Dan Pink, author of the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says  that when we’re seeking creative problem-solving-type work, we must create an environment that fosters engagement by focusing on autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Employees will perform at their best when they have a sense that their work serves an important purpose, when they have choices about how to get it done, and when they feel like they’re doing something they’re good at.

I use Pink’s material, including his excellent TED talk, in leadership classes all the time.  But it occurred to me recently that his model for engagement is just as applicable to change management as it is to employee motivation theory.

I taught an introductory-level leadership course for non-supervisory federal employees recently.  But it wasn’t supposed to be for non-supervisory employees; the supervisors in this agency, busy dealing with the effects of a recent, poorly communicated, rocky reorganization, decided to send their employees to the four-day class rather than attending it themselves.   The attendees were mad as hornets.  They’d been uprooted and moved to new teams with little explanation for the strategy or expected outcomes of the change, so they had no sense of purpose.  When they asked questions or complained, their managers told them to “shut up and color within the lines,” so they had no sense of autonomy.  And it didn’t appear to them that leadership had considered people’s strengths and talents when deciding where to move them, nor were they getting much positive feedback or recognition, so they had no sense of mastery.  And now they were being asked to take four days out of their busy schedules to learn about leadership when many of them didn’t even consider themselves to be on a leadership track.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I do know that I was only hearing one side of the story that week.  If I’d talked to the supervisors who sent their employees to that class, I’m pretty sure I would have heard that the reorganization had been fully informed by a strategic planning process; that the purpose of the change had been communicated but the employees just didn’t read the emails or accept the explanations; that the employees had never been in the supervisor’s shoes and didn’t understand the pressures coming down from above; and that the supervisors had already taken the leadership class and couldn’t possibly be expected to take it again in the middle of such a busy, hectic period of time.  I would also add my own comment that the skills taught in an introductory leadership class—effective communication, interpersonal skills, behavioral styles, setting priorities, leveraging diversity—are valuable for any employee, whether on a leadership track or not.

What remains significant and unchangeable, however, is the perception of those employees, many of whom were clearly already functioning on auto-pilot and/or searching for new jobs.  We can’t send a couple emails explaining the reasons for change and expect them to suffice; we must communicate over and over again, using many different mediums and approaches, understanding that those lower in the organizational hierarchy are moving through the transition at a different and probably slower pace.  We can’t abandon recognition due to busyness.  And we must make a constant and consistent effort to connect employee’s skills to our purpose, and to show them we trust them to make good decisions on their own.  Being too busy can’t be the reason we fail to do these things, because without autonomy, mastery and purpose, we will only become busier dealing with the fallout from poorly implemented change.

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