Risk,” 2023 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
- “The Neuroscience of Why Organizational Change Fails,” Alan Caugant, LinkedIn Pulse, December 2, 2021.
- “Workplace Community,” 2023 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
- O.C. Tanner Client Story, 2021.
- “How Microsoft Used Change Management Best Practices to Launch a New Business Intelligence Platform,” Serah Delaini, Microsoft Inside Track, February 6, 2023.
A People-Centered Approach
In focus groups we conducted, employees said they want to receive clear and honest communication from their leaders and have their voices heard during change. To test the effectiveness of different levels of communication and voice, we designed two experiments, soliciting feedback from over 13,000 employees.
Our first experiment introduced respondents to a scenario and randomly assigned a control or treatment describing how a leader communicated (or failed to communicate) with employees about the change.
One Monday morning, you arrive at work to find your company has announced a broad reorganization. Today, employees will hear the details of the plan and exactly what the reorganization entails.
Experiment 1 Treatments
We asked respondents a series of questions about trust, retention, and buy-in. All outcomes were self-reported measures on a 0–10 scale, where 0 would be considered not at all likely and 10 would be extremely likely.
The experiment demonstrates that as the level of shared information increases, so do positive outcomes. As leaders share what they know, trust and desire to stay with the organization also improve. However, if employees discover their leader had full knowledge and failed to share it, all desired outcomes drop significantly.
In this experiment, our opening scenario (“One Monday morning…”) remained the same; however, our follow-up control and treatment vignettes changed to measure the impact of employee voice via various feedback opportunities.
Experiment 2 Treatments
When employees believe they have a voice and can give input around change, their feelings of trust and desire to stay increase. Compared to the control (no opportunity for input), all treatments have a positive effect, but when employees are not invited to attend focus groups, the effect becomes more muted.
This experiment demonstrates the causal impact of communication and voice on several employee sentiments related to change. When leaders communicate with their people, they feel greater trust, stronger commitment to changes, and want to stay. Likewise, when employees believe they have a voice in changes that affect them, it also builds trust and a desire to stay. To be sure, a people-centered approach to change makes a significant difference.
Case Study—Improving Culture Through Listening and Communicating
When Insurance Australia Group Limited (IAG) embarked on a cultural transformation in 2020, it placed employees at the front of its change strategy. First, it gathered feedback from people at every level and in every region with surveys and listening workshops to understand employee perspectives, including what mattered most and how to best design for the future. Then, a comprehensive change campaign across multiple channels provided regular, clear communication to unite the organization and bring people’s voices to life. And now, a network made up of employees supported by 18 executives regularly reviews insights, shares data and ideas, and creates cultural change from multiple angles, not just from the top down.
According to Gillian Folkes, Executive General Manager, Culture and Leadership, “A significant contributor to our success in the uplift has been the ongoing executive support and leader buy-in and role-modeling.”8
Case Study—Keeping a Tech Change Focused on People
When Microsoft set out to standardize the way it tracks sales and operations activities across the company, it knew the biggest obstacle wasn’t the new tool itself. “Even at Microsoft, people don’t just accept new business processes and go work the way you tell them to,” says Rudy Neirynck, Senior Business Program Manager in Employee Experience.
The company centered all communication, training, and reinforcement efforts around its people. Pilot projects, existing listening systems, and structured feedback channels helped it understand how employees were adapting. And it asked primary users of the tool to help champion the change.
The result: Today over 30,000 users in 95 countries use the new reporting platform.9