5 Critical Ways Leaders Create the Right Environment For Change

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Last August 9, I was privileged to sit down with Rico Hizon in his award-winning show, “The Final Word,” hosted by the local news channel CNN Philippines.

Definitely one of those “I’ll do this afraid” types of occasions. Nonetheless, I am always grateful to converse with like-minded people about what makes the Philippines a great place to work.

Catch the replay of this significant milestone for the Great Place To Work® Philippines team.

5 Critical Ways Leaders Create the Right Environment For Change

Among Rico’s keen and thoughtful questions, one that stood out was if I am seeing more companies upskilling and reskilling their staff with Artificial Intelligence (AI) now front and center. My candid answer was anchored on working with Philippine workplaces from various industries for over 5 years. Time and time again, we’ve found that many Filipino companies’ budgets are allocated to learning and development needs compared to other HR initiatives.

Given the modern landscape’s ever-growing, fast-paced, and critical demand for digitalization, it is perfectly normal for AI to be met with a mixture of emotions. Conclusive evidence supporting those mentioned above can be found in the Asia Pacific Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey 2023 by PwC Asia Pacific. The data tells a contrasting story of varying acceptance of AI.

  • 58% across the region find digital skills relevant to their career, but other nations don’t necessarily share the same sentiment.
  • Younger generations, such as Gen Z and Millennials, are more open to adopting digital skills, but older employees are still facing this rapidly increasing demand with reluctance.
  • Research shows that senior executives and managers are keener on the positive impact of digital transformation on the workplace than non-managers.

It is interesting to note that the above survey focuses on attitudes and levels of indifference regarding AI instead of what the next big thing in training and development is to maximize upskilling initiatives and capture greater productivity. This is because digitalization, like any other new and developmental action, is rooted in change — and in return, change is always met with a mixture of emotions.

Maybe in time, “Digitalization” will no longer be called its current name. A few years back, it was “Digital Change.” At the beginning of the century, its infamous moniker was “Millennium bug.” Today, people may be more familiar with it as “AI.” Whatever form it takes and is coined by, it will always be associated with change.

So, the question to focus on is not only what types of training are being espoused to gear up our people for greater digitalization. Instead, the more critical questions to ponder are: Are we conscious of addressing fears AND harnessing excitement about change? Are we transforming plans into clarity and excitement rather than anxiety and demurral from our employees? Are we leading by example by leaning into change ourselves?

Indeed, there are lots of questions to reflect on and answer! So, here are 5 ways to create a suitable climate to assist change management in the workplace.

Clarity above all else

The common pitfall of leaders is to implement plans well technical-wise, but forget to provide clarity to their members. A realistic example could be staging the proper foundation for executing the new strategies or introducing a new procedure successfully but lacking in terms of reassuring your people in the long term.

When employees do not receive consistent communication from management on how specific changes will affect them, they tend to overthink and eventually come to their own assumptions and lose trust.

Clarity provides direction. Without it, one will feel lost along the way and stray away from the path they’re
supposed to take — and for business, this negatively impacts productivity.

Without clear expectations, there are also more chances of reluctance to change. Following the conversation about AI, one of the hot topics regarding it is whether it will make countless employees’ roles defunct.

Grabbing data again from the recent study of PwC, 16% of their respondents from Asia Pacific believe that AI will replace their roles. The same research states that 22% lack confidence in acquiring new AI-related skills. Recent data says that 44% believe the skills required for their jobs will significantly change within the next five years. However, only 48% have a clear sense of how.

What would help calm down employees’ fear of replacement by AI or handling low self-esteem in keeping up with the business needs is to explain how these changes will affect their role, its benefits, and how it is planned to be escalated.

Luckily, the Asia Pacific Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey 2023 concludes that “Asia Pacific employees are more bullish about AI than their global counterparts. They foresee AI having mostly positive impacts on their jobs, with 41% saying that AI will increase productivity and efficiency at work, and 34% viewing it as an opportunity to learn new skills.”

Likewise, The Onward For All: Philippines Best Workplaces™ Insights Report 2023 gives conclusive evidence that clarity is critical to building success in the workplace. Let the numbers speak for themselves: The effort of managers to provide clear expectations to employees rose from 87% in 2022 to 94% this year. The fruit of this labor? 93% of respondents of Philippine Best Workplaces™ proudly report that effective 2-way communication between their management and employees is present.

All hands on deck

What makes change scary is it’s naturally unfamiliar. Hence, the immediate response is to defend against or
resist it. Ben Ampil, a globally certified neuroscience coach, shed light on this in one of our webinars. He said that the brain’s function is to protect and keep us safe. Hence, the natural human reaction to something uncertain is resistance.

In business, the way to manage fear in its tracks is to encourage the active involvement of your employees amidst executing change. Are your people having anxiety about the unknown? Put their doubts to rest through transparency.

When management intentionally tries to keep their employees away from the dark regarding organizational changes, trust begins. This results in the workforce genuinely wanting to participate in the company’s exciting new direction. It also fosters camaraderie in workplace cultures, like for the Philippines Best Workplaces™, where collaboration improved from 87% in 2022 to 91% in 2023.

