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Winning hearts and minds in the 21st century

Winning Hearts
Leaders must consider new ways to change the attitudes and behavior of employees.

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Tessa Basford and Bill Schaninger for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

To learn more about the McKinsey Quarterly, please click here.

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The psychological contract that traditionally bound employees to their employers has been fraying. Many of today’s workers, having experienced the pain of the economic downturn and large-scale layoffs, no longer feel as much loyalty and commitment to their organizations as they did even a decade ago. Job hopping has been described as the “new normal,” and millennials are expected to hold 15 to 20 positions over the course of their working lives.

Meanwhile, middle management—the executives who traditionally act as a conduit for communication from the top to the bottom of companies—has been hollowed out. So perhaps it’s no surprise that in the face of these two trends, leaders struggle to get their employees to embrace big change programs. Rather than adapt to the demands of an organizational transformation, employees are more likely to resist passively, undermining the effort and spreading that contagion throughout the organization. Or they might simply decide that such a transformation isn’t worth the risk and look for their next opportunity elsewhere.

To counter these problems, it’s more important than ever for companies in transition to invest time and effort in changing the mind-sets and behavior of the workforce. Almost 15 years ago, we introduced the idea that four key actions could work together to support such initiatives: fostering understanding and conviction, reinforcing change through formal mechanisms, developing talent and skills, and modeling the new roles. New research has since reinforced the significance of these four priorities. (For more on that research and the influence model it supports, see this article’s online companion, “The four building blocks of change.”)

The challenge for executives now is that they must learn to apply the model in new and imaginative ways that would not have been possible when we first published our research, at a time when the world was a very different place (exhibit). Back in 2003, the iPhone had yet to be released. There was no such thing as Facebook, much less Chatter, Twitter, or Yammer. The more fortunate millennials were off at college and still dreaming of the success they would eventually have from launching start-ups like Box or Instagram. Uber was just a German word. We rented movies at Blockbuster, drove around in Hummers, and readNewsweek—all of which have since folded.

Two key features of the modern workplace are particularly important in the context of change. One is the increasingly advanced technological and digital landscape, including mobile connectivity and social media, that has opened up exciting new possibilities for influence. The second is the new generation of millennial employees. On the surface, at least, they seem to have different needs and respond to change in ways that set them apart from their more tenured coworkers—though we’d echo our colleagues’ view (see “Millennials: Burden, blessing, or both?”) that their attitudes, in some ways, reflect those of the workforce as a whole. In the face of these interrelated opportunities and challenges, here are some ideas on how to win hearts and minds in the modern era.

New tools for influence

Digital advances can turbocharge efforts to foster understanding and conviction, thereby helping employees to feel more involved in change efforts and better able to play a role in shaping them. Consider, for example, how modern digital communications make it easy to personalize messages, tailoring them to the needs of individuals and delivering them directly to frontline employees. We take such personalized communications for granted, but they are significant in the context of major change efforts: they help to prevent a break in the cascade when a message trickles down from the CEO through middle management. For example, a global pharmaceutical company engaged in a major change program used its internal social-media platform in exactly this way, sharing different messages with different groups of users and ensuring that communications stayed relevant.

Technology also can help identify obstacles to change, such as overconfidence in your abilities or knowledge. Consider the popular FitBit and other activity trackers: these small devices provide an accurate (and sometimes surprising) picture of individual activity, expose the truth, and hold users accountable for their performance. Rapid-fire online-polling tools make it relatively straightforward to take an organization’s pulse, identifying differences in outlook and understanding between top management and the rank and file. Research based on McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index suggests that management frequently overestimates the impact of its messages on employees (for more, see “Why frontline workers are disengaged”).

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Tessa Basford is a consultant in McKinsey’s Washington, DC, office; Bill Schaninger is a director in the Philadelphia office.

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