by Ian Saunders, Antony Aitken, Ray Charlton and David Flatman

Encouraging engagement

Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.

Chinese Proverb

If your people are not engaged with and supportive of the change, it is most unlikely to succeed in delivering the desired outcome; in fact, it is likely to fail completely.

Engagement comes from

  • Good leadership – from you as well as from others.
  • You understanding and owning the drivers for change – and buying in to them so that you are walking your talk
  • You communicating effectively to everyone involved
  • You listening to concerns.
Key point

Communication is about being out there, in the heat of the kitchen. It’s about being prepared for dialogue – not simply indulging in transmission.

Do people like change?


‘This project is going to force change on people!!’


‘Ouch! Who says?’

The language of force is frequently used in relation to change. It is very often unhelpful.

People do not mind change; indeed, we all choose many major changes throughout our lives, such as getting married, moving house or changing jobs. However, we do not like being changed by forces we consider to be outside our control.

Change in organisations is often – appropriately – not a democratic decision. The decision is made, then for the change to be successful, people first need to feel and become involved. Once they are involved, they will feel a sense of engagement. Following engagement, they will then be prepared to take personal responsibility for their part in delivering the change.

So find ways to connect with people. Make the effort to really find out how they feel about the change. Make sure they truly feel listened to and acknowledged. This gives them a sense of control over what is happening and makes it much more likely that they will be effectively engaged.

Have you asked people how they feel?

  • Do they welcome the change?
  • Are they tired of change?
  • Do they have any sense of control?
  • Do they see change as an attack on them by others?
  • What experiences do they have to inform their expectations?

Having found out the answers to these questions, what do you need to do to overcome or mitigate these issues?

You need to show leadership – from wherever you are in the organisation. That means understanding the direction and intent associated with the change – as well as being prepared to be flexible and to challenge assumptions when intuition suggests that all is not well.

All of this implies that you need to take people with you on the change journey – and the best way is to create situations, for example workshops, where they have the opportunity to influence the way that the change will happen. That way they will be able to have a degree of control over their lives, as far as that is possible.

It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear... It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.

Marilyn Ferguson


The real change happens out there, amongst the people. It happens in their minds as they talk to each other, and with you. It happens as they ‘live with’ the new ideas until the new becomes familiar and non-threatening.

What follows is the visible change as their behaviour changes. But first came the communication and the conversations.

How would you like your people to talk about your change programme? In a positive, supportive way or moaning about yet another initiative?

Without positive engagement, guess what pattern the conversations are going to follow.

Action steps

Here are some steps you can take to enable engagement.

1. Involve the widest possible circle of people in the change.

  • This circle of involvement increases ownership, facilitates further innovation, adaptation and learning and creates a critical mass of people.

2. Help people to connect to each other.

  • Provide a compelling purpose for the change.
  • Respect the past and present as you create the future.
  • Ensure you connect the various parts of your organisational system – linking up the circle.
  • Show people that their voice counts by listening to their inputs and then acknowledging and responding to them.

3. Encourage people to get together

  • Provide time and facilities for forums, workshops, newsletters and online bulletin boards
  • They will then co-create the future, developing a better understanding of the whole system and creating a learning environment at the same time.

4. Use democratic principles — openness, sharing and equity.

  • Share as much information as possible – think very hard before withholding anything.
  • Ensure equity and fairness at all times.
  • Allow for high involvement in decision making.
  • Provide freedom and autonomy to act, but with clear accountability.