7 Truths When Communicating Change
When we work with changing organizations, we always begin with some initial discussions and interviews to determine what specific challenges the organization is facing. Consistently, poor communication is one of the top three reasons why their major change effort is not achieving the desired results.
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Over the years, we have found there are several essential principles or “truths” that can ensure communication engages everyone during any major change.
1. A substantial emphasis is essential – During any major change, there must be a deliberate, significant effort to increase effective communication. Leaders assume that the normal, day to day communication channels are up to the task. They aren’t. Unless there is a substantial difference in both the quality and the quantity of the communication, any announcements or updates are bound to get lost in the noise of the system. Most organizations do not make the leap to a higher level of communication, or if they do, it is not nearly big enough.
2. Effective communication is not the responsibility of the communication department – All too often, we hear that it is up to the communication department (if the organization has one – if they don’t it falls to the HR department) to communicate all change related information. Rarely does the communication department have adequate trust, familiarity or connections throughout the organization. Study after study has revealed that people want to hear important information from their direct supervisor. Everyone reports to someone somewhere in the organization, even in self-managed, team-based, flat organizations. It is up to the leaders and managers at all levels to communicate both consistently and constantly during a major change effort, not the communication department.
3. I + T ≠ C (Information plus Technology does not equal Communication) – In today’s high-tech world, we have found effective communication is often undermined by the overuse or inappropriate use of technology. Leaders bombard everyone with nonstop broadcast emails or social media posts and wonder why with so much volume of communication, no one knows what is really going on. More and more we see elaborate websites designed for change related communication. Expensive talking head videos and beautifully laid out newsletters account for major effort and expense with only very minor effectiveness in communicating effectively. No one has ever successfully changed an organization by using a tweet, email or website.
4. If it isn’t face to face, it isn’t communication – Communication is an enormously complex process, even in the simplest of situations. Consider two people sitting together over coffee, a sender and a receiver, with all of the many layers of filters (attitudes, preconceived notions, mood, background noise, interruptions etc.) trying to communicate effectively. When you multiply that challenge by the hundreds or even thousands of people involved in an organizational change and turn up the heat of anxiety, fear, overwork or disinterest, communication becomes incredibly difficult. If all you have to work with are the words on the page of a memo or the content of an email, you access only 7% of the true content of any effectively communicated message. That 7% is the words written on the page. 34% of the actual message is how those words are said, the tone, pacing, etc. and the remaining 59% of any message comes from all of the non-verbal body language. That means 93% of the potential message is left open to interpretation when the communication is not face to face. No wonder there is so much confusion when all people are getting are emails and websites. Face-to-face is especially important for major announcements or helping people who seem resistant to get engaged.
5. Listening is the critical (and usually under-utilized) skill – All too often, we come across masses of people in changing organizations who have simple questions or concerns that are not being heard. At times, surveys are taken, and nothing is done with the results. Focus groups are asked for their issues, a 1-800 line or Q & A page on the website is established with the intention of determining what people need or want, and still, people do not feel heard. Listening is a true art, and giving someone the gift of your time to just listen to them is a precious commodity. Leaders resist listening for a variety of reasons – the arrogance of thinking they already know what people are going to say so why bother to ask, fear over what they might hear, or distrust that any listening will just result in moaning, bitching and stirring up trouble. However, it is truly amazing to see what breakthroughs start to occur in a large change effort when people actually start to feel heard.
6. There is a long way from Awareness to Action – Any change effort requires people to learn something new. A very simple learning model involves the four-step process of Awareness – Understanding – Commitment – Action. There are specific communication vehicles that are required at each of the four levels. Most organizations don’t get much farther than a sketchy level of Awareness and Understanding, because all they are doing to communicate is send out email after email, and the leaders are nowhere to be found. Unless emails are followed by team meetings, feedback forums, and one-on-ones, the waves of anxiety and confusion continue to build. Unless people see actual behavior change from their leaders and managers that fits with the written messages, no new Action from staff is likely to be forthcoming anytime soon.
7. Developing an effective communication plan is not complex – For all of the challenges of making communication actually work during a change, putting together an actual communication plan is really quite simple. The plan needs to contain only three key components. Who needs to know what and how is the best way to tell them? The ‘who’ refers to all of the stakeholder groups involved directly or indirectly in the change. ‘What’ refers to the questions, issues, and concerns they have or are likely to have. Listening is required here to determine the ‘what’ with any accuracy. This is not the time to work from assumptions about what you think people might want or need to know about. The ‘how’ refers to the best method, timing or person to deliver the message. Putting all of this together will take some time, and this is where the communication department (or HR department) can be very helpful. It is time very well spent.
All of these 7 truths add up to one basic premise – when communicating a major change in your organization, talk with people as much as you can, as soon as you can, sharing as much information as you can. Repeat as often as required. How is your changing organization doing with its communication? What can you do to help improve the situation?
Copyright 2017 Chris Edgelow, Sundance Consulting Inc.