The Psychology of Employee Engagement: How to Communicate, Connect and Change

Change is the new normal. Consumer expectations are shifting, technology is advancing, the high street is adapting.

In this demanding environment, a major challenge among retailers is how to encourage employees to embrace and ultimately enjoy the process of change.

Faced with resistance and reservations, introducing new processes is a complex task made significantly harder if your team aren’t fully engaged.

Amrit P&PAt this year’s WFM Forum, Amrit Sandhar, founder of The Engagement Coach, shared his wisdom about the psychology and neuroscience that affects employee engagement.

Here we pass that insight on and explore how, through understanding the way the human beings in your workforce tick, your organisation can take the fear factor out of change.

Understanding the Change Challenge

Of all change management initiatives, 75% fail.

33% fail because of poor management behaviour that doesn’t support the change.

All the hard work behind the scenes, all the number-crunching and outcome-assessing, has amounted to very little. The expected boost in productivity hasn’t materialised. The rocketing profits aren’t appearing on your balance sheet.

At the heart of transforming these stats is the health of your company culture. A vague, shadowy being that’s easy to conceive in a board meeting but harder to bring to life on the shop floor.

But it can be done.

As Amrit explained: “Engaging people leads to behaviour change. Those new behaviours will then start to influence the culture and truly reflect what the company wants to achieve.

“Whatever an operations team wants to implement, its success relies entirely on others embracing it with enthusiasm. Psychology and neuroscience play a critical role here. Understanding them reduces the chances of failure significantly.”

Understanding Certainty

Neuroscience has proved that our brains crave certainty.

And change means uncertainty.

SignpostsAny team overseeing a change programme will be faced with this natural resistance within the workforce: “I know what I’m doing, I know how to do it, I like the way I do it, please leave me alone.”

And if they don’t understand WHY change is being introduced, the resistance gets even stronger. While the people who initiated the change will know the answer to this question, by the time the information has filtered through the corporate layers, it’s at risk of being seriously diluted.

Unless communication channels are open and flowing freely, the risk is that the exciting news will be seen as a threat: to their job, their way of working, their certainty.

Amrit said: “When we feel unsure about something, our brains create scenarios, filling in the gaps, magnifying undesirable possibilities. Before you know it, we’re in a world of wondering and speculating.

“We then start to see threats everywhere: why didn’t my boss say hello to me this morning? Why didn’t I get invited to that meeting?

“In a professional environment, this feeling can spread quickly. Starting at the water cooler, it infiltrates a team, then a department, then an entire floor.

“This emotional contagion can easily get out of control. While your top team has planned the change initiative with logic and reason, the reaction you’re getting is the polar opposite.

“People yearn stability and will do anything they can to get it.”

Understanding Habit

Change programmes also have to fight against the power of habit.

By default, the brain is lazy. Despite being constantly active and working hard, it would prefer not to do any work if it can help it.

Habits facilitate this by becoming automatic: the routine kicks in and the brain activity decreases, to the extent where it can feel like an individual experiences a momentarily switching-off of the brain and going into autopilot.

Retailers can take advantage of this by understanding their employees’ habits and working with rather than against them, as Amrit explains:

“The key is to map habits and use existing routines for good. Rather than throwing it all out of the window and starting from scratch, you can manipulate a current system of cue, routine and reward to work to your advantage.

“For example, if a manager always sits down for a coffee at 11am and has a social chat with colleagues, you could suggest keeping the caffeine appointment at the same time but replacing the chat with an informal team catch-up.

“To set up this meeting separately would be harder than incorporating it into an existing habit. Eliminating ingrained habits completely will always be hard work, so tinker with the routine and you’ll get results. It’s a simple technique to make change easier.”

How To Communicate and Connect

Before any change programme can start, there’s work to be done in other areas: transparent communication, trusting relationships and careful listening.

“Trust,” said Amrit, “Is the precursor to everything. Without it, you might as well kiss your change plans goodbye.

“Building that requires a conscious approach. If you’re so busy focusing on the functionality of your project and forgetting about the human impact, you’re going to run into trouble.

“Stranger danger has been ingrained in us since childhood so if change is being introduced by an unknown somebody, that’s an instant obstacle to acceptance.

“Instead, we can harness the power of oxytocin, the empathy hormone, by getting to know each other. Rather than wondering who on earth this person is telling them what to do, employees will think: ‘You’re not so different, you’re like me, so I’ll listen to what you have to say.’

For example, if some members of your workforce have never met the director who’s implementing the change, how do they know they can trust him? His or her decisions are going to affect their job role and their lifestyle, translating into a threat to everything they know.

Instead, taking the time to get to know employees can work wonders because it builds a sense of security. If staff regularly see leaders face-to-face, they’ll form an opinion and relationship which will make change less scary.

Important messages will then cascade down smoothly, delivered through the management layers to ears which are receptive to news, whether it’s positive or negative.

Amrit added: “There’s a lot to be said for sharing bad news as well as good news. It keeps people involved and informed, giving them the opportunity to be heard.

“This sense of inclusion generates trust. So even when it comes to unpleasant announcements such as job losses, being honest leads to engagement levels going up because people are in the know and can make plans.”

This approach to communication has to be embraced by all. It’s no good if directors are nailing it and managers are neglecting it.

Indeed, research has shown that 69% of managers are uncomfortable with communicating with their teams. It’s imperative that the strategy comes from the top and filters down effectively and accurately, so reducing this figure is vital.

Amrit explained how: “It’s been proved that feeling excluded affects the same part of the brain that registers physical pain.

“If you’re not involved, the impact is immense. Building communication and feedback loops is essential here to foster that sense of a shared culture. Without these loops, all the benefits you’re hoping to see simply won’t materialise.”

With employee engagement now so central to retail success, getting on top if it before starting a change initiative will have a ripple effect throughout a whole business.

“Operations teams can plan as much change as they like,” concluded Amrit. “But without truly appreciating that it’s all being done for people and including them as closely as possible, it’s a fruitless exercise.

“People are complicated creatures and figuring them out is critical to business success. They will naturally resist change. They don’t like disruption to their routine or threats to their certainty.

“Taking steps to address that is central to effective employee engagement which in turn will equip retail businesses with the armour they need to fight future challenges.”