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Bottoms Up! The case for grassroots change in the workplace

March 15, 2016

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Change in the workplace requires trust, communication, engagement, and a lot of effort – but it needn’t be a chore if done in the right way.

Bear with us, the classroom bit will only last for a moment. ‘Grassroots’ is commonly used to denote something ‘common’ or ordinary (perhaps people or a movement) rather than a leadership or an elite. Grassroots change, therefore, is change driven, created or even led by this bottom or lower tier, rather than change imposed from above.

Rather aptly in this context, ‘grassroots’ can also mean the origin or basis of something, a primary concept, rule or part of something.

And that, at its heart, is perhaps the most compelling ‘sell’ of taking a bottom-up, grassroots-led approach to organisational change; the fact that it’ll be change from the primary (and therefore arguably most powerful) element of your organisation – its people. In turn, it will be more likely to be ‘lived’, accepted, embedded and sustained as a result.

If you, as a leader and a manager, have a vision for change it stands to reason that getting ‘the grassroots’ of your organisation onside will make a huge difference to whether or not that vision becomes a sustained, and sustainable, reality.

Yet, enabling grassroots change in the workplace is not easy or straightforward. It’s much easier, of course, to throw out commands, edicts and ‘vision’ from the top down and simply expect or demand change to happen. Grassroots change, because you’re bringing along with something that’s large, disparate and perhaps unpredictable – essentially your employee population – requires a lot trust, and takes a lot more effort around communication, engagement, and ‘buy-in’ than simply barking out orders.

What are the key barriers to grassroots change in the workplace? This is by no means exhaustive, but common obstacles to this sort of change are:

  • A lack of employee engagement.
  • The fact communication and/or trust has already broken down between leadership and the grassroots.
  • There are not enough effective (or valued) communication tools, channels or mechanisms through which to articulate or disseminate your key values and vision.
  • Culture change isn’t a leadership priority and therefore there isn’t any visible leadership commitment to genuine change and transformation.
  • There is no, or little, culture of learning and development within the organisation.
  • Employees don’t ‘get’ or understand what the brand vision is and so, in turn, can’t champion or communicate this effectively to peers.

So, how can you make grassroots change happen? Here are four practical tips…

  1. Recognise grassroots change may not be suitable for all change projects or occasions. If you’re in a crisis or a situation requiring a critical decision, you’re likely to need to display conventional leadership: immediate, fast and decisive solutions. Grassroots bottom-up change tends to be a ‘slower burn’, although it may develop its own momentum over time. But it is likely to result in deeper, richer and more permanent change.
  2. Managers and leaders have to live it, and it needs champions. Even if the original vision has been stimulated or initiated from the top, bottom-up grassroots change requires employees to ‘own’ and even take over and mould or adjust the change to whatever works in their part of the organisation. Managers and leaders need to be totally committed to the vision, communicate it as such as it can be valuable to have grassroots champions in place who can often communicate and recommend the change on a peer basis.
  3. Focus on behaviours. It is important to identify what it is you want and expect people not just to start doing, but also to stop and/or continue doing. What are the attitudes and behaviours that already align with your vision or are already part of your grassroots culture, and what needs to be added or learnt?
  4. Make it ‘real’ but manageable. Champions, as already highlighted, can be a great way of almost ‘peer reviewing’ and validating your change process. Outlining a specific timeframe that includes measurable and achievable milestones along the way is also valuable. This has the added benefit of showing employees this vision is not an ‘event’ or a ‘fad’ but something that is going to become the ‘new normal’ within the organisation.

So, in essence, power to your people means power to you. Good luck.

Takeaways:
  • Grassroots change is driven, created or even led by the bottom or lower tier, rather than change imposed from above.
  • The fact that it’ll be change from the primary (and therefore arguably most powerful) element of your organisation – its people – means it will be more likely to be ‘lived’, accepted, embedded and sustained as a result.
  • Lack of employee engagement and a breakdown of trust and communication between the grassroots and the management are often key obstacles to bringing about change in the workplace.
  • Managers and leaders have to ‘live’ the change in the workplace – and they need to champion it along with the staff, communicate it effectively, and be committed it.
  • Grassroots change requires a lot trust, and takes a lot more effort around communication, engagement, and ‘buy-in’ than simply barking out orders.
  • For further reading, the book Herd by Mark Earls is one we’d suggest you pick up!
Discover the tools you need to effectively drive sustainable change in the workplace. Download: The Little Book For… The Vision Maker. How to drive organisational vision and culture change.

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