In brief

In brief

  • As the C-suite prepares to launch transformation initiatives, they may find not all employees are on board.
  • Our research found one-third of upper managers and one-quarter of middle managers are alienated or change resistant.
  • Employee mindsets have shifted, with more than 80% of managers saying the pandemic changed how they think about their work and leadership.
  • Enlisting employees in the change mission is critical to its success. Start by understanding the four employee mindsets our research uncovered.


When the pandemic hit, companies around the globe transformed overnight, powered by adrenaline, survival instincts and a workforce united with management against a common threat.

Now as the C-suite looks to launch transformation initiatives to tailor costs to new economic realities, they face a distinctly different threat: Employee mindsets have shifted. Dramatically. Most alarming is that the greatest disconnect is likely among those closest to the C-suite – the top managers who must lead the charge, rally the troops and execute change initiatives. In fact, one-third of upper managers and nearly one-quarter of middle managers are either change resistant or alienated at work.1

This disconnect is not only startling, it is a massive liability, which is why leaders must act with urgency to understand the mindsets of employees today. Because achieving meaningful change is not about issuing edicts: it’s about enlisting employees in the mission.

The rules of survival mode no longer apply

Companies were forced to make immediate, radical changes to survive during the height of the pandemic. Now, the C-suite will need to focus on longer-term transformations to drive growth and resiliency – circumventing silos and tailoring costs to support new business models and build capabilities, including technology and talent. However, it is clear this business transformation is not going to look like those in the past. Lasting change has always been elusive with major transformations. The threat now as the C-suite prepares to launch transformation initiatives is that employee mindsets have shifted. Significantly.

80%

More than 80% of managers say that COVID-19 has impacted the way they think about work in general and their attitude toward their companies’ leadership.2

This new dynamic raises the stakes. It requires the C-suite to approach change initiatives differently, with a deeper understanding of employee mindsets and new, more meaningful ways of addressing them. The pandemic brought together employees and management as colleagues fighting a common enemy. More than a year later, employees expect more from their leaders. They are also fatigued. Many are searching for purpose in their work. Moreover, they are asking fundamental questions about the role of work in their lives. The old days of top-down edicts from the C-suite are over.

Employee mindsets have shifted

The prolonged realities and stress of work and life without outside distractions have people re-evaluating their priorities. Many are making moves as a result. They are not just leaving their jobs. They’re moving across country, changing careers, rethinking their work week and commute, or leaving work entirely through early retirement.

95%

A shocking 95% of workers are looking at changing jobs.

92%

A full 92% of workers say they are willing to change careers.

Stop informing. Start enlisting

There is a clear dynamic at play that goes beyond pent-up desire to change jobs. After a year of lockdowns, workers have not only reimagined their jobs and careers, but they are also reconsidering their ambitions and how their work lives contribute to their lives more broadly.

Leaders cannot ignore this new dynamic. We all know employees are as important as customers. Yet many leaders still approach them as a captive audience with top-down communications focused on informing them instead of enlisting them in the transformation initiatives. There is a stark contrast between the two.

To be successful, employees need to be partners in the transformation, yet many are not. The failure to actively enlist workers in change processes can lead to critically low levels of engagement. Most concerning? The greatest dissent is found among upper managers–employees that play a critical role in leading the charge, rallying the troops and implementing change. They are least likely to be on board with transformation measures. One-third of those closest to the C-suite are either resistant to change or alienated. About the same is true for nearly one-fourth of middle management. If those on the front lines – managing directors, senior vice presidents or plant managers – are not on board with the mission, it is unlikely to be successful.

Want to get leaders on board? Know the 4 transformation mindsets

It’s no longer a binary question of whether you employ a top-down or bottom-up approach to transformation but finding the balanced path that works for your situation. Speed and clarity of direction are important, as are employee buy-in and trust. Finding the right balance is key. Understanding where your employees’ mindsets fall both individually and across the organization can enable a customized approach for each mindset segment.

We found four distinct mindsets in our research:

Business Operators focus on business first. They are nearly equally found in upper and middle management (42% versus 43%).

People Champions put people first. More than a quarter of upper managers and 30% of middle managers react to change initiatives by considering the effect on colleagues rather than the company.

Change Resistors have been there, done that, leaving them with a jaded view about transformations. About one in five upper managers are change resistant; 14% of middle managers also fall into this category.

Disaffected are not confident in leadership or their direction. Upper managers (13%) and middle management fall into this category (12%).

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Giving employees a voice in transformation

The COVID crisis made it clear to employees and business leaders that they have to get there together, or they don’t get there at all. This is one pandemic lesson that still applies.

Transformation cannot be something that happens to employees. It should happen with them.

About the Authors

Bill Theofilou

Senior Managing Director – Accenture Strategy, CEO & Enterprise Strategy Global Lead


Joseph Fuller

Professor of Management Practice – Harvard Business School


Kent McMillan

Managing Director – Global Lead, Organizational Development and Europe Lead, Intelligent Operating Model​


Martha Cotton

Managing Director – Interactive, Fjord Co-Lead, Global​

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