How to Communicate Clearly During Organizational Change
As a business leader, it is your role to plan strategies for the business, organize the employees and the work that needs to be done, control what gets done and those who need to do it, and finally, lead your employees.
All these roles have one thing in common: they all rely on good communication, and it is no wonder, therefore, that communication is one of the most important and most challenging issues in most organizations.
While communication is important at all times, it is especially very important – as well as very challenging – during times of strategic change, when employees are trying to make sense of things they are not familiar with, on top of their existing duties.
But why is communication so important and so challenging during organizational change?
Well, here is the thing.
Change – all kinds of change – is hard.
However, it is one of the inevitable things in the world of business.
Any business that wants to survive must change with time so as to make improvements, to take advantage of new technologies, new ideas, and new business models, to adjust to internal and external circumstances, and to adapt to fluctuations in the marketplace.
The problem, however, is that people don’t like change.
To people, change means loss of control. It brings uncertainty with it.
With change, people are letting go of what is familiar to them, which means that they might encounter unwelcome surprises at any moment.
In most cases, organizational change leads to more work with no increase in compensation.
In some cases, change can lead to concerns about competence, unwanted moves and transfers, and in extreme cases, even loss of jobs.
Unless change is managed well, this is what people – your employees – think once they hear organizational change being mentioned.
And unfortunately, in most cases, organizational change isn’t managed well. Studies show that from the 1970s to date, roughly 70% of all organizational change projects do not succeed.
One of the main factors behind this stunningly low rate of success for organizational change projects is that far too often, business leaders underestimate the importance of communication during the change period. Yet communication is the backbone of organization change.
It minimizes uncertainty during the change period and helps guide people through the transition.
To understand how communication impacts organizational change, it is important to note that change does not happen in isolation. Any organizational change has an impact on everyone who interacts with the organization, including the company’s employees, as well as its customers and partners.
Even though the change might involve adoption of new technologies, new business models, new approaches and new processes, ultimately, change management is about people. People who will implement this change and people who will be affected by the change, people with feelings and emotions.
The success or failure of organizational change depends on the reactions of these people, and especially those who are tasked with implementing the change, or your employees, in other words. If they react to the change in the wrong way, you can bet that the change project is not going to be successful.
It is good to note that organizational change is similar to going through grief, because both take a person through an emotional journey.
Actually, there is a Change Curve, developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, which maps out the four emotional stages that most employees undergo during periods of organizational change.
Considering this emotional roller coaster that employees go through during periods of change, it is therefore critical to ensure that you properly communicate the change to your employees, why the change is necessary, what the organization stands to gain from the change, and what role the employees are expected to play in the change.
Without proper communication, your employees might adopt a negative and uncertain attitude towards the change process, and with such an attitude, they are not going to properly implement the change.
Actually, effective communication is so important that a survey by Statista found it to be the most effective practice in organizational change management.
If communication is so important to organizational change management, why is so difficult for business leaders to communicate effectively during the change process? And more importantly, what can they do to ensure that change is communicated effectively?
According to Elsbeth Johnson, a senior Lecturer at MIT, author, and former professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, there are three main things that business leaders need to get right while communicating change to their organizations and employees.
Getting these three things right leads to effective change communication, while getting them wrong or failing to pay attention to them can lead to confusion, or in extreme cases, it can result in the complete opposite of what they hoped to achieve from the change. The three things are:
BEING CLEAR ON WHAT YOU WANT
On the face of it, telling your employees what you want seems like a pretty easy and straightforward thing to do.
However, evidence shows that it is a pretty challenging thing for most business leaders.
A lot of employees who were tasked with implementing organizational change report that it was not clear enough to them what their leaders wanted to achieve through the change, or what the change would entail.
This is not surprising. According to a study by Towers Watson, only 68% of senior managers have a good understanding of the reason behind organizational change.
What’s worse, the numbers take a nosedive the lower you go down the organizational chain. Only 53% of middle level managers know why organizational change is happening, and only 40% of front-line supervisors know the reason behind the change.
There are two main reasons why there is a poor understanding of organizational change among those tasked with implementing the change.
First, most business leaders do not communicate the outcome they expect from the change. Instead, they communicate the tasks they expect their direct reports to handle. Second, most leaders make a poor attempt of communicating the full extent of the change they are trying to implement.
