Our number one tip for change communication:
Don’t wait until you have all the answers.
By DevCom founder and CEO, Mari Lee | Edited by Laura Potgieter | 22 August 2023
Usually, the rumours run rampant about changes that are coming long before the official communication is out. And from that moment onwards, everyone is playing catch-up, and the rules are similar to playing Survivor – don’t trust anyone.
No, you do not have a “leak”. No, it does not mean you can’t trust leadership. And no, it does not mean you can’t trust the culture. It is all human nature. People tell people they think they can trust, and so, it starts the riemtelegram (lekker Afrikaans word for a rumour!). You cannot take human behaviour out of the equation, so what you should do as a pro-active leader or communication professional, is run with it, not against it.
This is the scary part for leaders and change communication professionals: To provide information step by step as it becomes available. People get used to concepts and ideas bit by bit. When leaders and change communication professionals reach a certain level of seniority in an organisation, they seem to start believing that people lower down no longer have the capacity to process information and deal with uncertainty. They tell themselves that they must first have all the answers before they can share the big picture with the rest of the organisation. Based on this misconception, they set about building a virtual staircase of small decisions. Most of the small steps that the staircase is built from are decisions they don’t think important enough to communicate. It is a set of behaviours, “the way things are done around here”, and often the issue is not what is said but what is not said.
Imagine if you only spoke to your spouse on big days like engagements, wedding days or the christening of a child. It is a laughable idea, isn’t it? Why then do it with your colleagues and team members? If you assume that your people are on the same step as you are, more often than not, you are wrong. And, when the day arrives to make a big announcement, you will find yourself isolated at the top of the staircase. Your people can’t catch up – they have to go through the same process, to reach the top step. Leaders and change communication professionals who fail to create context can go only one way: down. You don’t have to have all the answers before you start communicating. Share what you know. Take people with you and make it possible to participate.
Leaders build a virtual staircase of small decisions (left) when they don’t take their people with them step by step (right). It is a simple analogy, but some of our clients have changed their internal climate just by focusing on this one message: “Don’t build steps!”
So, if rule number one in change communication is don’t wait, what are the steps you should follow? Talk frequently. Talk in many ways. Say the same thing, consistently, through all channels. And remember to do audience focused communication. The first time a change is communicated, people will immediately think about how the change will impact them.
It’s unlikely they will be able to focus on any other details about the change. By designing a tactical messaging approach with a strong emotive appeal, your employees will feel like you have reached them on a personal and individual level. Repeating key messages ensures they hear it as you intended. So, share messages often as your second focus area!
Here are some key messages that can be communicated consistently:
- The need: Explain the reasons behind the change, highlighting the problem being addressed and the envisioned future. Leaders should use both data and motivational messaging to create a compelling narrative.
- Change solution: Clearly articulate why the chosen solution is best for the organisation. Describe what the change entails, the decision-making process, and the elements that are flexible or fixed.
- Change capability: Demonstrate the organisation’s readiness for change. Share the strategic change management plan, the leadership behind it, and the support available to individuals, teams, and managers.
- Commitment: Showcase the organisation’s commitment to the change. Align leaders’ actions with their words, indicating the change’s priority and resource allocation.
- Impact: Help employees understand how the change will affect them. Acknowledge both positive and negative impacts, tailoring information for specific groups.
The third focus area in change communication is to LISTEN! DevCom’s research, which involved 220 research studies in 18 years, has revealed a lack of attention to true two-way internal communication in organisations. Our audits showed that:
- Internal communication is usually named as one of the weakest areas of the organisation.
- There is a direct link between weak internal communication and weak business performance. This link is also confirmed by communication management theory (Thomaz, 2010).
- Internal communication is mainly one-directional, contrary to evidence that symmetrical two-way communication is more effective.
- Implementing a strategic, integrated communication plan usually increases the internal communication measurements and addresses business issues in a measurable manner.
Here’s what we know. The key to successful communication is knowing you are working with people in a process, and not with the media and a message. As the South African workforce diversifies, it has become crucial to manage the receipt and dissemination of information consistently and cohesively. The Stockholm Accords (Skoogh, Mccomick & Falconi, 2010) state that the role of communication professionals in terms of internal communication is to actively seek feedback to create mutual understanding, implying symmetrical two-way communication. Two-way communication has also been recognised as a strategic focus for business communication, second only to leadership concerns (Barnfield, 2003). Good two-way communication makes good business sense. Unless your employees are communicating effectively, it will be difficult to have a highly committed and well-performing workforce. Communication also helps create a can-do culture and leads to a learning organisation.
In times of uncertainty and organisational change, effective communication becomes a cornerstone for managing the process. The instinct to wait for clarity before communicating can be tempting. But any information is better than none. If well-executed, it can mitigate anxiety, foster trust, and drive positive outcomes. Conversely, poorly managed communication during change can fuel resistance and panic.
Identifying and implementing effective change communication can significantly impact a change initiative’s success.
Well executed change has positive consequences:
- Trust, performance, job satisfaction: Transparent and informative communication breeds trust, leading to improved performance and job satisfaction among employees.
- Openness & commitment to change: When employees are well-informed about changes, they are more likely to embrace and commit to the new direction.
- Decreased uncertainty, anxiety, stress: Clear communication reduces the uncertainty and anxiety associated with change, promoting a smoother transition.
A lack of effective communication leads to:
- Rumours and cynicism: Lack of communication fosters rumours and cynicism, eroding morale and fostering resistance.
- Resistance to change: Inadequate communication fuels resistance, hindering successful implementation.
- Negative outcomes: Poorly managed communication can lead to increased absenteeism and turnover.
Change is inevitable because optimising operational efficiencies is not just a noble goal; it’s a pathway to profitability and often, survival. When change initiatives are effectively communicated and embraced from the bottom up, employees become stakeholders in the organisation’s success. Their heightened engagement increases productivity, reduces resistance, with a smoother transition. Ultimately, these factors translate into streamlined processes, minimised wastage, and enhanced cost-effectiveness – all contributing to improved profitability. So, remember this:
- Say what you know quickly: you don’t need all the answers to communicate.
- Say it often and in many ways, with a “you” message, focused on the audience.
- Once you said it, expect a response. Listen to the response, and then revert back to number 1, repeat.