Successful digital transformation – inspiring employees

Like every change process, digital transformation also splits people within companies into different groups. And this at both a managerial and a staff level. A recent survey of large companies carried out by the digital consultancy etventure, revealed that the greatest obstacles to digital transformation are in fact  people: employees react with resistance, 50% defend existing structures. This helps to explain why 35% of companies in Germany have now made the issue a top priority, in order to make drastic decisions and, above all, to implement them. Staff need to be involved in the significance of the change.

Employees in resistance

But that has not really worked with previous change processes. So why now, when pressure, uncertainty and changes will be exponentially higher than in any previous change initiative? Many employees of the old-economy supertankers still do not ask themselves how they will deal with the changes, but rather whether they want the changes at all. As if they had a choice. It is the illusion that they are victims of new circumstances that simply have to be stopped and reversed. It is the denial of the obvious and inevitable. Like children playing hide and seek and closing their eyes to become invisible. Interestingly, employees have actually managed to get away with this attitude for many years, because after many futile attempts at persuasion, managers have turned to the willing and somehow dragged the resistance along. But no company or manager will be able to afford this in the future. In order to really be able to take people with them, the executive floor should come down from its own flight altitude to see what it really needs.

Failures of the past

Employees who resist are quickly referred to as “ inherited burdens”, which cannot be disposed of, but are stored while they strongly poison the groundwater. But the attitude of these employees did not simply emerge, it was created actively and passively. By the employees themselves. Above all, however, in some cases a large number of managers, and thus the company as a whole, has not behaved appropriately: in order to enable employees not only professionally and structurally, but also emotionally, to develop their potential. But if that is not possible at this point, a replacement must be found. No one should be allowed to waste his or her resources, and thus those of his or her team and the company, because he or she resists or fails to deliver the agreed service.

What employees really want

Successful managers have long understood that resistance is only an inadequate formulation of a need: employees want to contribute to joint success and have the self-confidence to be able to do so.

Now we are back to "you have to take the employees with you": Large PowerPoint presentations are created, workshops are organized and a large-scale internal communication campaign, from the intranet to posters, etc. is set up. But to the surprise of many, this also fails to have the desired effect. In order for employees to understand intellectually, managers must understand emotionally:

The following questions are currently preoccupying not only employees, but also middle management: Will I be able to adapt to the new challenges? Will I be able to keep up not only professionally, but also mentally? Can I still find support in a company when I will no longer have a permanent workplace? Will I still be able to make a valuable contribution? Will I be able to be a breadwinner for myself and my family in the future? In short, these are the very existential fears that we all have:

  1. Do I have enough?
  2. Am I appreciated/ loved/ needed?
  3. Am I good enough?


Extinguishing the fire in the living room when the kitchen is burning

Especially in times of digital transformation, profound needs and fears have an effect – mostly on a unconscious level. But these are not captured by the instrumental logic of management, which usually exacerbates problems. The situation can be compared to extinguishing a fire in the living room when the kitchen is burning down. Many managers also misunderstand that when dealing with sensitivities, the encounter on the relationship level is accompanied by a loss of authority. They believe that all you have to do now is be kind and to fulfil each other's wishes. In their helplessness, they alternate between trivializing, appeasing and coming down very hard with their decisive ways and causing unintentional damage to relationships. Clarity and appreciation multiply effectively, they do not exclude each other.

A purpose, the sensemaking can only develop in a personal discussion, in a conversation, in a struggle – not necessarily in finding a common understanding. No campaign, no presentation can express: "It also depends on you, come with me". This can only happen in a personal conversation. Not in meetings that have been organized in haste, but rather through daily contact.

How to make the digital transformation work

The study mentioned above identifies cultural change as "... a necessary prerequisite on the way to an agile and flexible overall organization. (...) When it comes to attitudes and digital mindsets, Germany and the USA are two completely different worlds. But the results also confirm that digitalization not only serves to make companies and their business models for the future, but also as a figurehead of the job market".

But the question of where cultural change can lead, and above all how it can be initiated and implemented, is neither asked nor answered in this study. Yet from our point of view, this is the most important question that hardly anyone ever asks. The majority of publications and discussions in forums  still tend to focus on the transactional side, the "WHAT": strategies, goals, measures. And based on old habits, this is how cultural topics are also being tackled. But what is needed is not new measures, but a new way of experiencing and doing things. A transformation of the inside. In order to be able to act agilely and disruptively, people first have to change their mental operating systems and their mostly unconscious perceptions. And to take responsibility not only for their actions, but also for their way of thinking.

Strengthening the changing muscle

Whatever challenges we face, whether through digitalization or in our everyday lives, we humans are allowed and obliged to solve them. In order to gain increased self-confidence through positive experiences of change, managers must regularly get themselves and their employees out of the comfort zone before real life does. Only then, will we feel more capable of meeting the challenges ahead. And many (unofficial) discussions are needed to enable employees to find another view of themselves and the worlds around them. A lot of mental clean-up work needs to be done in people's minds in order to focus on what can be shaped. The past, the lost and decisions over which we have no influence have no place here.