People need to be startled into action before they are prepared to commit to any new challenge. I discovered this during my PhD research on the topic of individual commitment over time, where I studied 31 business people over 12 months as they undertook actions to improve the levels of environmentally friendly practices in business.
The research uncovered that individuals change over time in relation to multiple commitments and readings of what is occurring around them. To be successful in sustaining individual commitment over time, leaders need to create moments of ‘healthy disturbance’ in order to sustain any momentum for change. There must be some degree of stimulation and irritation. Without this, people can easily become indifferent, confused or ambivalent.
In order to stimulate healthy disturbance you need sufficient clarity, protection and order for people to be helpful contributors to a process, but not so much that they become fearful or aggressive.
The research suggests that there were at least three catalysts that increase the chances of sparking and sustaining commitment through healthy disturbance. These are the stirring of supportive emotions for action, drawing on resourcefulness, personal wisdom and self-belief; and the encouragement of individual immersion in the task. Without these catalysts it is less likely that a person’s existing commitments will be changed, questioned or modified enough to sustain change.
The key in exploring the options for healthy disturbance is to determine:
- What current obligations and responsibilities do people have?
- What do they want to protect and safeguard from harm?
- What excites and frightens them about making fresh commitments?
- What other factors or commitments are reducing their capacity to take action?
What makes employee engagement over time difficult is that change involves never-ending morphing and rebranding of structures, power relationships and language. So depending on how individuals are making interpretations of their world and their perceived level of resourcefulness, people respond differently to their perceived constraints and opportunities.
Managing change is much more than a rational process. The emotions of surprise and shame can disturb individual perceptions of plausibility. Other emotions such as anger, fear, shame, anxiety, joy and ambivalence each play their part in influencing commitment. Levels of self-confidence and perceived freedom to act are vital agents for change: individuals who feel empowered will act very differently from those who feel isolated, unconnected and unsupported.
Mentoring, coaching and collaboration, combined with training and development are excellent avenues to help build confidence and hope for change. Individuals need to be constantly reassured and to feel safe that change is beneficial and would not adversely affect their need for stability and becoming something new.
When people struggle with change they feel ill-equipped or under-resourced to adapt to it. Every opportunity should be taken to encourage individuals to be active participants rather than innocent bystanders. These levels of involvement increase the chances for individuals to re-think, re-order and work out how to organise themselves differently. Actions may constitute not only the technical know-how aspects of change but also setting up processes for dialogue and knowledge-sharing that can be taken to build understanding of the more complex and adaptive elements.
To improve levels of commitment and engagement it must be accepted in the political context of work, where people need to make choices with conflicting priorities and the intricacies of power embedded within business. The study suggests that the capacity to mobilise others involves a subtle process of increasing or decreasing levels of compliance and engagement to achieve the desired aims.
The capacity to adapt quickly to complexity requires a skilful mix of personal desire in overcoming obstacles, being able to create compelling scripts for change, and finally being able to modify leadership and management strategies to secure lasting engagement and compliance.
Even the very best change management strategies may not be sufficient to bring about lasting and sustainable commitment and engagement over time. Factors that appeared to assist transition were the existence of compelling clear reasons for change, the provision of restorative elements that nurtured instances of renewal and regeneration, and generating episodes of disturbance that sparked innovation and motivation for change.