How can leaders get employees to change? Adopt a net-promoter mindset

There are three important keys for leaders in overcoming change management barriers with employees, write UNSW Business School's Bradley Hastings and Gavin Schwarz

In 2018, the Canadian prime minister – Justin Trudeau – famously reflected "the pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again". With this backdrop, it is disappointing to observe that when organisations target change, the likelihood of successful outcomes is both low and not ameliorating with time.

With a view to understanding what facilitates success, we studied 79 cases of change from across the globe. Doing so we identified how a mindset for customer service – focusing on whether customers are net-promoters of products – becomes relevant for change success. Leaders who applied this net-promoter mindset to their employees, by inquiring whether they were net-promoters or net-detractors of change, were simply more successful – achieving success in 93 per cent of attempts. Whereas those that didn’t were only 33 per cent successful.

As knowledge on customer service has advanced, practice has evolved from a traditional mindset, focused on customers reporting their feedback to vendors – for example, through customer feedback surveys – to a net-promoter mindset, illuminating what customers tell their friends about their experience. For customer service leaders, the results of this shift are illuminating, customers can give positive feedback about a certain product but still be unlikely to recommend it to others – indicating an underlying issue. This net-promoter mindset has become the staple approach for improving customer service.

As knowledge on customer service has advanced, practice has evolved from a traditional mindset to a net-promoter mindset-min.jpg
As knowledge on customer service has advanced, practice has evolved from a traditional mindset to a net-promoter mindset. Image: Shutterstock

For leaders of change, we find that this same net-promoter mindset – substituting employees as customers – provides an important ingredient for success. When leaders of change focused solely on what employees report to leaders, for instance via surveys, formal communication sessions and feedback forums, change more often failed. Whereas when leaders adopted a net-promoter mindset, inquiring whether employees were promoting the change to their colleagues in their natural environments, change was almost always successful. Just like customer service, this net-promoter mindset facilitated efforts to understand the narratives employees were sharing about the change, and in doing so uncovered insights that could be harnessed to steer change for success.

What’s interesting about this finding is that the common perspective taken by popular change methods directs leaders to adopt the traditional mindset, focused on what employees report to leaders. This traditional approach stands, despite knowledge that what employees report to their bosses can be different to what they will express to each other. With this context, we propose that change management approaches be expanded to explain the importance of and provide the tools for leaders to adopt a net-promoter mindset for change. In what follows, we exemplify this approach and explain three keys that, when applied, help leaders adopt a mindset that facilitates success.

Employees-as-customers in practice

Two examples from our study – an armed forces supply unit and, separately, an aircraft manufacturer – highlight the traditional and net-promoter mindset for change leadership. Both organisations had intent to radically reduce the cost base of their operations. However, this was not their first attempt to change – following prior setbacks, new leaders were installed and change reinvigorated. Unsurprisingly, change-weary employees had pre-disposed their new leaders’ fate, surmising “we will just wait out the change” – there was little point in wasting time and effort on another failed attempt. 

While these two stories shared this same starting point, how they progressed was markedly different. At the armed forces, the leader (a General) adopted a net-promoter mindset. He spent time talking to employees informally, making a point to stay around after formal communication sessions and engage in conversation. Learning the ‘we will wait’ narrative, he adopted the view that his employees were right. He paused the entire change program and, to remove the option of waiting him out, extended his tenure. Then, to prove that change was real and possible, he narrowed the focus of change to one small key operational unit; by galvanising all available resources on one problem he achieved an immediate success. Together these actions meant “they couldn’t wait me out”. The change program garnered momentum and went on to achieve a 50 per cent reduction in the cost base of the unit.

Read more: "Change is about people": Xero's five lessons in digital transformation

By contrast, at the aircraft manufacturer, leaders managed change in strict accordance with popular change methods. Guided by knowledge gained from employee feedback surveys – that overlooked the employee narrative of “we will wait out the change” – leaders became increasingly disconnected from their followers.  As an employee explained, “you would often see senior management trying to put forward a solution and being completely disconnected from the shop floor”. The program failed to achieve any meaningful reduction in the cost base.

