How Does an Organization Change?

    August 18, 2003

Most of us have a mental image of how an organization changes over time. For many of us it is a dated scenario in which top management emerges from a closed-door meeting with a new direction for the organization, which they announce to employees and which rolls down the organization like a waterfall with every person falling into line to adhere to the new marching orders.

I suppose an organization changed like this somewhere, someplace, at some time. Maybe. More likely today, organizational change starts with one person in the organization trying something different and getting a better result for their efforts.

Based on that person’s initial success, the behavior is repeated and soon other employees notice and emulate the behavior so that a "critical mass" is established.

At some point a type of quantum leap occurs in which you might go from 40% to 80% of employees embracing the new behavior and approach. And then there will always be a small percentage of employees that refuse to change just on principle that you can’t force them to change. Such is the way with employee recognition.

Most organizations offer some kind of formalized employee recognition programs that more often than not, are not particularly motivating to employees. What has been done is stale and incentives are often provided to employees for just being a part of the organization, not particularly for what they have achieved.

Far from being an exciting place to work in which employees are eager to have an impact on a daily basis, the organization becomes a place of entitlement in which employees increasingly expect more from the organization and its management. If you want everyone in the organization to embrace recognition, then give them permission to try new things they find fresh, meaningful and fun. Do not expect to do recognition perfectly from the start. I’d much prefer that organizations get started with doing something differently, build on that success and then try even more.

To attempt to design a perfect recognition program that you roll out three years from now is crazy. No matter what you do, chances are in 12 weeks it will need to be reevaluated and modified to keep it effective and exciting to those you are trying to impact.

To move the topic of recognition from being an event, a program or a single activity to being part of the organization’s culture requires making recognition a part of everyone’s job one step at a time. Start with those individuals who are excited about the chance to try some new things. Create a recognition task force made up of volunteers, trying to represent all departments and levels of the organization.

Most companies focus on what they can’t do rather than on what they can do. Many companies involved in change often give too much attention to constraints and obstacles and those minority of naysayers, trying to convince them that the change is worthwhile, not that difficult to make, and so forth. This is a mistake. I believe it is far more effective for energies to be focused on those individuals who are excited about the change, and looking to the future to create a better place to work.

Run with their energy! Encourage and support those that share the same vision and excitement and the desired change will happen faster. Then later after you have some success and momentum you can take on the naysayers and confront them with your need to have them come on board with the new change.

Change can be exciting and positive or it can be negative and threatening. The choice is primarily one of attitude. If you focus on the positive and involve people along the way you will create an energy that will be contagious. If you don’t approach change this way, the negative cynicism and myopia that will likely prosper will also be contagious-and limiting to the future success of the organization and of those individuals in it.

Bob Nelson, Ph.D., is president of Nelson Motivation Inc and a best-selling author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (now in its 52nd printing), 1001 Ways to Energize Employees, The 1001 Rewards & Recognition Fieldbook, The Management Bible among others, and teaches organizational behavior at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. For more information or to register for Bob’s FREE Tip of the Week visit