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How to Communicate Change

by Guest Writter
CrisMarie Campbell & Susan Clarke, Authors, The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team’s Competitive Advantage

Let’s begin by acknowledging an undisputable truth: Change is difficult. For everybody. Plus, it’s often unsuccessful. In fact, a survey done by the Economist Intelligence Unit uncovered that the failure rate for change is about 44%. That’s a lot of wasted time, energy, and money.

Don’t wind up in the 44%. As a leader, make your company’s change successful.

The antidote to help your team and company successfully embrace change is effective and consistent communication. Sounds so simple, but it’s not. Communication is multifaceted, but there are a four key tools to support you in effectively communicating change in your organization.

You, the leader, are the marketing arm to the rest of the organization. Pay attention to not only what you communicate, but how you communicate it.

First, let’s talk about the four common mistakes leaders make in communicating change:

  1. Sending crucial information by e-mail. Mistaken belief: “Everyone now knows what to do and why. Everything will flow smoothly.” Uh…not true.
  2. Making a binder. In an off-site, the leader and the team create a binder with all the important information. Mistaken belief: “Now that it’s all decided, everyone will reference the binder and act differently.” Again, slightly delusional to think that.
  3. Being unclear and not taking the time to clarify the change; and therefore, being out of alignment about the why, what, how, and who. Teams often avoid getting into conflict around these issues so they don’t reach clarity. Result: each member of the leadership team says something different about what’s happening with the change process. This equates to chaos and mistrust.
  4. Focusing on the mechanics of the change or the impact to the bottom line without considering the human impact. Result: people feel disregarded and resist.

You’re lucky if people open and read the e-mail. And a binder — really? And, when leadership team members tell different versions of the story, people further down the organizational chain talk and compare notes. Distrust grows, and people begin to worry. It’s like being in a family: if Mom and Dad contradict each other, the kids manipulate the situation to get their way.

How you communicate is just as important as what you communicate. You need to make information accessible, understandable, and palatable.

Here are four ways to do that:

  1. Get the leaders aligned. As a leadership team, make sure you are clear and aligned about the why, what, how, and who of the change. As the leader, it’s your job to encourage healthy conflict within the team to gain alignment before the communication goes out. Then at the end of each leadership team meeting, identify exactly what you want people in the organization to know, versus what you want to keep within the leadership-team core of confidentiality.
  2. Use the rumor mill. Every organization has break-room gossip, so why not use it? Some people call this “The Informal Network” and it can be a very valuable tool. Once you have clarity on what exactly to communicate, each leadership team member can actively communicate that message to his team. This works best if it happens face-to-face within twenty-four hours. If your business model doesn’t allow for that, do the best you can.
  3. Repeat the message in different venues, such as all-hands meetings, in company newsletters, or at social events such as picnics. It’s normal to assume that if you say something once, people will understand and just do it. But as in marketing, you need to communicate your key change messages six or seven times before people will pay attention to you, hear you, believe you, understand you, know how to behave differently, and change their behavior. Six or seven times! That’s a lot of repetition, but that’s what it takes.
  4. Tell stories. Humans absorb, learn, and are changed through storytelling. Your people will learn more easily if you tell a story that depicts what it takes to make the change work, or if you share the impact this change will have, or has had, on a customer.For example, if a consumer products company’s leadership team decided to change their target market and marketing strategies for one of their primary products, you might first think, “Just inform the marketing team.” But if that happened, marketing would make the changes, and people in other departments wouldn’t know why. People throughout the organization would wonder, worry, and then make stuff up. The leadership team would appear not to know what they’re doing, or that they are working against each other.

Organizational communication needs to be broader and more integrated and led by each team member.

It must be done over and over again, telling stories about why, and what it will look like when it’s done, how the company will get there and what role you want them to play.

When each member of leadership takes the time to communicate the appropriate changes to his team, everyone in the organization is on the same page. Issues surface and are addressed, and the leadership team looks to be in alignment, because they are! The company breathes a collective sigh of relief.

Change is hard. It is even harder when it feels like it is being done to you and not with you, and for many people in an organization that’s how it is taken.

You, the leader, are way out in front of this change process, like the fastest runner in a marathon who is almost 20 percent done with the race when other people are just starting the race.  You and your leadership team need to be healthy conflict users, master communicators, and story tellers to help your people become aware, digest, adopt, and in the best case, embrace the change.

Remember, these are humans who are accustomed to doing things the old way. Let them know that you care and that they matter by supporting them through the change. As a leader take the time to do it right and you’ll reap the ROI you’ve been waiting for.


About the Authors

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke are coaches, business consultants, speakers, and co-authors of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team’s Competitive Advantage (November 1, 2017).

They and their organization, Thrive! Coaching and Consulting specialize in helping professional women, leaders, teams and entire companies learn how to transform conflict into creativity and innovation.

[Image courtesy: Amman Wahab Nizamani]

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