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Staff motivation through change

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Nothing is permanent. Every SME leader will have a new agenda when they seek to make a change to their business. Effectively communicating this new agenda to your staff can be challenging. It can be an opportunity to build trust within your SME and create a team that will deliver and also an opportunity to get rid of employees you don’t need.  

How to motivate your staff during a period of change or transition depends on many factors, some visible and others hidden. Is the impetus to change internal or external? Is the change individual or institutional?  As an SME leader you can be caught in the cross fire of market winds that can knock your business to the ground or elevate it to the sky.

Identifying motivations
Finding out what motivates your staff can sometimes be difficult. Often motivations are hidden and can range from private dreams to domestic circumstances and these can change in a minute or a day without you knowing. In Asia, more than in the West, it can often be family pressures that determine the motivations of staff. More over, in an ambitious world, the aspirations of younger staff may be much higher in Asia than elsewhere. In a high growth region such as Asia, change is more frequent and may be larger in magnitude than in the West. Identifying factors that de-motivate staff such as boredom, unfairness, and barriers to promotion, lack of recognition and lack of confidence in the company or senior management are key. Some factors can be dealt with easily, while others will require more planning and time to work through. Refrain from keeping people in the dark about what is happening as this can instantly de-motivate employees who will feel insecure or unprepared for the changes afoot. It is also important to recognise and manage any employee who is exercising a negative influence over other team members.

Influencing skills
Getting ready to make small or large changes to your SME also requires influencing skills. As an SME leader, getting to know your staff well involves showing respect, communicating with empathy and listening to win trust. Empathy and listening skills are top of the list. “You can be the most disciplined, brilliant, and even wealthy individual in the world, but if you don’t care for or empathize with other people, then you are basically nothing but a sociopath,” says one change management consultant, adding, “Empathy — the ability to feel what others feel — is what makes good sales and service people truly great. Empathy as in team spirit motivates people to try harder. Empathy drives employees to push beyond their current level, to go bigger, because they sense something bigger than just a paycheck.”

If you are a high EQ person then this should follow. If you are unsure of your EQ try self-assessing yourself and see if you really have good awareness. Think of things that hurt you and then apply this to your staff and create a series of small test situations to check their reaction and your reaction. Develop your listening skills by repeating back what you heard to the other person.

Motivation through change
A health care SME in Singapore started to recognise that it needed to improve to meet rising stakeholder expectations and demands. The healthcare regulation industry was evolving and becoming increasingly complex and the CEO felt the firm had to reexamine its current work processes in order to stay relevant.

The first step was to engage external consultants to analyse and diagnose the situation. The senior management team selected consultants who were “empathic” and showed a sincere desire to understand and work with the organisation culture.

Following a detailed look at the firm’s internal processes and the evolving healthcare industry, consultants recommended that the organisation undergo a business process review (BPR) exercise. After this decision was made the CEO sent an organisation-wide e-mail informing all staff about the intention to undertake a BPR exercise. This was shortly followed by a meeting of all staff, then a series of emails and meetings where employees were given a more detailed brief of the change plans. At these meetings, the CEO took the chance to introduce and show his support for the consultants in order to facilitate a smooth working relationship between external consultants and staff. Then a change governance structure was established. This meant a formal structure for decision-making, accountability and communications including a change committee comprising senior management team members which met twice a week. The change committee focused on preparing, facilitating, and supporting staff through the change process.

A group of ‘change champions’, consisting of 30 hand-picked employees, was formed.  Role clarity ensured change champions knew what was expected of them.

Selection of the change champions followed these criteria; good work performance, proactive, and showed visible potential. These change champions regularly interacted with senior management team members to present their plans, to gain buy-in and acceptance.

The change committee worked together to design various communication platforms (supervisor chats with staff, emails and intranet, bulletins and newsletters, as well as informal lunches). They used 3 key considerations for effective communications: the case for change was contextualised to the specific employee profile, the intent of communications was to encourage employees to see beyond their individual interests, the change committee also strove for sincerity in their communications. This meant being empathic and patiently addressing concerns about the impact of change. Responses from employees were varied with younger employees were more receptive to the change.

New functions had to be created. Younger employees were moved up, whilst senior staff was appointed to advisory roles. This change had to be managed thoughtfully and discreetly. The change involved extensive profiling, considering each individual’s strengths and weakness and consultants asked staff, in casual conversations, how they felt about the potential candidates. However, there was more sensitive news to break to senior staff who were the current divisional heads, and who were to be moved laterally to advisory roles. These senior staff had after all, been instrumental to the organisation’s success and gained employee loyalties over the years. Attention had to be paid to ensure they understood the rationale behind this change, and had their concerns addressed.

To facilitate the transition process, senior staff were given flexibility to suggest what their new roles should entail. The CEO also organised an appreciation lunch for them together with the senior management team. This act of gratitude and respect assured they felt valued.

By the time the new organisation structure was announced, individuals directly affected by the changes had already been notified. As they were informed earlier, they were afforded time to respond and adjust to the change. There were no undue surprises.

During the transition, listening to and addressing staff concerns continued. The consultants kept their ears open for feedback, to smooth over problems. New hires went through personal coaching sessions with senior management team members, to prepare them for their roles. Within a year, a major overhaul had been set in place. Internal work processes had been reviewed and fine-tuned and new hires modeled new behaviour. Higher energy levels and enthusiasm were visible among staff.

Three key factors can help an SME achieve change success: a well-established governance structure, a supportive and empathic change committee, and a well-formulated communications plan.

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