Successful organisational change starts with open relationships in the workplace…

Guest blog by Michael O'Flaherty - May 2012  

It's official, the UK has slipped back into recession, and uncertainty is once again hanging over us like the sword of Damocles.  But when things get tough, sensible organisations know that standing still is not an option – ‘change or die’ as the saying goes.

But time and again, I see too many organisations get overly preoccupied with the mechanics of change - the systems, the processes and the communication tools – rather than focussing on what really matters, the people and their response.

So let me ask you a question.  If your organisation or corporation needed to restructure, downsize or relocate, how confident are you that your people will go along with it?  I don’t mean dragged kicking and screaming, whether they like it or not, I mean willingly, supportively and proactively?

The success (or failure) of any organisational change programme ultimately comes down to the psychological contracts you have with your employees.


What are psychological contracts & why are they so important?

The concept of psychological contracts first appeared in the 1960s, and it’s sometimes defined as the mutual beliefs, perceptions, and informal obligations between an employer and an employee.”  Or to put it another way, how you treat your employees directly affects what, and how much, they will put into their jobs!

When you recruit someone, it’s usual to put a contract in place describing their role, responsibilities and even some performance targets.  That’s great, up to a point. But the fact is your employees’ day-to-day behaviour isn’t determined by a legal contract, no matter how water tight.

There’s always an unwritten psychological contract that determines what your employees will, or will not, do and how they will do it.  You can’t compel anyone to go the extra mile; they decide that for themselves.   Equally, you can’t force them to happily go along with organisational change.


It’s very, very easy to break a psychological contract

So how do psychological contracts break?  Quite simply, you fail to deliver what the employee thought they’d been promised.  And this isn’t just the tangibles like promotion or salary; it could be the lack of an open and honest culture, autonomy and independence, or being valued – anything they were assured existed but in reality you’ve not delivered.

A downward spiral can be set in motion by something as simple as reducing tea breaks, changing shift patterns or, as I experienced at one company, removing the free coffee and replacing with a vending machine!

You’ve almost certainly had some experience of employees with negative psychological contracts; they’re the ones who are disenchanted, demotivated and inefficient.


The key to maintaining psychological contracts is rapport

If you want to be a successful leader of people, then rapport is the only weapon you need in your arsenal.  Rapport is about having “a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other's feelings or ideas and communicate well”.

Let’s be clear, rapport isn't about getting people to like you; it’s about demonstrating you understand how they see the world.  It doesn't mean you have to like or agree with their take on a situation, simply that you are prepared to stop, listen and understand what they're seeing or hearing or feeling.  If you can't be flexible enough to see the world through their eyes, then you won’t be able to successfully lead them into unfamiliar situations.

Just by recognising the feelings, needs and views of your employees you will foster positive attitudes – and that’s very powerful.

When people are happy at work they are more emotionally positive, strong, resilient and flexible. And it’s these attitudes which make it easer for them to adapt to an unexpected demand or challenge.  They will step back and take a rational view of what’s happening, look for the positive, and be more willing to participate in the change process.

Of course, the opposite is also true.

Dissatisfied employees are demanding, require more management, and they’re likely to moan about everything - their job, team leaders, senior managers, pay and probably even life itself - reinforcing negative feelings.  And that means when change comes along, which it inevitably will, they’re unlikely to be emotionally flexible when you need them to be.

Being in rapport is a strong indicator you have healthy psychological contracts with people and that they’re more likely to accommodate change.


Surely there are some situations which are so difficult it’s impossible not to damage psychological contracts?

OK, let’s look at the biggest challenge any organisation is likely to confront - redundancy.  Is it really possible to maintain a positive psychological contract with employees under such stressful conditions?  Yes, it is.

Recently I worked with a large local authority.   Central government cuts meant hard decisions needed to be taken, and although they called it a ‘transformation’ programme, from the employees’ point of view it was all about downsizing and job losses.  People were worried, anxious and angry.

Managers had to deal with losing staff and rock bottom morale.  The objective of the initial Rapport Workshops was to help managers understand their employees’ concerns about transformation, and their belief change was being forced upon them and they no longer had any control.

Each workshop was designed to reinforce the importance of having rapport with each other – to be open, honest, transparent, authentic and genuine – and to communicate in a way that ensured everyone understood even if they didn’t all necessarily agree.  They realised that whenever they were struggling to make things happen or to create a productive working environment it was always because the parties involved did not have rapport.

By developing and maintaining rapport with its departments, the authority has been able to emerge the other side of the transformation programme stronger.  They have successfully created an environment that encourages and supports everyone to open up and participate.  More importantly, they are all pulling in the same direction and focussed on achieving the organisational goal – transforming into a better local authority despite having fewer employees to deliver services.


Don’t ‘sell’ organisational change - build rapport & motivate instead

It’s when change is being ‘sold’ to people that psychological contracts are most likely to be damaged.  You don’t need to sell if you have rapport; if conversations are handled properly you can motivate and encourage people to take a constructive approach and attitude.

Without rapport it’s very difficult to gain agreement and communication will suffer.  However when rapport is present it’s much easier to start the conversation in the first place, and then to reach if not a consensus, at least understanding.


About the Author

Michael O’Flaherty is the managing director of Rapport Coaching Ltd.  He works with large corporations, local government, non-profit and sporting organisations to implement effective coaching strategies with management teams and develop their ability to create, build and maintain rapport.

To find out more about successfully implementing organisational change through rapport contact