7 ways to help managers and employees navigate change

Keeping staff engagement high during a restructuring, new faces in top-tier positions or even a modification of benefits requires candid two-way communication. Try these approaches.


Change is constant in today’s workplace.

Almost every day, it seems, there’s another merger, new leadership, an outsourcing, a new benefits program, layoffs and more. Because of this, communicating change has become more challenging. Leaders are overwhelmed, managers aren’t engaged, and employees are change-fatigued.

How can you overcome these obstacles?

Here are seven tips to navigate (and communicate) your next big change:

1. Leaders are people, too, so they also feel anxiety and uncertainty.

Your CEO may understand his role, but the leaders who report to him—and the VPs on the next tier—might not see themselves as key change communicators. Here are four reasons:

  • Lack of knowledge. They don’t understand the topic well enough to present it, interpret it or answer questions about it.
  • Unclear expectations. They don’t know that communication is expected of them.
  • No accountability. They aren’t held responsible for communicating.
  • Insufficient communication skills. They aren’t comfortable presenting information, answering questions or responding to concerns.

Create an opportunity to ease anxiety and prepare them for their roles.

  • Make sure leaders have the chance to learn what’s changing, where and when; this is best done through a face-to-face session with senior managers.
  • At the session, provide an overview of the upcoming change to emphasize how important it is that leaders meet with employees in their areas.
  • Follow up with a guide that articulates a leader’s role and gives them essential tools to fulfill that role, including key messages and frequently asked questions. It’s also helpful to provide a checklist that provides concrete steps they can take to ensure employees understand and act on a change.

2. Training helps prepare managers for their key role in change communication.

Although leaders are expected to know all the details about the change, managers are the people that employees approach first with questions. It’s important to prepare managers so they don’t feel blindsided.

  • Invite managers to participate in change workshops. Facilitate exercises that require managers with different roles to solve business challenges together.
  • Hold a brainstorming session in which managers are asked to contribute ideas and potential solutions to questions.
  • Encourage managers to participate in web-based sessions, which are a convenient and affordable way to enhance their skills and knowledge. You can also provide access to on-demand learning that managers can access quickly when faced with a challenge.

3. Change champions are the key to reducing toxic gossip.

When change is significant, leading organizations often recruit “change champions” or “change agents.” These advocates, recruited companywide, become knowledgeable about the change and share that knowledge with their co-workers.

4. Games can help engage employees in change.

Gamification provides creative ways to communicate with employees. The question for communicators: How do we create opportunities to be part of the action in a fun, absorbing way? Here are two examples to use at a meeting:

  • Teams play a board game involving clues, prompts and queries, hoping to be the first to reach the goal. How you’ll win: Employees gain valuable knowledge and practice, increasing change adoption.
  • Teams create a group art project—using tools such as crayons, blocks and stickers—to depict what the change will “look” like. How you’ll win: Employees combine fun with learning about the changes using innovative thinking.

5. FAQs are a great way to understand employee concerns.

Imagine the toughest, most challenging employee you know. Then, draft questions that person would ask, and answer as candidly as possible.

Better yet, see whether your change management team conducted a stakeholder analysis to outline the potential challenges for different stakeholder groups. It can feed your thinking about employees’ questions.

In our experience, resource managers prefer FAQs. The key is to include the toughest questions so managers are ready anytime team members approach them. Managers don’t have all the answers, but if you provide comprehensive FAQs, managers will be more willing to have an open-door policy.

Another approach is to compile the questions asked online and at face-to-face sessions. Ask leaders and managers what they’re hearing. Find opportunities to respond to common questions and concerns.

6. Surveys during change can increase engagement.

IBM research recommends fielding more surveys during change periods.

Here’s an example:

When comparing companies that went through layoffs with those that didn’t, you see an expected drop in engagement (–23 points):

a. Companies that laid off employees: 36 percent engagement index score

b. Companies without a layoff: 59 percent engagement index score

If an organization surveys during a layoff, the score increases—ameliorating the negative impact of the change:

c. Layoffs without surveying: 36 percent engagement index score

d. Layoffs with surveying: 55 percent engagement index score

e. No layoffs: 59 percent engagement index score

7. You can’t eliminate change anxiety, but you can influence it.

Once leaders are ready to introduce a change, they’ve been working with the issue for months. Employees are hearing it for the first time, though, so they need reinforcement.

Here are three ways to ease their anxiety:

  • Help leaders and managers to be good listeners. Letting people voice their anxieties releases tension.
  • Employees best envision change through real-life scenarios. Encourage leaders and managers to use examples of relatable work issues to explain what change looks like and how employees can take action.
  • Your colleagues who manage external social media know good news can improve buzz. So, develop success stories—examples of how change is working—to influence the buzz. Find employees willing to tell their own stories. Use traditional internal communication channels or seek new ways to share employee experiences.

Christine Burri is an associate project director for Davis & Co. A version of this post first appeared on Medium.

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