By Craig Johns
It isn’t easy to change attitudes or relationships; they’re deeply ingrained in organizations and people. The heart and soul of change processes is communication, as people thrive in their comfort zones and are reluctant to move into a place of uncertainty. A communication plan is just as important as the project plan in a change process, and needs to be developed concurrently. Communication includes: what the change sponsor will say; aligning key messages with other leadership team members and middle management; preparing team members readiness for change; external stakeholder management; a means to creating a community; and supporting the emotional components of team members and the leadership team.
“At one extreme, a short project led by a skilled, motivated, and cohesive team, championed by top management and implemented in a department that is receptive to the change and has to put in very little additional effort, is bound to succeed. At the other extreme, a long, drawn-out project executed by an inexpert, unenthusiastic, and disjointed team, without any top-level sponsors and targeted at a function that dislikes the change and has to do a lot of extra work, will fail.”
Harold et al., (2005)
This article is the final article of a four part series discussing transformational change from a variety of different angles and providing an insight into some of the organisational changes I have personally experienced. Part one considered why change is important for organisational success, ways to manage change, and organisational impact through change. Part two took a look at how to prioritise change, while investigating the challenges and resistance faced during change. Part three highlighted factors for successful change and implementing a continual change culture. This article, part four, will bring to light effective communication strategies during a change process.
A good communication strategy is the heart of any successful change process, and should be maintained throughout the entire duration. It needs to take into consideration changing audiences, leadership styles and team dynamics. The strategy will need to focus on aligning team members expectations, supporting the development of cohesive teams, emphasising leadership commitment, and explain the perceived need for change. To be effective, a communication strategy should define the reasons, benefits, plans and proposed effects of that change.
Poor communication, during a change process, leaves a feeling of uncertainty, loss of control and a feeling of unfamiliarity. Communication impacts team member’s emotions and reactions, and because of this can be a major determining factor for the outcome of the change process. Team members want to be kept up-to-date, whether it is positive or negative, and if communication is lacking, the uncertainty leads to work disruption, loss in productivity, lack of trust, and a feeling that they aren’t part of the decision-making process.
Being able to connect emotionally with your team members requires asking the right questions. William Bridge (2017), an organisational consultant, focuses on the emotional and psychological impact of change through three simple questions:
- What is changing?
- What will actually be different because of the change?
- Who is going to lose what?
To ensure an effective change communication strategy, messages need to have clarity; take into consideration the emotional tone and delivery; reach the right people with targeted messages; timely scheduling of messages; and a supportive feedback process to enable genuine two-way communication. The communication strategy needs to address the following:
- Change objectives
- Key messages
- Communication reach
- Information to be communicated
- Timing of information
- Level of detail and how much information
- Mediums to disseminate messages
- Feedback process
It is useful to disseminate the information widely, openly and early. To help team members feel more included, committed and have some control, it is valuable to include them as part of the change process. Leaders need to provide justification through clear communication of the change process vision and purpose. (Johansson & Heide, 2008)
“Words shape the world, questions illuminate it. Communication is the beginning and an indispensable part of change.”
Under-communication is one of the key reasons change efforts fail according to Kotter (2007) in “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”. Kotter notes that, “Transformation is impossible unless hundreds or thousands of people are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices. Employees will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they believe that useful change is possible. Without credible communication, and a lot of it, the hearts and minds of the troops are never captured.”
Let’s take a look at what some of the more common communication failures are during a change process:
- Many leaders find it difficult to deliver the tough messages
- Timing of messages isn’t delivered appropriately.
- Team members miss messages as they aren’t delivered in the right mediums or formats.
- Inconsistent messages.
- The wrong people are delivering the messages.
Leaders face the challenge of how to motivate team members to see change as both desirable and necessary. They need to ensure that team members become willing participants rather than road blocks to change.
There is a clear relationship between uncertainty and communication according to Johansson & Heide (2008), and “that without effective employee communication, change is impossible and change management fails”. They discussed research that suggested successful change is dependent “on the accurate management of uncertainty associated with change, since poor or insufficient information will initiate rumours and gossip”. They also noted that “Uncertainty is often mentioned as a major source of psychological strain during the process and outcome of organizational change”. Their paper talked about communication reduces “uncertainty but also increases a sense of control over personal circumstances related to change and job satisfaction”.
