In our experience, people can get confused about the purpose of communication in change. The primary use of communication in change is to create clarity. You have to ensure that everyone at least understands what you are trying to achieve.
Well-planned communication can also help people feel positive about a change and lessen the impact of resistance. The reverse is also true: poorly planned or executed communication will cause or heighten resistance.
The problem is that communication is often the only thing that leaders can think of when it comes to creating engagement. Poorly performing change agents are often far too fond of slides and emails which go unopened or are “skim read” at best. I have worked in the change arena for over 25 years and I have yet to meet a single person who has read an emailed presentation and been motivated to change by it. At best these are seen as a necessary evil. Their over-use springs from a mindset that if you put the case as logically as possible then people, being rational, will buy into it and take the appropriate set of actions. This type of “communication” is also used as a corporate “get out of jail free” card. Those involved with change can remain in their respective offices with their doors firmly closed, safe in the knowledge that when asked they can say, “Well, it’s not my fault; I told everyone what was going on”. In fact, they didn’t tell everyone – they sent them an email presentation. That is not communication; that is hiding behind technology.
A large number of organizations have become heavily reliant on written communication, something which goes directly against the human need for dialogue. We respond to twoway communication, so finding a way to open up conversation is a crucial step to powerful engagement processes.
Four ways you can communicate change effectively
Here are four ways you can be effective when communicating change:
1. Use face-to-face, two-way communication wherever possible. People value dialogue and conversation. It takes much longer than email but is infinitely more effective. Try and avoid going to all meetings with detailed and well-prepared presentations. They inhibit dialogue. Initiate a conversation with people. When I was working on the turnaround of an insurance company in California in the late 1980s we used an old concept called “Brown Bag Lunches”. Basically it meant that you could invite anyone you wanted from any level in the organization to come and join you for a sandwich. You would talk for no more than five to ten minutes about the change, and then invite other people to talk, share ideas and raise objections. This approach was always so much more powerful than doing presentations. People felt they had a voice and an opportunity to express their views. It wasn’t a panacea but it was certainly an early part of building acceptance for the change.
2. Enable your sponsors to demonstrate a real commitment to communication and be involved in the creation of the communication strategy. In my early years in Change Management I used to build change plans with my project team and then present them to the executive teams. I would get loads of head nodding and appropriate noises of support: “We are right behind you.” And they were right behind me – miles behind me and I was out on my own. I soon realised that cocreation is critical to success. I thought I was helping by not involving them and just getting on with the plans, but it was a mistake and I still have the scar tissue to prove it. The more executives take an active role in building the plan the more likely they are to take an active role in delivering it. And this doesn’t have to be a long drawn out process; it can be done expertly and quickly.
3. Tailor messages to the receiver’s perspective. We can often talk in a language no one further down the organization understands, and people at different levels of an organization can also see the issues differently. This can be because of different interests, history, culture or experiences. What people need and expect can also vary depending on their career stage: for example, those just out of college may need a different communication style to those nearing retirement. It is your job to speak to those differences. If you can connect to them you have an opportunity to get your message across.
4. Seek feedback and, where possible, take it on board. One of our clients had a global roll-out of a change a few years ago. It was cascaded through the regions to the different countries. Two weeks later an agency telephoned a sample of front-line workers in each country to ask them what they knew about the change. This survey provided a wealth of information on where countries had successfully communicated change. The countries that had not were then asked to redeliver the communication and were given coaching to help them be more effective. Communication strategy and planning
There are four components to successful change communications:
Brand: Major change initiative communications often benefit from a distinctive brand. It can create an identity for the change and help create initial enthusiasm as it symbolises a break with the past. Some organizations avoid branding change as they want people to see change as being ongoing and part of everyday work. Plus, there is evidence to suggest that change brands contribute to employee cynicism about change. Nonetheless, most organizations will need to give change initiatives a name to make communication about the change easier. As such, practical concerns usually outweigh the negative aspects of branding a change initiative.
Strategy: A communication strategy outlines what is to be achieved through communication and the overall approach. Our experience is that executive involvement in planning communication strategies is critical to ensure leaders’ commitment in delivering the necessary communication. A communication strategy would cover topics such as objectives, guiding principles, risk mitigation, key messages, style and tone. It sets the framework for the more detailed communication planning.
Plan: A communication plan details specific objectives and activities for the communication of a specific change initiative. It is guided by the communications strategy and is designed to build commitment for the change, reduce resistance and ensure implementation occurs. It would detail audience, methods of delivery, who, when and where. So the plan is much more specific, detailed and tactical than the strategy.
Measurement: Change communication tracks that the plan is becoming a reality. It allows change agents to appreciate the effect communication is having in terms of understanding, disposition and behaviour. It also allows you to take appropriate corrective or sustaining actions. Some time ago we worked with an organization that used a form of telephone market research to find out what front-line workers had been told about a change. They found significant gaps in the basic understanding of the change between different geographical regions. This allowed the change agents to work with the underperforming regions to bring them up to the benchmark created by the best.
Effective communication plans allow people involved in change to become more committed to the change. This gives people confidence that the change is real and not just hot air, that the change is critical, and that they will be given enough time and the appropriate training to learn how to use the change successfully. It also gives people guidelines so they know exactly what is expected of them and how to focus their efforts for maximum success, which can help them to feel part of the change process and bring eventual success.