How to De-Risk Digital Transformation for Your Employees

When you introduce digital transformation into your business, you’re deciding that life will never be the same. You’re not just adding a new app or installing a new “system” of some kind—you’re intentionally evolving your company’s DNA.

This is exciting news because it means you’re not just reacting passively to changes in the environment that might cause mutations to your business processes and offerings. You’re proactively injecting your company with the innovation and resilience it will need to continually adapt in our era of ongoing disruption.

Your employees may not, however, find this approach as invigorating as you do. As you introduce game-changing digital solutions into your organization, bear in mind that many of your employees will want to cling to the rules of the old game. They’re probably viewing the world from ground-level and need some help spotting the vision you see shimmering so brightly above the horizon.

To nudge your team out of their comfort zone and get them to buy into your vision, you’ll need to overcommunicate the value of “going digital.” Don’t assume that one upbeat email announcing a new digital solution will do the job, no matter how long the list of benefits it includes.

Consider carefully the way you paint your vision and the story you weave around it, especially in documents and written messages. The art of leading change means, to a large extent, showing the path forward through inspirational writing.

Change is scary, even when it promises a silver lining

An innovative digital solution may be great news to you because you can envision the improvements it will produce. From the 30,000-foot view of a leader, you’re reckoning in advance the cost savings, productivity gains, and competitive advantages you’ll gain.

But from the employee perspective, “no news is good news.” Change is, at best, uncomfortable and, at worst, somewhere on the scale between intimidating and terrifying.

In most workplaces, on any given day there’s more than enough turmoil to keep up with—customer demands, last-minute changes to the product, the absence of a colleague who’s just called in sick an hour before an important presentation. Who has the mental energy left to learn a new software application?

But, you say, it’s a matter of “short-term pain for long-term gain.” Yes, that may be true—but did you catch the first part of that cliché? Whenever you introduce change, you’re putting your team through pain.

Whenever you ask someone to relearn a routine, try a new process, or absorb new information, you’re asking them to step out of their comfort zone. No matter how attractive the long-term benefits, this is a daunting prospect, and one that calls for empathy.

Only once you recognize how the change you’re introducing causes pain can you effectively persuade your team to join you on the journey through discomfort to an improved situation.

Three ways to shift the focus from risk to reward

Logical arguments, supported by pages of technical specs, won’t do much to downplay the negative vibes associated with mastering new software and processes. The longer the list of specs, the more challenging the learning curve appears to be.

The key to leading digital transformation is to direct your team’s attention to the transformed reality they’ll help bring about. You must enable them to grasp the vision you see so that they make it their own.

As you start a digital transformation initiative, your team doesn’t need information so much as they need encouragement. To convince your employees to embrace change, you’ll first need to spark their imagination and build up their confidence so they too can picture what you can achieve together.

Here are three communication tactics you can use in written messages to create the visionary capacity needed for successful digital transformation:

  1. Describe the positive impact

The outcome of implementing a new digital solution doesn’t equate to the ultimate impact. An outcome is an immediate result whereas an outcome is the broader, more long-term effect.

For instance, let’s say you’re implementing a digital solution to keep track of the inventory flowing in and out of your warehouse. The outcome of adopting this technology could be a reduction in employee workload since warehouse workers no longer have to track inventory manually. But thinking bigger, the impacts of automating inventory control could include less waste, steadier cash flow, fewer mix-ups in orders, improved customer satisfaction, and so on.

It’s natural for an employee to focus on outcomes because that’s what’s in front of them and what you hold them accountable for. Enlarge their perspective by describing how a digital initiative will affect not just task performance but also company performance and opportunities for both corporate and personal growth.

2. Create a compelling change narrative

We find change threatening when we tell ourselves a negative story about it. For instance, put yourself in the shoes of an employee who’s just heard they’ll need to start using web-based project management software they’ve never seen before. In their minds, the story about this change probably goes something like this:

“This is going to be hard. The last time I had to learn a new piece of software it took me a week, and I had to work two Saturdays in a row to make up the lost time. And in the end, I know the tool won’t do everything it promises to do. Besides, Carol and Chan won’t use it properly anyway, so I’ll probably be stuck spending hours just inputting project data. What a colossal waste of effort!”

To combat negative expectations, create and communicate a positive change narrative. Acknowledge that mastering a new tool requires an uphill climb, and let employees know they will have the time and support they need for that trek. Also help them anticipate the view they’ll get once they reach the top of the mountain. Enable them to imagine how much better life will be once they’ve put in the effort and are rewarded with the satisfaction that comes from mastering new skills and the ease that comes from working with improved processes.

3. Choose positive language

While it’s important to acknowledge negative feelings about adopting new technology, avoid the trap of apologizing for making change happen. Consciously choose phrasing that empowers.

For instance, make it a practice to emphasize what the person receiving your communication can do, not what they can’t do. Let’s say, for example, that you’re introducing a new layer of cyber security, and employees will have to change their passwords by the end of the week. Rather than saying, “Your current password will no longer work after Friday at 5 p.m.,” you could say something like this: “To log on to the new system, you’ll need to create a new password by Friday at 5 p.m.”

In addition, beware of conventionally “polite” language that can make you sound apologetic. For instance, avoid thanking employees for their patience during a transitional period. Instead, thank them for their effort, or their positive attitude, or their contribution to the company’s growth. With every word you choose, you set the tone concerning the digital change you’re introducing.

Become your team’s cheerleader

As a leader you’re used to wearing many different hats, and as you start down the path toward digital transformation, you’ll find yourself wearing a few more. Besides growing your store of tech jargon, you’ll want to enhance your leadership and communication skills.

During times of digital transition, one of your most important leadership functions will be to cheer on your team as they cope with the uncertainty, frustration, and inefficiency that come with any change.

Be mindful of how your leadership voice and presence transmit through various media, such as email, documentation, and instant messaging. Each time you communicate about digital transformation, you have the opportunity to embody transformational leadership through the power of the written word.

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