Change is Hard. Are You Making it Harder by Communicating Badly?

January 2023
Communicating organisational change can be especially challenging during a crisis.

Most executive teams understand that organisational change can be hard, no matter the circumstances. However, they often forget that the success of any change hinges on how well it's communicated. Are you making change even harder for your team by communicating badly?

Whatever the context, both the emotional and informational components of change management are vital. As with all communication, your objectives should be centred on the impact you want to make and the actions you want to inspire. Work backwards from there.

If you'd like your team to be filled with excitement instead of dread, your change communication plan should be guided by the following goals:

a. Acceptance: Increasing your employees' acceptance of the need for change

b. Motivation: Increasing your employees' motivation to change

c. Adaptability: Increasing your employees' ability to adapt to change

To achieve these goals, apply the following 10 essentials:

1. Be clear and honest as you communicate 'what' and 'why' and admit that you don't have all the answers

Out with the spin and fancy jargon.

Your employees are intelligent adults. They can probably smell insincerity from a mile away.

They're likely to see attempts to sugarcoat the message or to obfuscate its essence with jargon or formulaic 'corporate speak' as your way of hiding something.

Instead, use straightforward language. Be completely honest about the change and the reasons behind it.

Don't go to the extent of dumbing down the message. Just talk to them as you would to a peer. The key is to be respectful.

This will allow you to gain their trust as you communicate the 'what' and 'why.'

Explaining 'why now' is just as crucial.

Elsbeth Johnson, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the founder of consulting firm, SystemShift said in a Harvard Business Review article that this is among the questions that "senior teams often skate through too quickly."

She highlights some of the other questions: How will we measure the improvement we've been targeting? How does this new strategy or change link to previous strategies?

When leaders provide answers to these questions, employees are able to understand and accept the need for change. This will motivate them to adapt more quickly and successfully.

Many managers feel they should not give out too many details about what's going on behind the scenes.

In fact, you should be completely transparent unless legal obligations prevent you from being so. The less transparent you are, the more likely your employees will be inundated with gossip and rumours that could derail their progress.

At times, you won't have answers to specific questions. In such instances, choose the path of candour. If you don't have an answer, just say so, but reassure them that you'll do your best to find out more and that you'll follow up with them as soon as you can.

2. Explain how the change will change their lives

Most employees are concerned about what the change will mean for them professionally.

Tell them how the change will alter operations and their day-to-day work lives. What will this look and feel like? How will their job role change? Will they have a new boss?

Always communicate this with empathy. Acknowledge that things will be different and you're aware that it will take time and effort to adjust. Be honest about the fact that it might be difficult for a period, but reassure them that you will do whatever it takes to make the transition as smooth as possible. Of course, you must ensure your leadership team delivers on this promise.

Also, as with any communication requiring a team effort, remember to thank all employees for their patience and cooperation.   

3. Position it as a shared vision and tell them what's in it for them

Share a compelling vision of how the change will benefit both the organisation and the individual. How will this change enable them to thrive? What will thriving as a result of this change look and feel like? Paint a vivid picture that they would find hard to ignore.

Always connect this vision to the change by explaining the tangible results it's expected to bring. Then, explain how these results will translate into both tangible and intangible rewards for the individual.

Your employees need to see why the change is critical to the organisation's success as well as their own. With a shared vision, you can sustain a culture of working towards common goals and replace dread with excitement.

4. Make employees the hero

A top-down strategy has many limitations. Telling people what to do and how to do it usually turns them off even if they, in essence, believe in the change.

Instead, after you've explained what's in it for them, reiterate the fact that without them, the organisation will not be able to achieve any of its goals. They are the heroes who will determine the success of the change. This will inspire them to be active change agents.

5. Make sure leaders are involved throughout the process

Major changes need to be supported by senior leadership's constant and visible involvement. Leaders need to be communicating complications transparently and even modelling adaptability.

Getting leaders to share their own adjustment challenges and how they're overcoming them can help employees feel like they're not alone and inspire them to overcome their own challenges. 

6. Provide details of the various phases

Employees should be provided with a step-by-step plan for the various phases of change implementation. Give them a detailed calendar so that they know what to expect and when.

You should be communicating this in advance of implementation. As such, you might have to acknowledge that you don't have all the details yet, but as always, give them an estimate of when you're expected to have details and assure them you'll update them when changes occur.

Be very clear about the actions each employee must take in order to make the change work. The more they know and the more specific the information, the easier it'll be for them to mentally prepare for the change. Employees generally feel reassured and get on board more quickly when they know what's about to happen and how it'll happen.

Even as you communicate actions and tasks, remember to talk about outcomes (tangible and intangible benefits) and inspire them with a vision of the future.

7. Target and customise your communication

Some groups might be affected by the change more than others. As such, you need to communicate with them differently and probably more frequently.

Note the differences between each group of employees and design and target the various elements of your communication programme accordingly. You might need to customise communication for each team or even each individual.

8. Use a variety of media formats and communication styles

In order to reach a variety of personalities effectively, you need to use a variety of communication modes: e-mail, all-hands meetings, videos, mailers, etc.

Some individuals respond well to graphics. Others might respond better to video or audio messages. Making sure you have the same message in a variety of formats allows people to choose the ones they prefer, increasing the efficacy of the message.

9. Ensure two-way communication

Every person wants to be heard. Creating two-way communication channels that allow employees to ask questions, express their concerns and get answers is absolutely crucial. Doing this via live chats, a dedicated e-mail inbox or more regular townhalls and dialogue sessions is absolutely necessary.

Always address questions and concerns clearly and honestly. Being dishonest only leaves you with more fires to put out later and risks derailing the process altogether.

If employees make suggestions on how to improve elements of the change process, be sure to acknowledge them and follow up with them. Clearly, you won't be able to act on every suggestion. This is understandable as long as you explain why common or popular suggestions haven't been taken up.

10. Communicate continually

Be prepared to communicate repeatedly throughout the change process. You must remind people of the vision, what's in it for them, and ultimately, make them feel supported during the process.  

Also, let's face it. Implementation may not go according to plan, so always be prepared to explain any alterations to the schedule, methods or plan in general. As usual, communicate the 'what', 'why' and 'what now'.

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