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How to Motivate Employees During Times of Change

The following is an excerpt from a white paper written by VUHRD Assistant Professor, Christian Thoroughgood, PhD. and former VUHRD Assistant Professor, Katina Sawyer, PhD. Find the full paper here.

When organizations are in flux, employees may experience an array of emotions ranging from anger to fear of losing their jobs. Employers may struggle to establish a sense of security while the organization progresses through the necessary stages of change. Moreover, organization-wide it may seem impossible to motivate employees to embrace the process of change.

However, much of the opposition to organizational change initiatives can be mitigated through a deeper understanding of what motivates employees on an individual-level. Thus, understanding what can be done to motivate individual employees to embrace change represents an important imperative for leaders.

Here are some insights on how to achieve success during major organizational change initiatives.

1. Engage employees by gathering input

Not all corporate changes can be immediately discussed outside of the C-suite. However, as soon as appropriate, employees at lower levels should be asked to participate in change-related decisions and encouraged to provide input. In particular, employees who highly value autonomy at work will desire having a voice in the process of planning for and executing changes. Likewise, they will feel valued, considered, and motivated by employers who place a priority on soliciting their input during the change process.

2. Communication goes beyond the masses

Communication is a chronically neglected element of executing a successful major change. A lack of communication that covers multiple forms and mediums, including email announcements, group communication, and one-on-one communication, puts the success of the change being implemented at greater risk.

Top leaders who take the time to understand what motivates individual employees are better able to tap into motivators and tailor their communication accordingly. Additionally, identifying groups that may be more resistant to change and stepping up the level of communication provides these groups an acute sense that they were considered, thereby promoting a feeling of being treated fairly. Furthermore, when it comes to both large and small in-person communications, selecting leaders who are widely viewed as authentic and who are highly trusted by organizational members is critical.

3. Realign the workforce based on what motivates individuals

A change in job responsibilities, the dilemma of redundancies, and assigning new roles emerge as issues that need to be resolved during times of change. Organizations are often rigid in their attempts to realign work forces, looking only at aptitude of individuals and what makes the most sense to the organization from a profitability perspective. Transcending this myopic view and examining what motivates each member of a work unit is essential for realigning individuals in a way that will optimize productivity and help make the change successful for the entire organization.

Both individual motivators and how the new work context motivates a person are equally important to consider. For example, if an individual is motivated by autonomy, aligning them with a team that works collaboratively in a rigid office setting might not provide the most motivating work context to that individual.

While all of these factors might seem daunting, especially when considering all the moving parts of a large-scale organization, it’s important to remember that major changes create sweeping impact. Taking the time to consider the motivating factors of each person affected goes a long way in optimizing the potential for organizational change to be largely successful.


Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!

Katina Sawyer, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Management at the George Washington University in the School of Business. Learn more about her here!

Photos by Rawpixel, Hello I'm Nik, and Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

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