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Four keys to successful change management

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

These days we all recognize that we have to change individually and organizationally to keep abreast with the forces of change. This is a continual requirement in our world today. Some top communicators even say the most important role of communicators is to aid change.

Change management is notoriously hard to achieve. To use ourselves as an example, it is extremely difficult to break the habits of a lifetime.

I’ve just experienced that at first hand. My back has been giving me more and more trouble in recent years, probably from sitting in front of a computer for too many hours a day. Edwina, my expert physiotherapist, has shown me the posture and actions I need to change to ease pressure on my lower back, but it is extremely hard to embed the changes. Without thinking, I revert to old habits of sitting and moving – which bring back the old aches and niggles.

When organizations need to change, old habits among employees are just as hard to change.

There are two schools of thought on making successful organizational change. Some experts say changing mindsets or culture is the key factor for change. Others say this is too hard and that changing actions and reinforcing those actions is the best way to lead to changed mindsets.

Either way, good communication is the core factor to make change work.

McKinsey & Co is probably the world’s top management consultancy. Some of their experts say that successful change management depends on making mind changes – changing the organizational culture – through four key psychological principles:

1. A purpose to believe in

Employees will change their attitudes towards change only if they understand the case for change and agree with it. The work of industrial psychologist Leon Festinger underlines the importance of this through his theory of cognitive dissonance, which basically shows that people become uncomfortable when their beliefs are inconsistent with their actions. Their thoughts need to align with their actions. If a supervisor instructs an employee to do something they don’t agree with, that person will be uncomfortable in their mind about doing the task, experiencing psychological dissonance.

If employees believe in the overall purpose of the organization, they will be prepared to change their individual behavior in support of that purpose – or they will suffer the very real discomfort of psychological dissonance if they don’t.

Also, employees are not likely to put sustained effort into a new kind of behavior if they only have a rational understanding of why it matters. The change must mean something deeper to them that they know will have a positive effect on their personal growth. Giving them an emotional connection to the new behavior can trigger that shift in perspective. Training workshops can be held to underline this, supported by astute communication.

Communicators need to develop a story or narrative that reinforces why change is so important to the survival of the organization, and why it needs to happen quickly. This compelling narrative needs to be strongly repeated in varying messaging. Professor John Kotter of Harvard Business School, who is one of the world’s top advisers on change management, says this first stage of creating urgency is the most important stage of all. Communicators need to send many variations on this theme in their implementation of change communication programs.

2. Reinforcement of behavior

BF Skinner’s theories of conditioning and positive reinforcement have been used as the basis for embedding changed workplace behavior. The new behavior must be supported or reinforced by a range of motivations such as reporting structures, management and operational processes and measurement. This involves setting targets, measuring performance and providing financial and non-financial incentives to employees to reinforce changed behavior. Communication can reinforce the new motivations by reporting on the outcomes and publicizing the successes to all employees.

3. Teaching the skills required for change

Employers need to show employees what is expected of them – to show them how to adapt general instructions to their own specific behavior.

These changes need time to be embedded. David Kolb, a specialist in adult learning, found that adults learn best in a four-stage cycle: (1) listening to instructions, (2) absorbing the new information over time, (3) applying it initially, and (4) integrating it with their existing knowledge. Large scale change like new customer service policies happen only in stages. The other thing is that people need to be able to describe to others how they will apply what they have learned to their own circumstances – because people use different areas of the brain for learning and for teaching – and this improves the rate of learning and also the retention of learnt material.

Public relations professionals can develop communication material that supports the changes at the local level.

4. Consistent role models

Role models at every level need to ‘walk the talk’. It is not enough for top management to show the way; influencers at every level need to do it as well. These changed behaviors are crucial to change management. People are quick to notice and complain about management and supervisor behavior that is inconsistent with their declared policies and statements.

Formal role models are one thing, but just as important are peers (just look at the impact of peer pressure on the behavior of teenagers :). Some experts believe change can’t succeed unless role modeling is working. Therefore it is vital to communicate the examples of role models at the middle and frontline level in internal communication activities.

An understanding of these principles will help communicators to play a more effective role in change management strategies.

Source: McKinsey Quarterly:

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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