Managing Beyond Reorganization: How to Engage Successful Teams
Based on Research Conducted Among 1,000 Employees

It's a nightmare. Your organization isn't making its financial projections, shareholders are screaming and the CEO just announced a master plan to split the company in two.

You attend meetings in conference rooms with blueprints on the wall. They reflect the empty offices of team members who have jumped ship before rumored lay-offs. Within a few months a massive reorganization takes place. Mercifully, you remain — you're even in the "new" company rumored to be "the better half." However, empty cubicles and desks are stark reminders of departed colleagues.

You walk into work in the morning greeted by faces that look as though they've been through a war. The survivors are down support people, have reduced budgets and, although relieved to have made it through the lay-offs, feel guilty at the same time.

But wait — it gets worse. Because you are their manager, charged by your leadership with motivating the troops to be innovative, "do more with less" and grow the reorganized business with far fewer resources.

The Key to Engagement
This is the time for powerful communications and for ensuring employees that while you can't promise them a job for life, you are offering them an opportunity to be a critical part of a stronger organization. The key to engaging employees in the post-reorganized company lies in making sure they:

  • Understand the organization's purpose
  • See how their individual roles support that purpose

Here's a quick quiz: Which of the following employees would you prefer to have on your team? Three brick-layers working side by side are asked what they are building. One says he is laying mortar, another says he's building a wall, and the third says proudly, "I'm building a cathedral."

Workers like employee #3 don't just happen. Every employee needs to understand the company's purpose and where his or her job fits in to accomplish it.

Recommended Guidelines and Interventions
JRS Consulting has interviewed more than 1,000 employees during reorganizations and recommended appropriate interventions for engaging and motivating staff. While we work closely with clients to design interventions and communications plans that meet their specific needs and industries, we note the following general guidelines that apply to numerous settings.

These will be useful both to company management and to their communications professionals charged with conveying information about the new organization to employees:

  • Take a pulse check. Find out exactly what you're dealing with the issues, liabilities and opportunities. Yes, there are opportunities. While the corporate climate has been grim, many employees will acknowledge changes in the organization that they consider to be inspiring. Identifying those and focusing on them in early communications will help you to cover a lot of ground and get on positive footing quickly.
  • To take that pulse check, engage a professional researcher or facilitator. For a subject such as reorganization, you need a professional trained in interviewing people about sensitive topics to conduct confidential focus groups or discussions. While it may be tempting to ask your communications or human resources professionals to fill this role, it's well worth the investment to retain a credible, outside professional interviewer. After all, how likely is it that employees will talk honestly about the aftermath of reorganization with someone that they know represents the corporation?

    You need a skilled moderator who knows how to help employees speak openly while obtaining the input you need to move the business forward. This isn't a gripe session; it's a work session designed to identify how to mobilize employees most efficiently.
  • Get some feedback on your management style. Include yourself as a topic for internal focus groups or interviews. Find out if people trust you and how you come across as a leader. If you need to, get some coaching to improve your effectiveness.

    Yes, the feedback might hurt for a minute or two. It will also be one of the most valuable moves you'll ever make. In our interviews for one organization, we learned that the firm's president was perceived as not caring about employees and just pushing ahead with his own agenda. As a result, his staff didn't trust him. The reason for this perception? The executive didn't miss a beat after an employee had shared a concern, but proceeded to rapidly fire back his opinions. We coached this client to practice reflective listening, waiting for a moment and acknowledging what he'd heard. His comments were much better received going forward and he gained trust among his people.
  • Use research findings to craft communications and key messages. One client had a corporate initiative along the lines of, "The New Phase," that employees identified as synonymous with lay-offs. In fact, staff had been known to refer to a laid off employee as, "He's been 'phased out.'" It was critical to understand this attitude on the part of employees so that effective messaging could be developed as the corporation moved forward post-reorganization.
  • Don't overreact to what you hear from employees. Although you are seeking their input, keep it in perspective. A corporation is not a democracy. You're not seeking employee approval on the new management team or company direction. You are exploring employee perceptions and taking a pulse check to determine the most effective ways to communicate with employees and engage them.
  • Talk to the troops. Give employees an opportunity to voice concerns and ask questions through one-on-ones with managers, department get-togethers and Town Hall Meetings. When addressing employees, be straightforward with them. Begin by acknowledging that it's been difficult. Thank them for their support. Tell them they are valued and you want to hear from them. Then, and only then, tell them about the "new" organization.
  • Honestly address issues. If you ask for employee input, summarize key findings and how you plan to address employee concerns. Have senior management announce the plan to get feedback as well as how issues will be addressed. One management team member of an organization struggling with some serious internal issues announced to his employees after hearing about findings from our interviews, "I'm ashamed. How did we get here?" When I heard him, I knew he was going to triumph over the situation and get things back on track. He was willing to deal honestly with the issues and with his own employees to make improvements.
  • Ensure all supervisors in your organization are making it a priority to both listen and talk to employees (two-way communications). Remember, an employee's most trusted information source is his or her immediate supervisor. It's absolutely critical that supervisors know that communications are a priority for the organization. If you sense that a supervisor needs communications coaching, arrange for it. While it's a well known fact that managers often get promoted for business reasons that don't always include communication skills, that's not an excuse for things to stay that way. You'll pay for it in terms of lost productivity among frustrated employees.
  • Get out of your office. Walk around. Make an effort to get to know employees. We hear in our focus groups that employees trust and want to work with managers who see beyond the work that they do. As one employee noted, "I want to work harder for a manager who makes an effort to get to know me."

Creating Internal Brand Advocates
While managing post-reorganization teams can seem daunting initially, there's never been a more critical time to engage employees in the organization. Beyond employees' primary functions, they also serve another vital role — they are advocates for your brand. Engaging your employees and helping them to understand your organization leads to improved results among external stakeholders as well.

After all, a company can devote unlimited advertising proclaiming that it is customer-focused, but nothing conveys this more clearly than the customer service hotline or the company receptionist's greeting. Supporting employees so that they are equipped and motivated to promote the organization at every point of contact with outside audiences may be the most important and effective ingredient in building market share.

Note: A version of this article appeared in the Public Relations Strategist in Fall, 2008.

Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and retain employees and customers. With a Master's degree in counseling psychology, Jenny also provides executive coaching to help clients meet their personal and professional goals. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter on www.jrsconsulting.net.

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© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2011