The Connection Between Employee Empowerment, Resistance and Retention

The current global job market favors employees. High confidence in finding another position quickly compelled more U.S. workers to quit their jobs last December than at any time in the past 16 years, according to the Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. In the U.K., graduate unemployment fell to its lowest level in nearly 40 years. Germany’s unemployment rate is below five percent, a three-decade low. Last month, Australia’s also fell to five percent. How well company leaders keep their workforces empowered and engaged contributes to employees’ staying or going.

CIOs making a commitment to putting employees first are adopting the digital workspace. But as they do, what conversations ensure this and other key digital transformation initiatives are successful? For some insight, we spoke with Dr. Jeremy Lurey, president and CEO of Plus Delta Consulting, an executive coaching and change management firm. (The conversation is edited slightly for clarity.)


Dr. Jeremy Lurey, president and CEO of Plus Delta Consulting, shares advice for IT on change management.

What are employees looking for from employers? What keeps them motivated?

Dr. Lurey: It varies slightly by generation, but most employees want two things:

  1. To be valued by their organization.
  2. To be viewed as contributing value to their organization.

Those most engaged are typically acknowledged for their contributions.

Should employee retention be on every business leader’s mind, particularly IT leaders?

Dr. Lurey: Absolutely. It’s hard enough for organizations to find good employees. When you discover a great one, you definitely want to keep that star performer.

Businesses often underestimate the cost of turnover. Years ago, the data showed that companies can expect to pay 150 percent of an executive-level employee’s base pay to replace him or her. At entry-level positions for employees who earn less than $50,000 per year, or more than 40 percent of Workforce America, recent research still suggests a transition cost of approximately 20 percent of those employees’ annual salary.

Those estimates take into consideration factors like the cost of recruitment and any lost time for onboarding and then training those new employees. Replacing workers at any level takes recruiting time, human resources support, training and onboarding cycles, as well as system investment. It also impedes the core business responsibilities of hiring managers until those new employees are on board. Companies are better served developing talent.

During periods of radical change, like digital transformation, it’s important for CIOs and other IT leaders to communicate differently at individual, small group and executive levels.

Our recent survey showed a big CIO and employee disconnect in the perception of employee technologies at work. Why such disparity?

Dr. Lurey: I didn’t conduct the survey, but my first question to organizations where perceptions vary radically is to understand their communications. In the case above, it may be that the CIOs have planned their digital transformation path three years out, and they are well aware it is leading edge. However, they may not have communicated their change journeys well to their end users. If they had explained, “Here’s what we have now, and here’s what we have planned,” would end users have known what is available or felt differently?

During periods of radical change, like digital transformation, it’s important for CIOs and other IT leaders to communicate differently at individual, small group and executive levels.

A best practice that can be very effective for IT leadership is to select five to 10 random employees from different departments and invite them to an informal lunch. You don’t have to recognize them in any way, but simply start a conversation and listen closely for feedback to better understand what they do, how they work, what’s going well, what’s hard to do and more. This is really communications and change management 101. But you’d be surprised at how few organizations have a regular informal employee feedback loop between IT and employees. Most just have one-way communications channels and share enterprise-wide updates via email or on company intranets. These sessions are much more interactive and tend to boost engagement on both sides—for those giving the feedback and those listening to it. These can also be nice breaks from the constant negative feedback IT hears, which tends to lower morale at work.

But what if it’s your own IT organization that has to change?

Dr. Lurey:  The best answer is a rally call and communication behind it that sells the problem, not any particular solution. We often see a project slogan for rolling out a new technology (for example, “Workspace of the Future”) that becomes part of the change management plan, but we don’t see too many departmental mottos that differ from the overall company mission. That’s likely because company missions already address the core problem a business is trying to solve from building trust to working together to making a difference. If a CIO wants to establish a separate IT motto, I recommend connecting with senior executives who can influence its acceptance.

Say a CIO sets out to sell the problem. What if teams don’t want to change?

Dr. Lurey: I don’t know about you, but I don’t know a lot of people who immediately embrace change. There’s an overwhelming perception that it happens quickly, but if we adopt a specific change we won’t necessarily be better off than we were before right away. That evolves. So it’s important to manage the change process for whatever organization is most impacted before, during and after the transition.

In this case, a CIO or IT leader has to understand the three levels of resistance, first introduced by Rick Maurer in “Why Don’t You Want What I Want.” Both an idea and high-integrity process, the key idea is that addressing resistance in the right way helps individuals with great ideas get others in their organizations to listen:

  1. Resistance Level 1: “I don’t get it.”
  2. Resistance Level 2: “I don’t like it.”
  3. Resistance Level 3: “I don’t trust you.”

It’s important to note the research on this topic is extensive. I respect the thinking of Maurer and also Sandy Kristin Piderit’s notion of three conceptualizations of resistance: as a cognitive state, as an emotional state and as a behavior.

In the case of IT, Level 1 is cognitive, yet typically the least challenging to overcome, but where businesses put forth a great deal of effort. You’ll see teams writing FAQs, preparing videos, hosting town halls and more to get people to understand the change that is coming. But most of the resistance we experience in organizations is more powerful and comes from somewhere deep inside.

To address Level 2 resistance, IT leaders have to ask employees more about what they are thinking and feeling. Why doesn’t an employee like a particular change? Once that’s known, IT leaders can address any sources of resistance or concern. Small group discussions are a great way to uncover any emotional resistance because the change may lead to a new reporting structure, for example.

When employees actively push back through either aggressive or non-collaborative behaviors, that’s typically Level 3 resistance. Getting to the root of the issue by going back to understand what might have been missed is critical for IT leadership to overcome this type of resistance. Only through more frequent and probing conversations will IT truly be able to overcome that resistance if employees don’t trust what is happening.

What is one key takeaway you have for IT leaders driving digital transformation?

Dr. Lurey: Keep asking questions. Not yes or no, “do you or don’t you like this?” questions. Instead, ask more provocative and interactive, open-ended questions like “why do you or don’t you like this?”, “How do you think we can be more effective in getting everyone onboard?” and “Who do you think we need to spend more time with to gain their buy-in and support?”

The plans may already be in place for where you hope to go on your employee empowerment journey. And now, smoothing the path to get there is within your reach. For companies competing for top talent, IT leaders can have a major impact on how employees get what they need and how IT feels about delivering it.