4 Ways To Handle Employee Experience Disruptors

A new CEO is hired, and your employee engagement scores decline across the board. Why? The answer is simple. A new leader has introduced a challenging wildcard into your employee experience (EX) – uncertainty. Of all the engagement killers we know of, uncertainty can be one of the most damaging. Unmet and unrealistic expectations are viral pathogens that disrupt and sabotage even the best EX. Expectation gaps undermine predictability, which is a key ingredient that increases and promotes trust.

Permit me to explain this destructive cycle. Increased employee engagement is an outcome of your EX, and your EX is that deliberate culture you have been cultivating through hard work, design-thinking, and careful leadership. Your EX works most efficiently when there are high levels of trust, which is built by deliberately aligning expectations between leaders and the workforce. One way to disrupt your EX is to introduce uncertainty, which weakens trust. When your EX is slowed by a lack of trust, engagement naturally declines.

This viewpoint, of course, is centered around the notion that stability is a primary goal of a good EX, and this is true in many instances. However, this concept might not apply in all cases. Uncertainty often leads to innovation and ingenuity. Your EX may get better after a good dose of disruption.  So, as we address uncertainty, leaders are placed in the uneasy position of maintaining a delicate balance between predictability while allowing for disruption in order to test beliefs and boundaries.  This blog will focus on one side of the equation – minimizing uncertainty’s downside.  In a subsequent blog, we will explore the benefits realized when an EX is thrown upside down.   

When confronting the challenges of uncertainty, we have found that certain organizational events are more dangerous than others because they introduce a disproportionate share of uncertainty into the EX equation. We call these EX/engagement disruptors, and they include everything from a merger, to a corporate restructuring, to a leadership shuffle, etc. Often, leaders become so engrossed in completing their merger or finalizing a new leadership chart that they forget to consider the consequences these disruptive events will have on the employee experience. They plow ahead, confident their transaction or restructuring will yield significant organizational benefits, but they forget to align expectations by carefully and consistently explaining how upcoming changes will alter the employee experience.

EX/engagement disruptors increase employee stress because most humans despise the unknown. We tend to worry about questions like these: “How will these changes impact me, my career, or future opportunities?”  To keep these questions from becoming a nagging problem, here are some common EX/engagement disruptors to watch out for:

  • A merger, acquisition, or divestiture of a business unit. These are tricky situations because leaders not only have to worry about their current constituency, they also have additional expectations coming from a new culture. Or, in the case of a divestiture, leaders must work through the pain of losing friends and co-workers and help others do the same. All this stress can slow your EX and decrease engagement unless communication and expectation alignment is at an all-time high.
  • Changes to an organization’s hierarchy. Hierarchy and leadership changes happen when a board of directors or senior management feel the need to “shake things” up. Assignments are shifted, roles changed, individuals promoted, and others reassigned to lower levels. Changes like these can cause resentment by those whose power has been limited, while simultaneously emboldening others who see a pathway to higher levels. Internal politics become more visible and more important than ever. In this type of environment, we find lower productivity, increased stress and worry, and declining levels of engagement because the EX is no longer predictable. Returning to predictability and restoring trust is one antidote to these types of disruptive events.   
  • A new CEO is appointed. With a new leader at the helm, your entire organization is wondering what will happen to them, their team, their projects, and whatever else that might be top of mind. As noted, uncertainty is a prime engagement killer. The organization makes a change to its core business. I am reminded of Overstock.com, and how they recently announced they are no longer focused on selling last year’s goods online.[i] They are now focused on crypto opportunities. That’s a huge change in focus and direction. New skillsets will be required, and many are left wondering about their future. It’s hard to be engaged when you are worried about whether you will have a job.  
  • Market or regulatory changes. This one can be especially difficult. Think Boeing and the 737 Max airplane.[ii]  An organization may encounter significant uncertainty due to market downturns, disasters, regulatory changes, or product defects. Again, it’s the same culprit – uncertainty. “What is going to happen to my company?”

One other thought about these disruptive events. Communication experts are incredibly skilled at helping leaders through the process of communicating with investors, analysts, and media during disruptive events. They often forget, however, to include a significant set of stakeholders – the organization’s employees.

While uncertainty will hamper most organizations from time to time, leaders can immunize their organizations by following these four suggestions when communicating with their employees:

First, give equal consideration to what you will tell your employees. If you are going to acquire a rival company, then don’t stop at the press release. Considering preparing an “EX release” – an internal messaging campaign that explains what is happening, when it will happen, what changes employees should expect, a promise to keep them updated, what you need from them, a list of resources for more information, and, specifically, something that will help quiet that nagging question of, “What is going to happen to me?” 

Second, be specific in your communications efforts – don’t ever assume your employees will understand how their lives and careers will be impacted. Think through common scenarios. Consider using focus groups to gain additional insights. Create thought experiments and hypothetical case studies to guide and inform your thinking.

Third, overcommunicate, overcommunicate, and then overcommunicate. George Bernard Shaw said it best when he penned the following, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  It will take more time and effort than you think to align expectations and build trust.

Fourth, speak up! Offer to help your leadership team with the challenge of communicating to employees. Be an advocate. Explain why employee communication is important and offer to help lead initiatives to support effective employee communication as part of a disruptive event.   

When uncertainty is inserted into the EX equation, expectations gaps arise and trust declines. Gaps are dangerous because employees fill in the missing pieces and often with expectations that favor them. This is where expectations become unrealistic. They start with a gap and evolve into something unmanageable. If you catch them early, however, expectations gaps can be narrowed, and trust will be built or restored. Your EX will be then be able to slough off the potentially damaging effects of EX/engagement disruptors.

[i] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/23/overstock-to-sell-retail-business-and-reportedly-go-all-in-on-crypto-by-february.html

[ii] https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/flights/2019/05/22/american-airlines-doug-parker-skittish-travelers-boeing-737-max-return/1197313001/

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