How to retain your best people through change

10 change management tactics to transform talent retainment

In today’s VUCA economy, one of the biggest dangers to an organization undertaking change is the risk that employees will leave for a more stable working environment – and this could threaten your change project.

According to research commissioned by the American Psychological Association, workers’ mental health is impacted when experiencing change. Those who are experiencing or anticipate experiencing change at work are twice as likely to suffer with chronic stress. They are also more than three times more likely to suffer work/life conflict and feel cynical or negative toward their colleagues.

The changes that most unnerve your employees

When considering the reasons for change that can most unnerve your employees, and lead to them actively seeking employment elsewhere, there are three extremely high-risk situations:

  • Cost cutting, which may include business restructuring, closing facilities, and installation of new technology

  • Full or partial mergers, with an existing partner or because of an aggressive business strategy

  • A pivot of business strategy, with new products or services offered and new clients to be served

Whatever the reason for your change project, it is likely to be disruptive. Not only will your employees experience their own insecurities, but the most talented – the ones you are most desperate to retain – could also be tempted to explore opportunities offered by competitors who envy the talent under your roof.

Kotter is not enough to retain talent through change

John Kotter’s process for leading change tackles engagement in change across a team or whole organization. It’s an effective solution, but even when it is employed effectively employees are still prone to leave during change. 

Even though you build a case for change, enlist volunteers as advocates for change, and ensure people’s opinions and feelings are heard, the risk remains that your most talented employees will leave.

The question that you must answer is, how do you engage your talent so completely in your change initiative that quitting doesn’t even enter their thoughts?

Here are 10 retention tactics to include in your organizational change management strategy.

1. Identify your key people

Who are your organization’s key people? These aren’t necessarily your top performers. The people who will help you through change most effectively can be average performers who are tuned into change. Think also about the people who have the experience and skills you will need to achieve your future vision.

These employees will buy into change more easily. Equally crucially, they will be the ones who work to keep the business going strong as your change progresses. People in the back office are as important to successful and sustainable change as your star sales team.

2. Define tasks carefully

Make your change task-oriented and break the project into manageable stages. Ensure that each task within each stage is defined carefully to avoid confusion. Well-defined tasks are executed more effectively, and progress is more easily monitored, which helps to maintain motivation.

3. Select a diverse team

Successful delivery of your change project at each stage will help calm nerves and engage your talented employees in the change project as it progresses. You’ll need to pack your change management team with a range of knowledge, skills and experience that reflects the diversity of your business and its people.

This diversity will improve your ability to identify problems and imagine potential. To fully reflect the diversity of your organization, select people from across the spectrum of your business. Make sure that this team is given the autonomy and responsibility to reflect the views and fears of all your employees.

4. Emphasize your ‘why’

Make sure that your people remain focused on the reason for change and the vision you have for change. This message should be repeated at every opportunity, and become central to your organization’s purpose.

When delegating tasks and describing projects’ stages, link what is being done to the reasons for change and your vision of the future.

5. Identify and tackle resistance early

Ensure that you identify resistance early and deal with it promptly. If left unchallenged, resistance will build and can spread like a virus among employees that are not yet fully committed to change.

To tackle resistance, you must encourage positive mindsets. Target your approach by holding one-on-one meetings to learn about people’s unique concerns, and develop strategies to overcome these concerns together. Reiterate the positive aspects of change and ensure that when these are discussed they are personalized to individuals.

6. Engage employees in decision-making

Your employees will be the ones doing the work to make your change a success, and they will have a vested interest in it being a success. However, too often change is seen as something that is done to someone, rather than something that is done for and with someone. Change this perception by including your people in decision-making and task shaping in all areas that affect them. This openness to allow employees to be involved in creating change reduces resistance to change – people don’t destroy what they create.

This tactic also helps you benefit from the deep knowledge and experience that your employees have in their specific spheres of expertise.

7. Personalize incentives

When you have identified the employees who are critical to your organization’s future, ensure that you discover what matters most to them. Discuss their career objectives and define their needs with them. Personalize incentive plans to recognize and reward performance as your change project progresses and into the future.

Incentives that you may consider include developing career development plans, personalized training and development, providing opportunities for business travel, and creating flexible and remote working arrangements.

8. Help people cope with loss

Inevitably, change means that people will lose something. This may be the certainty of ways of working, or the solidity of a team that has been together for a long time, or familiar processes, procedures, or surroundings.

We are affected by loss, though different people will feel such losses differently. Some will rise to the challenge and see new opportunities, while others will enter a period of mourning. Part of the job of change management is to help people cope with loss, individualizing approach to help them make the transition from the old to the new through a range of emotional responses.

9. Hold regular one-on-ones

Make sure that you hold your most talented and key staff close. Hold regular one-on-ones to ensure that they remain focused not only on their specific work but also on the big picture. Seek their opinions, and discuss upcoming opportunities which will help to direct them in the change process.

10. Develop a culture of continuous change

The one constant in business is change. By developing a culture of continuous change, your employees will be more resilient through change of any scale. Further, they will develop the mindset to think about, suggest and execute performance-enhancing change.

There are many ways to help develop change-mindsets, though all must begin with strategic direction from the top down with leaders and managers demonstrating a change-ready and receptive mindset. 

In summary

One of the biggest risks you face through periods of change is losing the talented employees that will help you execute your change strategy successfully and then develop sustained success after. 

Those employees who are likely to benefit most from change, and who are likely to be the biggest contributors to it, are those who may find change to be most challenging.

Key employees will need to be helped through organizational change, as long-held beliefs about your business are challenged and processes and procedures evolve rapidly. 

These 10 tactics will help your organization’s leaders and managers help your people come to terms with change and motivate them to execute change effectively. And it is this that is crucial to retaining your most talented and mission-critical employees.


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