Communication is a critically important element in any change initiative.  Unfortunately, because communicating is something that we all do, every day, it is usually given too little attention as a necessary skill.  But, without a thoughtful approach, the communication effort may even undermine the very change program that it is trying to support.

Rather than try to articulate all the less effective ways that communication is used, consider evaluating your communication efforts against the goal for all change communication. Communication should provide five main benefits to the change project:

  1. Signal Change – Call to Action
  2. Provide Clear Direction
  3. Increase Trust
  4. Create a Compelling Story (vision + emotion) for Change
  5. Provide Feedback

Signal Change – Call to Action

Communication signals change,  in much the same way that a car turn signal is used to let others know about a change of direction. Communication signals to us that something is about to change.  The content of communication is important and provides information about what will be in scope for the project, what might be different in the future and when more information will  be available.  And like a car turn signal , we get most of our information about the change from what we see, not what we hear.  Studies have repeatedly shown that the majority of information we get is nonverbal.  Be aware of what signals your change project might be sending based on the following:

  • Who communicates the message?
  • Who was selected to lead the project?
  • How much time is spent talking about certain elements of the project?
  • How much information is shared and who is in the “inner circle?”
  • How much is the project willing to listen to employees concerns and ideas?

It is quite possible that before the first communication is ever sent, employees have formed an opinion about the project and its potential impact on them.

When we receive signals we physically and neurologically react.  Signals about change, whether we like it or not also serve as a call to action.  If we receive threatening signals the body reacts by getting defensive.  Defensive means that the “fight or flight” function begins to kick in, our ability to think clearly is diminished, and our protective radar goes up looking to identify anything that may threaten us.  This is not metaphorical, it is physiological.  Positive signals breed an opposite response; collaborative abilities increase, positive feelings escalate, and thinking, reasoning, and higher brain functions improve.  The communication function should recognize that the signals for change must be communicated in symbolic, emotional, visual, and auditory ways that address the rational as well as the emotional elements of change.  If done well, a good communication program addresses all of these and successfully enrolls people in the process of creating change.

Provide Clear Direction

Good communication should provide clear direction to employees, leaders, and even customers about what they need to do to help change be successful.  The direction for each group will likely be different, but each group will need to be clear about what they must do or the result will be confusion, rework, misunderstanding, delays and potentially even failure.

It is important when we try to provide clear direction to be specific and anticipate expectations.  Consider the typical management directive, “I’d love to see your proposal on how to do that!”  Does that statement mean that I should scrap my weekend plans and develop a 20 page, graphically artistic, proposal with statistical and investment analysis OR does it mean that I should put my thoughts in an email with bullet points and send it off sometime next week?  The difference is huge.  The manager may say she provided direction because she told me to develop a proposal, but the result may be vastly different than she expected because the instruction was not sufficiently clear.  If we ask our customer service representatives to “be more friendly,” do we mean that we want them to sit and talk about their families with the people on the phones?  Of course not!  What, then, are we asking them to do?  We must be clear about the behavior so that people can act in ways that will help bring about the change.

To be clear in our direction we must be simple and direct.  There is a time for subtlety and nuance, but there is also a time to be straightforward about what we want people to do.  In change initiatives, especially when there are multiple change initiatives going on, simple is better because it is understandable and memorable.  Being direct means communicating in specifics not in generalities.  If we want customer service representatives to say, “Thank you for calling today,” then say that.  Do not say, “be more friendly.”  Effective communications should provide clear direction and empower people to act for themselves without hesitation and ambiguity.

Increase Trust

Communication builds or erodes trust in those leading the change.  If expectations are set high, but not met, then there is mistrust or lack of faith in what that leader has to say or in the comments of all future leaders.  If expectations are not set, then people create their own expectations and hold leaders to that standard.  When it is not met, trust is eroded, even when the leader never set an expectation to begin with.  Additionally, each promise we make is a mini contract with those who hear it.  When we meet the terms of that contract, we are viewed as trustworthy, when we do not, our credibility goes down.  Communications should build credibility, trust, and thereby increase the organization’s capacity to change.

Why is trust part of communication?  Social science as well as neuroscience have proven that communication from “in group” or trusted members is both more credible and more likely to be heard than messages coming from “out group” or untrusted sources.  So what?  If your job is to communicate the two behaviors critical for project success and get people to act on it, how many times do you want to have to give that message before people act on it?  If you are seen as “out group” or untrusted, chances are that you’ll need to tell people seven or more times before they will begin to act.  Nimble, effective organizations don’t have that issue, they can move quickly because trust is high, because expectations are managed.  That is what you want, isn’t it?

Create a Compelling Story

As sharp as the human mind is, it can be difficult to remember the business case, bulleted lists, and the personal rationale for changing one’s behavior.  Even if we could retain all of those in our minds, often it is emotion that drives our behavior and bulleted lists are just not persuasive.  Good change communications should help create a compelling story in the minds of those affected by the change.  That story should have a “what” and a “why” sufficient to compel one to act.  A good story will help knit together the “what” and “why” in such a meaningful way that people can and will act on their own.  A good story is shareable, recountable, and “speaks” to more than just the academic side of a change project.  Compelling stories may be different for different groups because what speaks to one group may be slightly different than what speaks to another group. You might say, “I’m implementing an SAP upgrade.” How is that a compelling story?  Obviously some stories are better than others, but even in technology upgrades there is a story to be found.  Perhaps it is about a company value to stay current, perhaps it is about continuous improvement, perhaps it is about doing hard things that make things simple for our customers. Ideally a good communications person puts together a compelling backdrop, storyboard and key details and then works with leaders to allow them to customize the anecdotes, descriptive details and emotional content in such a way that it is personal and memorable It may feel like it is impossible to come up with one storyline that fits all, but it is there.  Once you have the compelling story, you will be more effective at getting your message across.

Provide Feedback

We often forget about “the other side” of communication, the one where we get information back from others.  Good communication always has a feedback loop.  Sometimes these are formal and sometimes they are more informal and anecdotal.  However that feedback loop works, it is a critical part of good communications.  For example, if an audience is not understanding the case for change, that would be important to know and address early on in the project life cycle.  If the project does not address it early, then it will pay for it later in resistance, misunderstanding, project delays, and potentially even complete failure.  Any communication function that serves only to broadcast information will be largely ineffective.

These five areas are the hallmark of solid change communication. While all of us can communicate, not all of us are familiar with the role communication plays in change and how to leverage that ability to improve project outcomes.  A thoughtful approach and a skillful hand go a long way toward a successful implementation. If you need help, please contact us. 

How is your change being communicated?  Need a refresh?  We’re Expressworks International.  We believe change is inevitable, but results… they are intentional.