The Worst Way to Launch Change? Hold a Big, Formal Meeting. Here’s What to Do Instead.

Acme Corporation is under attack by startups and disrupters that are stealing the company’s customers. So the senior leadership team hired a smart (and very expensive) consultant to develop a plan that will make the company more innovative, nimble and competitive. Now the CEO is ready to introduce the change initiative to the whole organization.

So the company does what companies almost always do when launching a change to employees: schedules an all-hands meeting, prepares lots of complicated PowerPoint slides and puts the CEO and other leaders up on a stage to present. Then, in the last 10 minutes or so, invites employees to ask questions — which they don’t.

This is precisely the wrong way to introduce a change, writes Peter Block in the forward to Richard H. Axelrod’s book Terms of Engagement.

“We live in a culture that believes that the way to plan a meeting to gain support for new ideas is to make a strong base, present it well, and ask for people’s commitment,” writes Block, a consultant and author of many books, including Stewardship and Flawless Consulting. “It is basically a selling strategy. If you look at the way we meet . . . you see a lot of presenters, a lot of podiums and a lot of passive audiences. That reflects our naiveté in how to bring people together.”

The problem, when it comes to engaging employees in change is this: “High-control efficient ways of coming together, symbolized by Robert’s Rules and ‘good presentation skills’ sacrifice the opportunity for relationships to be built both between employees and leaders and among employees.”

Therefore, writes Block, “If you want change to be supported, even embraced, you focus less on charisma, rewards, and motivators and more on honest conversation, high involvement, and strong, high-trust relationships.”

How do you do so? Here are 3 ways:

1. Focus just as much on what the change will mean to individuals as why change is important for the organization. As Block says, the accepted wisdom is that you need to “sell” the change to employees by convincing them that it’s essential to help the company succeed. That’s true, but it doesn’t engage employees at a personal level.

So you need to answer these essential questions: “What does this mean to me?” and “What do I need to do differently?” When I ask employees about the way change is introduced, their biggest complaint is that communication is not explicit enough.

“Too often, the focus is on the big picture: what’s happening at an organization-wide level,” said one employee I interviewed. “That’s interesting, but what I really want to know is how I’m affected. And if you expect me to take action, you need to make that clear.”

2. Instead of spending money on a big flashy meeting, invest in high-touch workshops to involve employees.

Block is especially passionate about this point: “Every change effort holds a meeting at some early point to move the change forward, and it is often the experience we have in that meeting that influences whether we decide to commit to the change or simply give it lip service.”

What leaders often miss “is the reality that the social structure of how we come together determines the real, human outcome of the event. You cannot have a high-control, leader-driven meeting to introduce a high-involvement, high-commitment change effort.”

But by scrapping the formal meeting and instead holding more informal, participatory sessions, you can enlist employees in the change.

Writes Block: “Each time we come together, whether it is a conference, a training session . . . or a larger group meetings of employees, there is the opportunity to create a culture of openness, relationship and trust in leadership. If these meetings are done in a way that evokes people’s optimism and trust in their environment, then whatever the content of the meeting, the participants will leave more committed and willing to invest when they arrived.”

3. Set managers up for success. Managers are employees’ most trusted source of information, but unless managers feel comfortable with the topic they’re being asked to talk about, they won’t communicate. After all, they hate to be put in the position of saying, “I don’t know” when an employee asks a question.

So start with managers when bringing people together to talk about change. My firm worked with one pharmaceutical company to hold one-day workshops with managers in a newly formed divisions. Each workshop was designed to help managers understand what was changing and what they needed to do to support the change.

One session was designed to help managers answer employees’ questions; after all, most of the time when a manager communicates with team members, he/she is not presenting; he/she is having a discussion. Think of all the times a team member stops the manager and asks, “Got a minute for a quick question?” The session helped managers address team members’ questions and concerns.

There’s no doubt that change is challenging. But by getting off to a good start — involving employees in a meaningful, engaging way — you’ll be more likely to make change stick.


Those planning the change somehow think that is they who are in the boat and others who are in the water.

When the change process is too slow, the typical response is to redouble our efforts and drive faster. As if picking up speed will solve the problem of being on the wrong road.

Meetings have a deeper meaning than just to cover the content and decide something. Meetings are an important place where commitments and relationships are either chosen or denied.

A meeting also has a symbolic significance over and above the specific content it was called for. It is much like the meaning dinnertime has for our experience of the family (on those occasions) when we eat together). It is when all of us are at the dinner table together than we get a sense of the whole. It is the moment we are physically reminded that we are part of something larger . . . At the dinner table, we get a concrete, visceral picture of what the place is like and how it is doing. Whether the meal becomes a warm conversation or a food fight, we still get the picture. The family dynamics and culture become visible.

(An organization’s culture) becomes visible and is open to influence when groups of people are gathered in the same room. The structure, aliveness, deadness, whisper or shout of the meeting teaches and persuades us more about the culture of our workplace than all the speeches about core values and the new culture we are striving for.

The experience of the meeting carries the message of the culture and, most critically, it is the quality of this experience that determines whether people leave the meeting with optimism and a genuine desire to make something happen. What we call “meetings” are critical cultural passage that . . . create an opportunity for connection and . . . engagement.

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