Being ready to change is a pre-requisite for effective change, according to Elving (2005). Elving maintains that it is crucial to establish a goal to prevent or reduce resistance to change, otherwise change will struggle to be implemented. He also mentioned that reducing team members “uncertainty of their future situation” will create readiness for change and support the sense-making process.
Change processes are situation dependent, unpredictable and non-linear. This is a result of different people’s perspectives, understanding and the way they make sense of the change. Team members will analyse a change initiative, when they are first presented with it, and will aim to understand the ambiguity and potential effects on the organisation, department, colleagues and themselves. To try and understand what the change means they will “act, test and experiment”. (Johansson & Heide (2008) Sense-making is a social process, which occurs through communication. Effective change interventions, generally occur during everyday conversations, as “people in an organization have different backgrounds, interests, experiences, education, positions and so forth, they will also make sense of the very same situation in multiple ways” (Johansson & Heide (2008).
High Performing Organisation Best Practices (Barrett, 2002)
From the research into the company examples of effective employee communication, the following best practice definitions emerge:
- Strategic objectives – In high-performing companies, employee communication reinforces the company’s strategic objectives. There should be a one-to-one correlation between what the company has established as its strategic objectives and what is listed as the objectives for the communications. In addition, the communications must be structured to translate the central strategic messages (from vision to performance or financial goals) to all employees.
- Supportive management – Top-level and mid-level management must be directly involved in and assume responsibility for communications up, down, and across the organization. In a major change situation as well as for day-to-day operations, communication is not just what the communication staff does. Managers must model the behavior they expect of their employees, the old adage of “walking the talk.” They set the tone for an open or closed flow of information. Without them, the channels of communications cannot flow freely.
- Targeted messages – Targeted messages are very simply, information tailored to the audience (i.e., messages in different words for different people when necessary), so that the information is relevant and meaningful, at the same time that it is consistent. Thus, each business unit or division must tailor the important messages to their employees, and if necessary, convert the overall message of the corporate center into the digestible and actionable messages the employees can understand and act upon.
- Effective media/forums – Effective employee communication uses all vehicles to reach its audiences, but most importantly, it relies on direct, face-to-face communications over indirect, print or electronic media. Thus, interpersonal communication training, meeting management, and facilitation skills are necessary for all managers.
- Well-positioned staff – The communication staff needs to be close to the most important business issues, involved in the strategic and business planning processes. They must have a “seat at the table.” Being a member of the senior management team allows the senior communication officer to understand the company’s strategy and to participate in the decision making. In addition, the communication staff should be seen as facilitators of change not just as producers of publications.
- On-going assessment – The effectiveness of the company’s communication needs to be measured company-wide formally and frequently against clearly defined goals on an on-going basis and throughout the key stages of any major change. In addition, communication effectiveness needs to be evaluated as part of each employee’s individual performance appraisal with the appropriate recognition for excellence.
- Integrated processes – Communication needs to be integrated into the business processes with communication milestones included in the business plan and as part of the business planning process. Thus, communication should be placed on the agenda of meetings and built into the management discussion of strategic objectives and planning.
Change Communication Phases
Axero Solutions provide a very effective 4-phase change curve that considers team member productivity and morale over time. (Eisenhauer) During a change process they discuss how team member emotions go through denial, resistance, exploration and commitment phases.
- Denial Phase — People need information, when change is announced as team members often experience feelings of shock and/or denial. This is due to a feeling of uncertainty that there comfort zone is being affected. As the reality of change sinks in, team members need to understand what the change involves, what are the goals, will their role or team be affected, what is the timeline and what the help process is.
- Resistance Phase — People need support after the initial shock, as they begin to react to the news of change. Team members tend to resist change as they feel anger, resentment and fear. As this is a very emotionally charged phase, internal communications need to be carefully planned. A concerted team effort from the leadership group needs to carefully think through the feedback and objections from team members. This phase requires consistent messaging and well designed support for team members.
