It was early 2000. The dotcom bubble was blossoming and change was in the air, tinged with excitement and a little bit of greed. The bubble would burst just a few months later.
An international technology company of 1,000 employees had launched a massive change effort to reposition itself in the shifting marketplace. The transformation would be widespread. Even the company’s name would change. While management talked up the benefits of the plan, however, a growing number of employees began quietly sharing concerns among themselves. Some suggested creating a discussion forum on the company intranet where they could voice their worries. A nervous leadership cautiously agreed.
Irreverently nicknaming their space “pity city,” this group of employees immediately began sharing their questions, challenges, concerns and opinions. The most common sentiment: We liked who we were; do we really have to change?
Executives fretted that this dissatisfaction might turn employees against the changes, but in the end, pity city did just the opposite. What executives saw as complaint was actually employees working through their reactions. Pity city was a space for people to talk to each other honestly and share their hopes and fears. With dialogue open, a parallel discussion began, one in which employees who were positive about the changes could share their perspective in a group they now named “happy hamlet.” For their first few respective days, management fielded questions on pity city and happy hamlet, but soon, employees began answering one another and working it out among themselves. People supported one another.
Creating space for conversation brought people together and played a huge role in the eventual success of this company’s change effort. Many times during the past 20 years, we have seen this same pattern repeat, witnessing the power of creating space and trusting people to have the conversation that they need to have.
Unfortunately, in many organizations, this type of connection isn’t a focus. Instead, communication strategies are built around the dissemination of information, and while a lot of effort may go into that approach, the results aren’t great.
When studying the differences between companies that build commitment and those that do not, Bain & Company identified three necessary conditions—employees had to feel informed, connected and heard. When all three are present, the levels of commitment are dramatically higher. Yet in a survey of frontline employees, only 23% reported feeling well informed during a corporate change, only 22% felt connected to others, and even fewer, 19%, felt listened to and heard.
Companies are missing the opportunity to tap into their employees’ fundamental need for connection. Everyone is familiar with the fight-or-flight response, but there is a third and unfortunately underappreciated “F”: Friendship, grouping together, is the other characteristic that has allowed our species to survive. Sometimes we face adversity and challenges, and we don’t simply fight or flee; we use our numbers to our advantage. Today, we are no longer defending ourselves against the saber-toothed tiger, but we still yearn for company when taking on a daunting task. That’s simply how our brains are wired.
The science supports it. Consider one powerful affirmation of the importance of human connection, the 80-year longitudinal study of 268 university students conducted by Harvard. Over time, the scope of the study has expanded and shown that close relationships—more than money, fame, social class or even genes—are what keep people happy and healthy throughout their lives. Other studies have also shown health benefits from social connection. And recent research into social media and the hormones released during positive social interactions has made a connection between communication and trust. Paul J. Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, argues that employees who understand how their work can improve others’ lives trust their organizations more and that higher trust coincides with higher rates of investment and growth.
During times of transition, understanding that you don’t have to weather change alone increases engagement and commitment. The pity city and happy hamlet chat groups gave the employees of that technology firm the opportunity to lean on one another. In the end, that transformation was a success and achieved its goals. It went faster than expected, the presentation of the strategy to customers was consistent, and that resulted in high customer retention. In fact, in the face of the dotcom bust, this company grew while most of its competitors did not.
You’ll remember that some people at the company felt the change benefited them, and others did not. This is important because, in transformations, the fact that not all people are affected equally is one of the trickiest elements to manage. Too often companies average out the change, communicating about it as if it affects all equally. By nurturing connection and communication, management creates an opportunity to understand who specifically bears the greatest burden. They will still have to balance their approach, recognizing that the whole organization feels the process to some degree, but they will be better able to support those individuals most affected by the change. Change can breed in-groups and out-groups as well as feelings of not belonging, which can increase anxiety. Encouraging different groups to connect helps mitigate this.
To get started, managers can consider how to use existing forums or digital platforms, or create new ones, to strengthen the social bonds that will help their organization thrive and adapt.
Principles of effective engagement include the following:
- Communications generate understanding, but engagement builds commitment.
- Change is not homogeneous; different groups of people have different concerns.
- Expand one-way communication to multiparty conversations, giving people the opportunity to really talk through change, not just receive messages.
- Remember that listening is more important—and more powerful—than telling.
- Know who the influencers in your organization are, and engage them.
- Embrace the power of the network on the front line, among influencers in an organization or among sponsors of change.
- Create the infrastructure that allows easy connectivity across the network.
- Tell stories, and tap into the human need to be part of the story; people relate to stories in which they can see themselves.
All of these steps recognize that humans crave trusted connection. Forming tribes is part of who we are and makes us feel secure. By valuing social connectivity in the workplace and fostering networking and connections, managers can help employees feel better about the organization, more committed and better able to weather the changes that inevitably will come their way. Rather than fearing negative chatter or dismissing socializing at work as a waste of time, wise managers recognize that the chatter itself helps create bonds that strengthen the organization in important ways.
Kevin Murphy is a partner with Bain & Company and a founder of its Results Delivery® practice; he is based in the firm’s Washington, DC, office. Luba Mandzy Herring is a Bain principal with the Results Delivery® practice, and she is based in London.
Results Delivery® is a registered trademark of Bain & Company, Inc.