For instance, one of the clients Elsbeth Johnson worked with was implementing organizational change in a bid to make its business more customer-centric.
While communicating the change to middle level managers, the company’s leaders came up with a list of activities that they wanted the middle level managers to handle. While the list clearly communicated what these middle level managers were supposed to do, it did nothing to explain why they were doing it, or how the activities in the list would come together to create a certain impact for the company.
To understand how this impacts the success of the organizational change project, let’s assume that one of the tasks on the list was “conduct exit interviews with all leaving clients.”
If this is all a manager has been told, that is all they will do, even if doing it does not really make the business more customer centric.
However, if the middle level manager was told that the aim of conducting these exit interviews was to reduce the customer attrition rate, then they become more invested in the task, and will even take insights from the exit interviews to help reduce the customer attrition rate.
When you communicate not just the tasks that your employees need to handle, but also the expected outcome from these tasks, the employees might be able to come up with even better, cheaper, and smarter ways to deliver these outcomes.
Remember, they are the ones on the frontlines, and they therefore have the hands-on insights that the top leaders might not have.
For instance, in the example above, the middle level managers were given a list of 9 activities that they needed to implement.
However, once it was made clear to them what the expected outcomes were, they reduced the list to just two activities which had the biggest impact on reducing customer attrition.
And since these two activities were chosen by people in the frontlines, people who interact with customers and have a better understanding of customer needs and preferences, there is a higher likelihood for the project to deliver on the expected outcomes.
Why Most Leaders Find It Hard To Get This Right
Like the organization described in the example above, most leadership teams have this strong compulsion to provide their middle level managers with a list of activities that need to be carried out during the change process.
The reason behind this is that providing a list of activities makes the leaders feel like action is being taken.
They also feel like they are simplifying the job for their middle level managers by providing them a concrete set of actions to be taken, rather than a more abstract concept of the expected outcomes.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, providing a list of activities that need to be done, while failing to communicate the expected outcomes from these activities is a recipe for disaster.
If leaders want to effectively communicate change, they need to answer the following four questions:
- Why is this change necessary, and why now? Business leaders don’t wake up one day and decide that the organization needs to undergo some change. There has to be a trigger behind the decision to change. Probably the previous strategy is no longer effective, perhaps there has been a decline in revenue, or maybe a new technology has emerged that makes the previous way of doing things obsolete. Whatever the reason behind this change, communicate it to your middle level managers, and let them pass the message to those below them. It should be clear to everyone within the organization why you are undergoing change.
- What is the full extent of the needed change? In a bid to get their employees to buy into the proposed change, most leaders are tempted to report the change as just an incremental change. Don’t fall into this temptation if you know the change is nothing like that. Just communicate the full extent of the change. Underplaying the extend of the change leads to resentment once your employees learn that you lied to them, and this makes it harder for them to get committed to the change process.
- If we do this, what result should we expect? How will we know that we have made the improvement we expected? Make it clear to your employees what the expected outcome of the change process is, and provide a way of monitoring the progress being made.
- What is the link between this change and previous strategies? Like I mentioned earlier, any business that wants to survive today needs to be in a state of continuous change. Sometimes, however, it can appear like the organization is undergoing change just for the sake of it. Remember, change is uncomfortable, and if your employees think they are undergoing change just for the sake of it, it will be harder to get them committed. Therefore, you need to show them how this change links to the previous changes or strategies. In addition to improving commitment, doing this ensures that the new change does not have a conflicting target with a previous strategy. If you find it hard to answer this question, you either need to review the need for the change (by revisiting questions 1 – 3), or do away with some of the existing strategies.
Once you can clearly answer these four questions, you will have gotten right the first step of effective change communication.
BE A LIVING EXAMPLE OF THE CHANGE YOU ARE ASKING FROM YOUR EMPLOYEES
It is not enough to ask your employees to take certain steps to implement organizational change; you also need to be a living example of the change you are asking for.
Being a living example of the change you want to see goes beyond modeling the behaviors you are asking of your employees. It means that you also need to make decisions that support this change.
This is what Michael Tushman and David Nadler referred to as “mundane behaviors” in their 1990 paper titled “Beyond The Charismatic Leader: Leadership and Organizational Change.”
