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The Workplace Collaboration Series: Enacting Change For Leaders, Managers & Employees

By Daisy Hernandez, Global Vice President of Product Management, Enterprise Collaboration at SAP

SAP Jam’s Daisy Hernandez sits down with influencers in enterprise collaboration, for external perspectives on how people communicate in the workforce. Today’s Q&A is with Ethan Burris, Associate Professor at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business and contributor to Harvard Business Review.

In the business of improving workplace collaboration, we are often concerned with connecting the right people at the right times. This often involves forums and workstreams that facilitate relevant personal interactions.

But, what about the situations where collaboration is necessary not only to improve business, but to facilitate change? Speaking one-to-many might be a productive way to distribute a message, but may impact its likelihood of being accepted and adopted.

Ethan Burris is an Associate Professor at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. At the University, he studies the relationship between leaders and employees, focusing on the employee voice – he has authored several papers on the topic that have been published in Journal of Applied Psychology, Organization Science, and others.

Today’s conversation centers on communicating and enacting change from employees to leaders – this topic is based on one of Ethan’s Harvard Business Review articles, titled “When It’s Tough to Speak Up, Get Help from Your Coworkers.”

Daisy Hernandez (DH): You wrote in Harvard Business Review about the concept of a collective voice for employees. How can colleagues build this as virtual workforces gain popularity? 

Ethan Burris (EB): The goal of employee voice is for individuals to speak up with improvement-oriented ideas, making a lasting impact on the organization. However, employees typically don’t want to use their voice for two reasons – first, they don’t feel a sense of safety at the company to bring up an issue. Secondly, they don’t want to waste their time because it’s likely their idea will never come to fruition.

The research featured in Harvard Business Review addresses these fears by examining the idea of a collective voice – this is when a group of employees bring issues to their boss/manager. By “teaming up,” employees are empowered to speak up because it takes the ownership/burden off any one individual. This approach is also helpful for employees that don’t have the appropriate relationships, or skills (think public speaking, personal connections/relationships, etc.) to effectively communicate the issue and improvement idea.

When it comes to virtual workforces, you are talking about environments without face-to-face integration, which can be tricky. The key is for the team to build cohesive bonds as this will lead to productive collaboration. In fact, when team members know each other on a personal level, they approach feedback in a different manner, making it more effective. These types of workplaces should deploy strategies to have employees connect and forge relationships that are not over e-mail.

Phone check-ins are a good opportunity for employees to hear the intonation of the person’s voice on the line – this helps them get a better sense of their reactions and overall personality. Video conferencing has been gaining popularity recently as the face-to-face interaction makes relationship more humanistic. Depending on budgets, teams can also coordinate a face –to – face meeting at an office before kicking off a project to build a personal and a professional foundation. Think about structuring these “rich” interactions before employees feel the need to voice a suggestion for change.

The most important thing that employees can do in a virtual workplace is make their voice known and visible to the team. This can be as simple as weighing in with comments, questions, and insights that make the team stronger - by continuing to provide strategic advice, they are building an intrinsic capital with leaders. Capital is important as it lends to a solid foundation and position at the company, which is critical for enacting change.

DH: What are other ways for employees to productively bring ideas to leaders, especially during a time of change?

Of course, a collective approach is not the only strategy for employees to bring up improvement-oriented ideas. But, individuals that are going solo to bring up an idea should consider the timing and audience they are approaching. Employees should think about the personality of their manager and tap into what makes them excited – do they respond to presentations that are data-driven, or have an emotional feel? It’s important to leverage these understandings to gain buy-in.

When an employee wants to speak up, especially during a time of change, it’s important to frame their idea in the proper context. They need to select a lens – cost reduction versus a new opportunity – to put the idea in a language that aligns with the goals of the organization. With this technique, it’s imperative to use the same frame over and over again – building consistency of the message.

For example, an employee at an organization that places a priority on numbers and revenue would likely want to frame their idea in the context of costs. They could present how their idea will achieve savings and boost other revenue metrics in their presentation to their manager and company leaders. By using numbers to communicate the potential benefit of their idea, it will be better received.

DH: When a company transforms digitally, it can also undergo a change management journey. How can leaders effectively communicate company changes/news to keep employees engaged and comfortable with the new direction?

Taking a step back, let’s examine what happens any time there is a transformation within the organization. Typically, there can be intense frustrations between managers and employees. As leaders try to navigate these issues, they should keep in mind that employees fall into two categories during a time of change.

A few individuals will realize the goals of the change as they are tuned in to the dynamics of the market and constraints their managers are facing. These individuals understand that change is necessary and part of innovation. They also understand that if they wanted to enact additional change, stemming from their ideas, it would have to be in the context of the new goals of the organization.

Other employees include those that are passionate and dedicated to the ideals of their work – it’s this group that could be hesitant to change. These individuals are likely to be blinded to other nuances such as costs, logistics, etc. that should be taken into consideration during a time of change.

Understanding the motivations for employees will be key for leaders to have conversations with them about new or different priorities for the company. It will also help leaders frame up the changes in a way that resonates with the individual.

Recently, we looked at a healthcare organization as they were working to improve its Emergency Room protocols. The first group – those that are tuned in – were open to new approaches to care to be compliant with recent healthcare laws. However, others that are more focused on the ideals of patient care were not as open to changes as it takes away from their time with patients and asks them to do more admin work, such as filling out charts, etc. The leaders that sympathized with employees’ viewpoints were able to help them understand the changes and why they were happening.

Any time an organization changes its direction, strategy, or goals, they need to be transparent with staff and have open lines of communications to discuss concerns and questions. Some organizations, may use suggestion boxes, but these types of tools can open the flood gates and call out issues that are not a priority for the organization. These boxes typically backfire without having the proper parameters communicated because employees whose ideas were not used/addressed will feel neglected.

Before leaders reach out to employees for ideas and feedback, they need to develop a process on the back-end for evaluating their thoughts. As they rollout the feedback mechanism, leaders should clearly explain to staff how ideas will be prioritized, examined, and enacted – the strategic focus and mission of the company should be reiterated during the rollout as well as new priorities/initiatives they are looking to implement. By creating a transparent environment, employees should feel more comfortable with the change.

DH: At SAP, we believe that leadership buy-in is critical to a smooth technology implementation. What are your thoughts on a top-down approach? How can a leader’s attitude impact the digital transformation process?

EB: If leaders aren’t interested in doing anything differently, then this sentiment will resonate throughout the enterprise. Any efforts managers give to solicit feedback will not be well received from employees. But, it takes two to tango – the leaders need to commit that they are willing to change and managers should lend their effort in supporting these ideas. Leadership buy-in is obtained by having frank, up-front conversations and confirming that they are willing to try a new strategy.

At large organizations, like SAP, leaders are likely looped into the process early so they have a say in the strategic focus and change. Early buy-in results in their positive attitude about the change. From there, a task force is assigned at to conduct confidential interviews about achieving goals with a range of staff – everyone from senior leaders to interns. The task force reports to the company executives, summarizing themes across interviews. Top management teams and the committee devise a plan to address the themes all while keeping the lines of communication open and transparent.

In a smaller organization or business unit within an enterprise, they would take a different approach to enacting change –  likely they won’t use a task force. Rather, they will solicit feedback with a strict timeline for a few (three to four) strategic challenges, breeding transparency. With the commentary from teams, they can identify ideas to solve these problems.