Communicating Through Change – Even When it Happens Every Day

People talk a lot about managing change, and there is hardly a public or private organization that hasn’t been through the joys and the pains associated with organizational change. It used to be that whenever a big change was on the horizon – organizational restructuring or rightsizing, technological change, a location move, re-training – managers got their “change management” plans out. Today, organizations and their management cadre face significant change on a more regular basis. Now the goal is to make sure that employees have some built-in resilience and the tools to deal with change on a regular basis. And, as always, the lines of communication need to be wide open.

In some ways, change communications has now merged with every day employee communications. Organizations with a focus on employee satisfaction and engagement tend to adjust to change quicker and employees have faith that they will be told what is happening in an honest and timely fashion. Richard Banson, Founder of the Virgin Group, recently shared that he “puts staff first” because if they aren’t happy and plugged into the corporate vision, his customers and shareholders will know it and feel it. He credits his business success to his efforts to keep his employees fully engaged and informed.

Still, managers continue to be asked to develop specific change communications initiatives to help staff over a hurdle, big or small. For those occasions, here are a few tried and true tactics:

• Make sure you understand the big picture. What is the organization trying to achieve and what are the objectives, or the business case, that can be explained to staff? Align your communications with the bigger change strategy.

• Ensure that existing communications channels to employees are fully functional. Well-briefed managers, an employee Intranet, tools like Yammer and employee newsletters and bulletins, leadership visits and presence, and feedback mechanisms are all tools that deliver the news, and the vision, to employees.

• Managers can lead change, but they need support. Plug them in first. Share the rationale and the value proposition and work it through with them first before communication starts with employees. Give them tools to communicate (quality talking points, videos, questions and answers). Face-to-face communications works better than anything else.

• If possible, start small. Try a pilot project and report back. Pilot participants can talk about how it felt, what it meant to them, what worked, and what didn’t. An honest assessment can be shared widely. The results can be scaled to the larger change initiative.

• Identify what’s making people resist the change. Are there easy obstacles that would be removed? Rely on research and employee feedback to tell you what the real or imagined impediments to change are.

• Point employees to the tools and resources that are being provided to help them adjust to change.

• Listen, listen, and listen. Let employees express their concerns and what is on their minds. Answer their “What’s in it for me?” questions. Create all kinds of options for feedback in person, on-line, or via a suggestion box.

• Get the messages right and keep them simple. And stay the course. Don’t keep changing the channel and the message. But do check in regularly with managers who may suggest some message refinement to address misunderstandings or gaps.

• Think about who has credibility to deliver the message at all levels. If the CEO is leading the change, his or her messages need to cascade down through the organization with managers at all levels picking up and sharing the message right away, no delays.

• Let managers and employees learn from the experiences of others by sharing best practices. While you’re at it, focus on and support the early adopters and involve them in your communications.

• Focus on the benefits, not necessarily the features of the change. It is important to keep everyone focused on the future and the long-term vision and the benefits that come with it.

• State the facts. Even if you think they are self-evident, there may be disagreement or misunderstanding about the real situation. It’s also not necessary to wait until you have the complete story before sharing. Sometimes you have to give a progress report or partial story and ask employees to wait for next steps. They’ll appreciate it.

• And always, when you can, make it fun!

Susan E. Wright is a strategic communications specialist with the Hillbrooke Group. She has more than 25 years of experience developing and implementing communications and stakeholder strategies in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Susan can be reached at swright@hillbrooke.ca