Being a living example of the change you want means changing how you spend your time. Remember, time is your most valuable and the only finite resource.
How you choose to spend this very important resource has a huge significance on your employee’s perception of your commitment to change.
If you are not dedicating enough time to the change you want, your employee will take this as a sign that this change is not very important, and as a result, they will not prioritize it.
Therefore, you need to dedicate enough time to activities that are related to the change, such as scheduling meetings to discuss the progress of the change process, leaving time in your diary for middle level managers to walk in and discuss issues arising from the change process, and so on.
Being a living example of change also means changing the agenda of board discussions and C-level meetings.
Going back to our earlier example of the company that instituted change with the aim of making their business more customer centric, this means that customers should be the main agenda for all high level meetings.
Prior to these, customers were discussed as an afterthought, after other issues such as products, sales, regulations, and so on.
Sometimes, because they were not at the top of the agenda, this meant that issues affecting customers did not get discussed, or were discussed in a rush when executives were already tired.
By simply putting customer issues at the top of the agenda, this ensures that customer issues get tackled.
Why Most Leaders Find It Hard to Get This Right
There are two reasons why business leaders find it hard to become a living example of the change they are asking for.
The first reason is that creating the time to focus on issues related to the change, and ensuring that you always have some time available to discuss any matters arising from the change is a lot easier on paper than it is in reality.
In addition, change takes time, sometimes going on for years on end, and you have to dedicate time to the change process until it is completely embedded. Dedicating this much time to the change process means forgoing other priorities, which might be difficult for a lot of leaders.
Sometimes, some of the other stuff might feel like it is more important than the change process, and you might get tempted to handle this other stuff before turning your focus back to the change process.
However, this is a trap. You need to ensure that all your energy and focus is directed on change management.
The second reason is that being a living example of the change you want to see is a full time job.
This means that you have to commit to habits that support the change all the time, even when you don’t feel like it. This can be quite hard. You have to be constantly conscious of everything you do and the impact it has on your employees.
Remember, your employees are constantly watching you, and if they notice that you are not committed to the change process, they won’t be dedicated either.
PROVIDE RESOURCES AND MEASURE THE CHANGE
The third factor of communicating organizational change lies in how the organization chooses to allocate its resources (people, capital, capabilities) and the metrics it chooses to measure.
As a leader, it is up to you to signal the importance of the change process by being very deliberate in how you choose to deploy the company’s resources.
This means that you need to allocate enough resources to delivering the change you want.
When most leaders think about resources, they automatically think about money.
However, you also need to allocate people to the change process, and not just any people, but the right people who have the capability to deliver the change, people with the right experience, the right level of seniority, and the right political connections.
Prior to the change process, the existing suite of metrics are geared on measuring previous strategies.
Once the change process is underway, you need to change the metrics that get measured so that they are aligned with the new priorities.
Remember, what gets measured is what gets managed, and if you do not measure the change, then it will quickly fall by the wayside.
Why Most Leaders Find It Hard to Get This Right
One of the reasons why allocating resources to the change process and changing the metrics being measured is difficult to get right is that these activities are not glamorous.
Most books and literature about organizational change do not focus on leadership undertakings such as resource allocation or management, since these are seen to be too mundane.
Unfortunately, lack of airtime for these activities leads to the perception by leaders that they are not very important, despite being some of the most critical signals of the importance of the change.
Another reason why a lot of leaders do not get this right is that making changes to resource allocation and measurement metrics is a time consuming affair.
Very often, the announcement of organizational change will not be aligned to the annual planning and budgeting activities.
Therefore, the introduction of organizational change means that people will have to redo this planning and budgeting work.
People will not be delighted to redo the work, and to make matters worse, all this work might take weeks, and sometimes months.
However, failure to do this means that people will not see the change as important enough.
In addition, without making these changes, it is impossible to effectively implement the change.
Organizational change is not an easy thing to implement, and how you communicate the change has a huge impact on your chances of success.
If you want your employees to be committed to change, you need to show them that this change is a top priority, and to do this, you need to get three things right.
You need to clearly communicate to your employees what you want, you need to become a living example of the change you are asking for, and finally, you need to reallocate resources to the change process and change the metrics you are measuring.
Get this right, and your change project will become one of the 30% that get implemented successfully.
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