Myth buster: Staff don't want to help find solutions. Or do they?

April 4, 2016

Thomas F. Hilton, Ph.D. 

A frequently-mentioned myth NIATx coaches encounter is the perception by managers that their staff do not want to help find solutions to the organization’s problems. That impression may seem valid to managers because they tend to focus on matters external to daily operations while staff, on the other hand, have to live with annoying redundancies, conflicting demands, and other inefficiencies that the boss seems to ignore at their, and the clients’ expense.

Past attempts at change within the organization – or past resistance to change by managers – may have built a culture of suspicion and indifference in the workforce. When this is the case, management initiatives often flounder in the "Wait’n Sea" unless there is clear evidence that the staff are empowered to change how they do things.

Workforce Empowerment

Empowerment for change is not easily built when the organizational culture is skeptical.  (See the NIATx Principle: Fix Key Problems & Help the CEO Sleep at Night.) The challenge for managers lies in creating an atmosphere in which staff empowerment is viewed to be credible. For that to happen everyone in the organization must see the management’s new direction as sincere. It is not enough for management to declare support for change. Management has to be willing to cede enough control to the staff to enable them to feel free to explore alternative ways of getting the job done without fear of micromanagement intervention, or worse, punishment for failure. Managers also have to provide resources (within reason) needed for change. Those resources include the managers themselves.

...."an engaged, enthusiastic staff has a great deal to offer a project in terms of ideas, insights, and personal experience. Each staff person has a unique point of view and sees the organization's services through a different lens, informed by his or her role in the organization. While the organization's leadership might know how things work in theory and how a particular process is meant to run, employees who are part of these processes on a practical, day-to-day basis know how they actually work, where problems arise, what clients do and don't like, and which processes aren't running as efficiently as possible. Their insights and ideas for improvement can be valuable, and you certainly don't want to miss out on hearing them because staff members are unenthusiastic or don't feel like they are an important part of the project."  From The NIATx Model: Process Improvement in Behavioral Health

Three Things Managers Can Do To Empower Staff Participation in Change

Managers are a resource for change, but attempts to direct change is unlikely to engender much collaboration and buy-in from staff members. Research has continually shown that engaging the workforce in planning, weighing options, and implementing change greatly increases the likelihood of success.

1. Set difficult but achievable goals. If targets for change are viewed to be trivial, most staff will view management’s intentions as patronizing. If targets for change are too ambitious, repeated failures or impatience will sap everybody’s enthusiasm for change.

2. Share in the heavy lifting. Managers need to demonstrate that they too have some personal skin in the game. They can do that by making observable efforts to resource change such as new forms, computerization, changing job roles, creating incentives, and pushing for policy reform among outside agencies whose rules and administrative requirements are perceived to be interfering with efficiency and health outcomes.

3. Lead from behind. Leading change does not mean taking charge, but it does mean supporting change. Managers usually are more experienced and have a broader perspective than the staff. Successful change agents identify unforeseen barriers and possible unintended consequences by asking hard questions of the staff that are intended to help improve the odds of success. Equally important is reassuring that failure, when it inevitably occurs, will signal the need to try something different rather than to stop trying at all.

For more information and useful tips, take a look at How to Establish a Change Team on the NIATx website. Or consider attending the upcoming NIATx Change Leader Academy (April 25-26, 2016, Madison, WI) to learn how to use the NIATx approach to get staff involved in improvement projects in your organization.

What have you done to increase staff participation in change in your organization? Share your story in the comments section below.

Tom Hilton is a retired NIH science officer and NIDA program official now in private practice. Tom has over 40 years of experience studying and conducting large-scale organizational change initiatives in publicly-traded corporations, DOD and other large federal agencies, as well as general-medical and addiction health service organizations.

Read other posts by Tom Hilton:
Factors influencing organizations use of NIATx

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