Want to Increase Employee Willingness to Change? Focus on Engagement.

By: Dr. Shannan Simms, Principal Consultant & Organizational Change Management Practice Lead

Most organizations understand the need to communicate to employees about a change and to train employees on the new way of doing work. Often, helping employees to be "willing" to engage is missed. A key way of increasing employee willingness is through involvement in both the process and sharing of the solution. 

As John Kotter explains, developing a coalition outside the hierarchy of the traditional structure helps to permeate the change across boundaries, up, down, and across the organization. This requires deliberate high-touch engagement with five key stakeholder groups: sponsors (executives and business), project team, managers, change agents, and the entire employee population. 


Sponsors - Executives and Business Sponsors

Executives and business sponsors are critical change champions in any organizational change effort. With often competing priorities and limited resources (time and money), what the executive measures and monitors is what employees pay attention too. Engaging executives and business sponsors will revolve around preparing them to understand the rationale behind the organizational change, the benefits this transition brings to the business as a whole, and the benefits it brings to them specifically. 

Messages to executives and business sponsors should focus on business rationale, business ROI, quick-wins, and success stories.


Project Team

The project team is driving the solution and may also be the most significantly impacted stakeholder group. This group is critical to the success of the transition as both end-users and change champions.

The project team is the driver of the organizational change from the current state to the future state. This team helps capture what the current state is, what works, what doesn’t, and with the guidance of experts, helps to envision the future state.

As with any team, the project team will go through the typical five phases of group formation as outlined by Bruce Tuckman: 1) forming, 2) storming, 3) norming, 4) performing, and 5) adjourning. The project team moves from being a group of strangers to working on collective goals toward a common vision. During the project team working sessions ideas will be tested, policies questioned, and processes reviewed and deconstructed


This team has the hard work of continuing their day job in the current state while envisioning the future state. There is bound to be frustration, possessiveness of processes, resistance, and potentially fear of job loss or role change. Engaging the project team throughout the life of the project is critical to avoid stalling. In addition to high-touch and workstream discussions, events and messages targeted at how important their role is and the positive impact they are having on the organization will help bolster spirits. Tailored and targeted change management overviews and training will be important to ensure the project team can serve as change champion within the organization.



Managers and line supervisors are the most effective change communication tactic. Employees look to their manager and/or supervisor for information about what to pay attention to in an organization. But managers are also employees first. They need to work through their reaction to the change before they can help their people. Managers need to have enough information and clarification to support their leadership, as well as an understanding of issues that can be expected from employees.

Too often, however, managers find out about organizational changes at the same time as their employees. This leaves them ill-equipped to answer questions or to provide support for the change.

By specifically targeting managers to understand the need for change and expected results, they can help spread positive and effective reinforcement to employees as they move through the change process. Managers play three key roles during times of change:

  1. Communication
  2. Champion
  3. Coach

Equipping managers with adequate change leadership skills and tools empowers them to be more effective leaders. Taking the time to engage and equip managers helps to decrease middle manager fear of how the change will impact their performance and productivity as well as increasing their buy-in.


Change Agents/Change Champions

Research shows that peers can have the greatest impact on the perception of a change and the ultimate transition to the new way of working. In addition to a strong, well-prepared management team, local change agents or change champions can influence change adoption from within the workforce. Change agents and champions play a crucial role in change initiatives by providing employees with a peer role model who demonstrates adoption and acceptance of the change.

Change agents should be equipped, similarly to managers, with enough information and clarification to support their leadership as well as an understanding of issues that can be expected from employees. The change agent team is a critical source of ongoing information about how the change is received and can provide valuable insights to help lead and foster faster benefits realization.



Employees are often seen as 'targets' of the change and communications are delivered 'at' employees. Dialogue is important, and true employee engagement includes feedback loops. Surveying the workforce once a year gives the organization a climate survey at a specific point in time against which actions, activities, and initiatives can be assessed. During times of change, employees need the opportunity to share their thoughts, opinions, reactions, and feedback about the change itself the disruption that is occurring, and the progress being made. Industry best practices recommend:

  • Creating feedback channels that are anonymous – to get candid feedback, employees need to be able to respond, trusting that their opinions will not be held against them.
  • Leaders and managers need to share what they have heard and are learning – having front line leaders transparently discuss feedback received, both positive and negative, demonstrates to employees that when they speak someone is listening.
  • The organization must “act” on the feedback received – it is important that employees know leaders are listening. Without organizational action, however, employees will stop engaging and their willingness to change will decrease.
Successful change management is more than communications and training; and more than emails and job aid. The real work of managing change occurs in engaging stakeholder groups to be part of the process. Creating engagement plans to deliberately build a change coalition at all levels of the organization, as well as tailoring messages and tactics to the group, increases the likelihood of project success and reduces the likelihood resistance.