Humans want stability — but face change. Companies must help workers adjust to everything from market shifts to sustainability challenges.
Alex McMurraySophie Leroy
September 18, 2018
NBS's podcast series shares expert views on leading positive change in the face of disruption. In this episode, we focus on how disruptions affect employee well-being and performance. What will work look like in the future? How will sustainability issues such as discrimination or resource scarcity affect organizations? And, how can leaders and companies help employees adapt?
Our experts are Alex McMurray and Sophie Leroy.
Alex McMurray is Chief Operating Officer at SHIFT, which builds digital tools to help leaders support change by creating high performing teams. Alex spent six years with McKinsey & Company working on talent, leadership development and diversity & inclusion for a broad range of organizations.
Dr. Sophie Leroy is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington’s Bothell School of Business. She is known for her research on how interruptions affect attention and performance. She also studies leadership, teamwork, and ethics.
Below are some interview highlights. These have been edited and condensed from the audio version.
Connectivity and instability affect employees
Sophie Leroy: I work in Seattle, and I talk to a lot of leaders in the tech industry. Everybody’s a little bit on edge. They think: “We don't know what the next disruption will be, but we know there will be disruptions. And as a result, we have to be connected at all times, and we need our workforce to be connected all the time, because there might be a disruption in terms of technology, new product, a new competitor, and we need to be able to have access to our employees.”
From a wellbeing standpoint, we have to really think carefully about what our expectations are. Because if we expect people to be connected all the time, what impact does it have in terms of wellbeing? There are a lot of implications for quality of performance, decision making, innovation, creativity — all those things that organizations care about.
Alex McMurray: There are other industries where disruptions are happening really quickly, as well, like energy and mining. I think about pipelines, being from Calgary. Any events occurring in that space are requiring employees to be super reactive and connected 24-7.
Another disruption I see impacting employees is the lack of ability to plan out your future in an organization, because there's so much uncertainty about what an organization might look like in 3, 5, 10 years — or whether that organization will even exist. People feel a real undercurrent of stress and that will impact their performance.
Leroy: The world of disruption is not just outside organizations, but it’s also inside. How we think about work, the way work is structured – there are a lot of things happening. I feel I can’t say how people will work in 20 years. I think it’s open to be shaped.
Leaders can support employees
McMurray: There's often a lot of pressure on leaders to highlight the value of a change and excite your organization. Leaders should do that while simultaneously articulating what about the current organization is going to stay the same, what employees can expect to still find familiar. Then they will be able to help their employees adjust to a change much better than if they’re just focusing on what’s different.
Leroy: Leaders should acknowledge that the change might be scary at times for people. If we don't talk about the emotions, then they can get bigger than what is needed. Say: “I know this might be stressful and I know this brings in a lot of uncertainty. But what it means for your day to day is not a lot of differences.” Translate it so that people understand how it will affect them. Encourage people to engage in discussion if they feel confused about what their path will look like.
McMurray: I think there's a perception that millennials are typically more comfortable with change and have less desire for stability and consistency within an organization. But McKinsey did a big report on the state of the millennial and found millennials have the same very human craving for stability. In the future, leaders will still need to find a way to create safety and stability for people.
We can prepare for unexpected change
McMurray: An organization can invest in the type of broad training that will help an individual be better with change and disruption when it comes, regardless of what the change is. So investing in helping employees foster more resilience, that's going to help them regardless of what happens going forward.
Leroy: Often people react negatively to uncertainty, because we need predictability. One way to reframe it is, instead of seeing as a threat, can you see it as an opportunity? So what do you gain from the change as opposed to focusing on what you lose.
Keep thinking “How do I contribute value? How do I learn new skills? What are my strengths? How do I play in this kind of new environment?"
Change comes in different forms
Leroy: Through our discussion, I've been thinking: Organizations go through change all the time. So is there something unique about the disruptions that we are we talking about? Organizational change can happen for different types of reasons. Acquiring another company — that’s an internally initiated change, as opposed to “There’s a new competitor we have to adapt to” versus “our industry has to completely evolve because it's not sustainable anymore.” What are the layers of change and how do they impact employees differently?
Sustainability issues — climate change, discrimination, resource scarcity — may mean major shifts
Leroy: With some of these disruptions, there's no way back. When we think about organizational change, often employees might view it as a phase: “This is one more change. There will be another one.” There's a little bit of disengagement from it.
When it's a change that is due to a bigger disruption in the environment, it’s not a phase. It will have an impact and so there's no way to hold on to the past. The best way is to accept it and then find the opportunities that exist given the new new reality.
Sustainability issues affect organizations today
Leroy: Life was more segmented in the past. You had your private life and your organizational life.But social media and all the technology have connected people to the outside world all the time, even during work time. Their emotional reactions to what they read affect their psychology during the day. People have to figure out how to manage the outside world that can be with them at all times.
McMurray: The organization can play a big role in supporting the individual personally. There are some pretty amazing employee wellness programs, especially in the US, where your health care is probably linked to the organization you work for. But then what does that mean for the rise of the gig economy? What is the implication for individuals who are no longer going to be anchored to an organization and have access to the support systems that often come with that?
Another way sustainability is filtering in is with the Me Too movement. People's personal behavior is impacting their license to be in their organization. That kind of information has quickly spread. That’s a way that the outside world is creeping into work structures
Leroy: There's more scrutiny on organizations’ actions and decisions, not just from the outside, but also from the inside. More people are connected with and take a stand on vital issues. I think they are then evaluating their company along those same lines, in terms of: “What are you doing in terms of the environment? In terms of gender diversity and inclusiveness? In terms of privacy issues?” Or you see the tech companies going against the immigration reforms in the US and taking a stand.
There are a lot more connections that can happen between organizations and disruptions, as well as employees playing a role in in evaluating and maybe pushing their organizations to act a certain way.
About the Authors
Alex McMurray is Chief Operating Officer at SHIFT. SHIFT builds digital tools to help leaders support change and transformations at scale by creating high performing teams. Previously, Alex spent six years with McKinsey & Company working on talent, leadership development and diversity & inclusion for a broad range of organizations. Alex has her MBA with distinction from the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University.
Dr. Sophie Leroy is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington Bothell, School of Business. She is known for her research on interruptions and its effects on attention and performance. She also studies leadership emergence, temporal adaptability and team performance. She teaches courses in leadership, managing high performing teams, and ethics.
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