- Exploration Phase — People need direction once they have digested the majority of negative emotions and begin to accept that change will happen. Team members will now be ready to comprehend what change will mean to them, how their role will change, how they fit into the organisations bigger picture and what training will be provided. It is possible that productivity can drop during this phase as team members are learning new skills, understanding new processes and building new relationships if their team has changed.
- Commitment Phase — People need encouragement as the change has been fully embraced and excepted as a normal part of everyday life. It is an exciting time for the organisation as productivity begins to increase and processes become more efficient. Communication is still very important as team members need to see and hear that the change has achieved its goals and the leadership team showcases that the change has made a positive impact to the organisation. Team members can smell insecurity from the next postcode, so it is crucial that leaders continue to communicate encouraging and inspirational messages which celebrate successes, achievements and how far all team members have come.
Prosci, an organisation that focuses on change management, has developed an effective ten question checklist for change management communication. The checklist provides an easily understood, step-by-step process for leaders to connect with their team members and assure everyone is aligned. (Prosci, 2014)
- Use the change sponsor to deliver key messages about business issues and reasons for change, and immediate supervisor for personal impact on change.
- Answering the questions, “Why is this change happening?” and “What is the risk of not changing?”
- Answering the question, “What’s in it for me?” provides a compelling case to show how the team members will be better off and what they will get out of being involved in the change process.
- Communication should be through the change sponsor or immediate supervisor, rather than the project leader.
- Use face-to-face communication as predominant form of communication
- Repeat key messages five to seven times.
- Creating opportunities for two-way communication so the team members can share their concerns, provide feedback and ask questions. It also helps to create buy-in.
- Preparing the communicators to deliver effective communications and have the necessary conversations. Share the important messages, align messages between senders and plan the delivery sequence.
- Finding effective ways to reach your audience through a variety of communication channels. Be creative with your messages and include channels such as meetings, one-on-one conversations, newsletters, presentations, brainstorming workshops, lunch and learns, Intranet Q&A forums, CDs, screen saver messages, etc.
- Use assessment tools to evaluate the effectiveness (hearing and interpreting) of communication messages.
“If we aren’t communicating with the intent to change something – an attitude, a feeling, a behaviour – then we are just creating noise.”
It is very important for leaders to coach management into understanding that team member communication is a valuable ingredient in becoming a high performing organisation. Once management grasp this concept, they will assert more time and energy into enhancing their communication skills and strategies. Barrett (2002) discussed that change communication serves three purposes:
- “to illustrate effective employee communications in the context of the high-performing organization (one way to get senior management to listen),
- to provide an analytical tool to diagnose a company’s communication strengths and weaknesses, and
- to frame the change program and the resulting recommendations to improve employee communications so that communication will be positioned to help drive the change.”
Being able to deliver meaningful conversation that inform and educate team members of the change strategy, and also motivate and position team members to support the change, is crucial to ensure success is possible. Barrett (2002) identified five key high performance characteristics, required during a change process, from the book “The Real Change Leaders” by Jon Katzenbach:
- Committed leadership group
- Clear performance goals
- Well-designed playing field
- Right people in the right places
- Meaningful communications”
High performing organisations will ensure change communication covers five main goals (Barrett, 2002):
- “ensure clear and consistent messages to educate employees in the company vision, strategic goals, and what the change means to them;
- motivate employee support for the company’s new direction;
- encourage higher performance and discretionary effort;
- limit misunderstandings and rumors that may damage productivity; and
- align employees behind the company’s strategic and overall performance improvement goals.”
To ensure communication connects with team members, it is important to understand the previous change ability of the organisation. As a leader you need to ensure the change process is achievable, and it is more effective to under-promise and over deliver on key outcomes of the change process.
Being proactive during a change process and providing clear, transparent and supportive communication is central to completing a successful change process. Your ability as a leader to be consistent in your messages and upfront when the journey towards the desired change outcome takes a new path is required for your team members to ‘get on board the bus, sit in the right seat and trust the driver’.
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