If companies want to get through the parallel crises well, they have to rely on the potential of their employees – and on the dynamics of a social movement. In view of the current challenges, this seems difficult to imagine, but it is the key to a successful cultural transformation, says Christina Bösenberg, an expert in business transformation

Anyone looking at the current crises as a manager tends to look for short-term options for action and to turn operational screws. It would be good to also tackle sustainable solutions that turn employees into actors and make the company fit for the future. But the challenges are also complex. War, inflation, energy prices, climate crisis, lack of talent – bad news everywhere.

A study by the Family Business Foundation has shown that every fourth medium-sized company is planning to cut jobs. Right now it would be about organizations transforming themselves and preparing for the future.

One resource that is often overlooked is the people in your own company. The task now is to mobilize them, win them over for the future – and learn from social movements. Fridays for Future? The hippies? A social movement is a self-organized group whose concern and goal is usually change and whose activities strive to be effective.

Before explaining this approach, let’s do a bit of analysis. At first glance, it seems unrealistic to get even more out of the employees. In 2021, there were 276 sick days for every 100 employees that were attributable to mental stress. This is shown by figures from Statista. And many transformation processes fail not because of budget or management, but because of the behavior of management and employees.

That’s not good, but it’s not per se because people don’t want to change, but because desired changes are dictated from outside. In order to mobilize people in the company, the individual drive must be achieved. Everyone has a vested interest in shaping their future.

At first glance, these are opposites that cannot be reconciled. It’s worth a bird’s-eye view. Companies are very good at adapting strategies and goals to current situations. They are moderately good at rebuilding their organizations. Unfortunately, they are often not so good at winning broad sections of the employees for these goals, supporting them and awakening their potential. But that is exactly what is at stake now in the midst of the multiple crises. Companies should tackle these five steps – then the cultural transformation will work, then the path through the crisis will be one at the end of which there will be stronger cooperation in the company.

Christina Bösenberg is a business psychologist, entrepreneur and leading expert for business transformation in digital cultural change. The former Siemens manager with over 20 years of experience in global (agile) business transformation programs has been advising companies in transition since 2009 – today as Managing Director with a focus on business transformation

Social movements show how this can work. Most have a universal purpose that is not limited in time. Fridays for Future wants to prevent climate change and get politicians to do their part. We see the power of the street every day. We may not approve of all actions, but the debate penetrates into each one. Social movements manage to explain to their members why and what they are committed to, they have a culture and a vibe – and each actor finds his or her own why within the common goal. Companies can also awaken this energy in their employees. That doesn’t work if employees don’t know why they should give their all in times of crisis, when many things seem hopeless. The question arises as to how entrepreneurs and managers manage that their people can answer the question of why themselves. Everyone will answer this question differently. So how do you find that individual sweet spot of people?

We can observe it again and again: the more negative the narrative in public, on TV and in the press, the greater the tendency to feel helpless, to bury one’s head in the sand and expect solutions from above. Becoming active yourself would be the way. A human phenomenon complicates the situation for us here: Due to our evolution, we humans perceive threatening, negative things 10 times more than positive things. Bad news travels much faster than good news on the radio, as it does on social media.

The will to achieve a positive goal, to transform, must come from within the company itself. Obviously. And easier said than done? In every company that I have had the privilege of getting to know over the past 25 years, there are pioneers and employees who are not only open to what is new and aspired to, but who can hardly wait to get started. These trailblazers and pioneers need to be networked, supported and empowered in a targeted manner. This is how a first close network is created around the future goals and the core of a transformation movement.

Finding the right people for the new is easy because they are already there. They attract attention in everyday life with constructive ideas, in conversations with critical questions, in challenges because they not only communicate openly and honestly with the bottom, but also with the top. They are always there where something is innovative or new, may have active social media profiles and know many colleagues across the board. They are the ones you need to identify and connect in an informal-formal network. It is they who should form the backbone of the movement. Because they are also the ones who achieve something where standard HR processes fail: to awaken the will to transform in others. Of course, there are people with an affinity for change at all hierarchical levels. Clever concepts help to identify and sustainably integrate this group.

We have known about climate change for a good 50 years. However, a public movement fighting against him has only existed for a few years. Why? Because we couldn’t see the effects. The fact that Greta Thunberg set off such an avalanche with her protest was also a question of timing. When it comes to employees finding their sweet spot, timing is also important. If you want to change an organization, you have to see yourself as the conductor of a social movement. It’s about providing the right people with the right message, which they then bring to the company at the right time. Trusting, inspiring and based on emotions.

Many still think of reward systems when trying to activate their employees. That’s the wrong approach. More money is great for a short time, but it becomes a habit. Viral movements have inherent strength. This also applies in the company. The right internal influencers want to make a difference themselves. Initiators initiate innovators who in turn attract early adopters. If at some point the majority of employees see that something is happening, they too will join in. A few networkers quickly become many. Of course, it still makes sense to give something back to those you first confide in: Access to knowledge is one thing, further training opportunities and (network) events are strong drivers.

But it is also true that crises are painful and transformations are never easy – whether in business, in society or in a personal context. In the company, transformations that go viral through employees can facilitate and even fuel the process. Finding the North Star and addressing the many individual and intrinsic motivations (why am I doing this 8-12 hours a day?) is the art that leaders should learn now. The company that manages to find, channel, and motivate these employees who have access to their peers and upwards has a good chance of quickly being out of the 70 percent where transformation fails. It has a good chance of being one of those who emerge stronger from the current crises.

The Mission Female business network, founded by Frederike Probert, is actively committed to more female power in business, society, media, culture, sports and politics. It unites successful women across all industries with the aim of making further professional progress together.