In the rush of enthusiasm for a new change effort, leaders often want everyone to join in right away. This is a natural human response--you find it in people who have found religion, or discovered love, or are fervently giving up an addiction--but it's problematic when it comes to communicating change.

Here's why: Although a percentage of employees might be inclined to change, it's highly unlikely that they can just go ahead and do so on their own.

Let's say the change is about improving efficiency. The goal is to do things smarter and faster. When communicating with employees, senior leaders want to say, "Don't wait for us to tell you how; go ahead and think about ways you can streamline your work."

Does that mean an employee can stop filling out those annoying, useless forms? Well, no, we need those for tracking.

Can an employee stop working on that superfluous ego-driven project that adds no value? Well, that would be career suicide, since the project was initiated by a senior VP, who will surely notice if it doesn't happen.

See the challenge? Employees aren't really empowered to make meaningful changes, especially at the beginning. The systems, processes and people that make up the organization are all conspiring against them.

What's left is the minor stuff that may or may not be significant: 

  • Employees can save money by not buying that box of paper clips.
  • They can improve efficiency by holding shorter meetings.
  • They can improve customer service by acting nicer.
  • They can enhance quality by proofreading every report twice.

Since your company hired smart people, employees can tell that these little steps don't really add up to anything. Sure, action occurs, but it doesn't address the root of the problem we're trying to solve.

It all adds up to a big unintended consequence: Rather than making people feel empowered, encouraging everyone to change right now makes employees feel disenfranchised and small. And that's not even counting that deadly hypocrisy effect: "You tell me you want me to change, but the system (or my boss) makes that impossible."

What can you do? Instead of rushing to ask employees to participate, it's essential to stop and think about what people can actually do now (if anything). That may mean creating mechanisms for asking questions, or making suggestions, or participating on a team. But it doesn't mean telling people to "just do it."