Consistent communication is imperative to make your people actual constituents of the business. The aforementioned is especially true in today’s popular hybrid work set-up.

Know what your true partners in business (your people) think about these current initiatives. Recognize their strengths and weaknesses to determine what they can uniquely bring to the table and where upskilling is necessary.

All ears on deck, too

Communication. Communication. Communication. I’ve repeatedly touched on this already, and that‘s because it sits at the very core of the point I’m driving at.

Effective communication doesn’t rely solely on verbal reassurance. Ensuring that non-verbal cues are present is also essential.

These cues come in genuine smiles, reassuring nods, and a non-condescending tone when engaging in 2-way communication. It is also present in the frequency of intentionally meeting your people one-on-one to check in on them. This type of communication is also found in silence while actively listening.

At the latter end of my short yet engaging interview with CNN Philippines, Rico Hizon hit the nail on the head when he said, “I think the bottom line is when you say people-first, [for] corporate leaders and employers, you really have to have a psychologically [and] emotionally healthy workplace.”

The point of communication in creating a suitable climate for effective change management is to know your people’s needs and concerns thoroughly.

Building psychologically safe spaces allows management to take a deeper dive into the root of the problem.

Where are they coming from — is the fear of AI replacing them aggravated by personal concerns such as financial problems or a lack of opportunities to learn new skills? Is it coming from a perspective that’s unique to their generation (e.g., Gen Z and millennials are the type to want to be involved and informed on decisions that impact their work and career)?

Effective communication, in all its forms and glory, is possible when companies encourage their employees to bring their whole selves to work without fear of judgment.

Actions speak louder than words

Okay, now you’ve hashed it all out. The 2-way communication has been accomplished. Clarity has been provided. Management’s commitment has been articulated. The question now is, can employees trust their leaders to keep their word?

In Great Place To Work’s Trust model, managers’ credibility is vital in building a high-trust workplace culture. The aforementioned aligns with what we found in last year’s ASEAN Insights Report: Filipino employees ranked having leaders with integrity as one of the top three key drivers in trust-building.

It only makes sense. Why should someone believe and follow one’s lead if they are not perceived as credible?

Therefore, it is important to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I lead by example?
  • Do I practice what I preach to my team members?
  • Do I believe the things I say?

Avoid confusion between what you say and what is observed from you. Better yet, get your employees’ feedback.

Simply put, in creating the right climate for change management, leaders dismiss fear by example.

Empathy takes the lead

There is a negative narrative around change because it puts one out of their comfort zone. Hasty generalizations are made. “These changes will only make things worse.” “It will only slow things down more.” “This is going to be too hard.” “What a hassle!” So on and so forth, these negative sentiments will bloom
when not nipped in the bud.

Coming in again from a neuroscience perspective, Ben also interestingly mentioned how the emotional part of the brain (amygdala) so often overpowers the rational part of the brain (PreFrontal Cortex). When unfamiliarity sets in, a trigger response is activated. Freeze, fight, or flight mode begins. By then, humans may unconsciously be overruling rational thinking and sabotaging what they fear — like change.

So, for example, if it’s digital transformation, employees are highly likely to unconsciously work against the initiatives through reluctance, indifference, unknowingly spreading negative vibes to peers, etc.

How do you combat this fear besides what I’ve mentioned in numbers 1-4? It is by leading with empathy.

Before executing the technicalities of your grand master plan, perhaps put more weight on the emotional components brought by change — such as a promising and exciting vision of what’s to come.

Likewise, another heavy feeling to nurse and observe in your employees is the fear of failure. A culture of innovation is often suppressed because management is so hell-bent on not making mistakes. The ironic truth is, though, sometimes, it is by doing something wrong that you get it right. Leading with empathy means allowing honest blunders and mishaps to transpire.

Interestingly, our current insights report shows that one of the strengths of Best Workplaces is that they recognize genuine mistakes as part of doing business — over 93% of the respondents chimed in with this and confirmed it to be true for their organization.

Without trust, there is no…

Our 30+ years of in-depth research at Great Place To Work consistently proves that all of the above is possible only with workplace trust. There is only effective communication, empathetic leadership, and credibility when trust is its anchor.

See how the cream of the crop achieved high-trust workplace cultures. Download the Philippines Best Workplaces Insights Report for 2023: Onward For All to learn from the greatest.

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To be eligible for the World’s Best Workplaces list, a company must apply and be named to a minimum of 5 national Best Workplaces lists within our current 58 countries, have 5,000 employees or more worldwide, and at least 40% of the company’s workforce (or 5,000 employees) must be based outside of the home country. Extra points are given based on the number of countries where a company surveys employees with the Great Place to Work Trust Index©, and the percentage of a company’s workforce represented by all Great Place to Work surveys globally. Candidates for the 2017 Worlds Best Workplaces list will have appeared on national workplaces lists published in September 2016 through August 2017.