These themes played out across our dataset, from large-scale transformations to small-scale projects, across a variety of industries and continents.

Three keys to adopting an employees-as-stakeholder mindset

To promote this new mindset, we provide three keys that, when applied, identify these narratives and, as such, improve the likelihood of successful change:

Key 1: Set your employees as the customer of change. Our data is clear, leaders who viewed employees as critical customers, led successful change. For future leaders, this means adopting the firm perspective that the limitation of change success is how those tasked with implementing change think and feel about the change effort. This ‘employee first’ thinking mirrors the typical ‘customer first’ approach to business growth.

What this perspective doesn’t encompass is handing over control to your employees. On the contrary, most of the successful leaders we observed initiated change with a clear vision for the future that was ultimately realised. However, by setting ‘employees first’ these leaders built an understanding of the problems that hindered the path to success, as well as potential solutions. It was this combination of top-down vision from leaders and bottom-up contribution from employees about the path forwards that resulted in the highest probability of success.

UNSW Business School Professor Gavin Schwarz: by setting ‘employees first’ leaders are able to build an understanding of the problems that hinder the path to success and focus on potential solutions. Image: supplied

Key 2: Find out if your employees are net-promoters or detractors. Most change methods direct leaders to ask, ‘how is the change going?’ and expect an honest reply. Our study confirms that there is a significant difference between what employees say to leaders and what they express to their colleagues. As an employee involved in a failing change program explained to us, “If it's the [leader] saying, ‘This is what we're doing’ and she's in charge… it's very difficult for a lot of staff members to feel ... comfortable saying to her, ‘You know, I think this whole system that you came up with and created sucks."

A better approach is to frame: ‘are my employee’ promoters of this change to their colleagues?’ It is the narratives that employees share by the water cooler, over coffee, or other informal settings that express their real views. However, the problem with formal organisational structures is that leaders are typically excluded leaders from these conversations.

Despite this exclusion, there are informal routes to finding out what employees really think. To do so, our observed successful leaders waited around after formal communication sessions, or dropped in for coffee and cake, or took time to walk through the shop-floor operations and engage employees one-on-one. Crucially, leaders treated this informal interaction as an information-gathering exercise. Doing so, they learned the narratives that employees were sharing with each other. These narratives catalogued the issues that were limiting change.

Read more: When managing change in the virtual world, less is definitely more

Key 3: Take action on the negative narratives. Throughout our study, negative narratives, shared between employees, were a feature of both successful and failed change. What was interesting, was how quickly negative narratives dissolved once leaders had taken corrective action. In many cases the action was small, for example, an adjustment to a deadline, a narrower focus, or a small alteration to the program.

By framing negative narratives as an opportunity to act, leaders did more than just address the specific area of concern – they generated an opportunity to instill in employees a positive view of the larger change effort. For instance, in one of our studied cases, office employees carried a negative view of a proposed dress code. While seemingly unimportant compared to the overall change program – a merger between two organisations – a small adjustment to the timeline for implementing the new code proved a crucial antecedent to employees gaining a positive view of the larger change.

To harness the benefits of negativity, leaders need to shift their perspectives on negative narratives to the positive. Importantly, when designing corrective actions, the information that that employees share should not be filtered, adjusted, nor downplayed. Here the approach is to take the view that feedback already exists – this cannot be changed – however, learning about what employees really think provides an opportunity to act.

Applying these three keys provides a fresh perspective on existing change management methods. Doing so overcomes the key problem of existing change management – they direct leaders too heavily on leader-to-employee interactions and less so on what employees are sharing with each other. By adopting a net-promoter mindset, leaders will learn the real issues limiting change – increasing their confidence and efficacy in leading change for success.

Part of our study is published in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science

Bradley Hastings has 20-years experience of helping leaders of blue-chip organisations achieve radical transformations to their businesses. He has also recently completed a PhD in change leadership at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Gavin Schwarz is a Professor in Organisation and Management at UNSW Business School and has more than 25 years' experience researching, teaching, and consulting on organisational change, inter-organisational strategy, and critical thinking for success.


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy