This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
The ultimate objective of most communication activities is to change behavior. To achieve an employee behavior change, many communicators work on the principle that they need to change employee attitudes first. It is therefore mostly better to focus on attempting to directly change employees’ behavior.
Even if attitudes are changed, habits may be too strong to break and therefore behavior may not change. And if behavior does change, it may take a while to happen.
This is especially important in communicating to reduce accidents or improve service quality. Communicators can provide information that directly affects behavior, eg about rules; company policies and practices; procedures and systems; rewards, recognition and incentives, etc.
Since people like to be consistent with their attitudes and their behavior, their attitudes are likely to become consistent with their new behavior (or else they will change their job if they don’t believe in what they are now doing). The effectiveness of the communication can be evaluated by measuring behavior before and after the communication effort.
Employee values and organizational culture are considered vital to organizational performance, but are difficult to come to grips with. Instead, it is more effective to change behavior first, and then the desired values and culture are likely to follow.
The personal values of employees are widely considered to influence their workplace behavior. Values are the conscious, emotional desires or wants of people that guide their behavior. Most employees’ values are generally consistent with the values of their peers.
However, when it comes to change management, the focus should not be so much about corporate values but about the hard, day-to-day business of changing the behavior of frontline employees.
Communication from senior executives doesn’t give values to employees. Instead, values emerge from the way employees do their work, which is a function of the way they are supervised. It takes thousands of repeated behavioral episodes for a particular value to be firmly established. The absolutely critical issue is not how to communicate a value, but to get the initial behavior change to occur among the frontline employees.
To achieve this, supervisors can be targeted with face-to-face communication about the performance of the local work area, especially how their performance compares with other similar work areas. This is done by winning over the first-line supervisors. It requires constant vigilance to ensure employees are achieving the new behavior and over-riding the pressure from the old value. Employees will return to the old way instantly if the pressure is reduced. This pressure can only be maintained by the person close enough to do it – the first-line supervisor.
Overwhelming corporate experience shows that values are not successfully imposed from the top down. Values are more likely to emerge from the bottom. For instance, attempts to use corporate slogans to emphasize new values imposed from above result in a cynical employee response: employees took ‘Quality in everything we make’ into ‘Quality is everything we fake’. A company’s product quality was so low, its employees mischievously changed their unofficial version of the corporate slogan from “We make it nice” to “We make it nice because we have to make it twice.”
The most immediate and pragmatic approach is to start by getting some of that pressure working for management and not against it – by making the new behavior consistent with an already existing employee value. Their strongest values relate to their own local work area. The performance of the new behavior can be consistent with their concern, loyalty and respect for themselves and their co-workers. This can be accomplished by communicating how the performance of the new behavior compares with that achieved by other similar areas. 1 At the same time, the same set of values can be advocated and modeled by management. In this way, the values are reinforced and management and supervisors are seen to be aligned with the employees’ values.
Senior managers in many organizations believe the key to good organizational performance is to have a good organizational culture in place. Culture comprises shared patterns of thinking. This is generally accepted, but the relationship is complex. For instance, a US study of the cultures and financial performance of 200 companies over 11 years showed that about half the time, strong cultures were associated with excellent performance – but half the time they were not. What’s more, the study found highly respected companies with strong cultures, but with poor financial performance. 2 The study showed that over the long term, corporate cultures associated with strong financial performance do share a recurring theme: they facilitate change.
This view is supported by the findings of a survey of 300 European companies, which showed that the largest gap between companies that were good and bad at change arose because the good companies learned from change and institutionalized their new knowledge, building it into their culture and performance assessment. 3
Organizational culture usually encompasses the values, beliefs and customs of the organization, including the vision shared by employees. The organizational culture largely influences the way most employees consistently behave, ‘the way we do things around here’, including decision-making, how the organization competes, how much risk it tolerates, the emphasis placed on ethics and fairness in its transactions and how people treat or evaluate one another’s actions and contributions to the organization. 4
Elements of organizational culture may include:
It is generally accepted that culture influences behavior, which in turn affects organizational performance, and in a circular way, culture is in turn affected by behavior and performance. Organizations place great importance on culture because of its perceived impact on performance. An example of the importance of culture is the way that culture clashes are a leading cause of merger failures. Poor culture fit is considered the main cause of most large-scale merger disasters, resulting in billions of dollars worth of lost shareholder value.
Since culture change is difficult to implement; it is best to change behavior first because that is easier, and then culture change will follow. The way to change to the desired behaviors is to change the people, incentives, performance management and organizational structure.
When employee positions are changed, or when new employees are recruited, they influence culture changes in response to the input of their fresh ideas and new attributes. Changing incentives through recognition and reward programs goes a long way to change culture to the desired new directions. Likewise, performance management activities, such as managing by objectives, help to shape the new, desired behaviors and outcomes, reinforcing their importance and creating new norms and values about the appropriate ways to act and compete. Changes in organizational structure also can affect behavior and lead to cultural change. Flatter organizational structures, for example, usually lead to larger spans of control in which most employees, especially managers and supervisors, must exercise more autonomy and discretionary decision-making than before. The need for autonomy then becomes a core cultural value. 5
Reinforcement of the new behaviors is essential. The surrounding mechanisms (e.g. reward and recognition systems and performance measurement) must be in tune with the new behavior. If an organization’s directives for new behavior aren’t reinforced, employees are less likely to adopt the new behavior. For instance, if managers are expected to spend more time on coaching junior staff, but such coaching isn’t included in their performance evaluation, they won’t bother.
Senior managers tend to forget that employees must acquire the new skills. Many change programs make the mistake of expecting employees to behave differently without teaching them how to do it properly. For instance, the organization may want them to improve customer service, but if little consideration had been paid to customers in the past, the employees may not know what to do differently and probably wouldn’t understand what a successful outcome would look like. Likewise, if they are expected to communicate better in the workplace, they would most likely need training to improve their interpersonal communication.
How can employees best be equipped with the skills they need to change their behavior?
Where does communication come into this cycle? Organizational communication can directly help to change operational behavior. But firstly, the most effective move is for affected managers and staff to be actively involved in the planning and execution of the changes. Employees are much more likely to support change if they have gained some ownership of it in the planning stages.
The benefits and the urgency of change need to be communicated. One way to provide some reassurance to employees who are nervous about change is to inform affected people of the aspects of their work that will be preserved. Preserving the good and familiar during times of change can reduce resistance to the new. It is also important to look for the positives among the negative aspects of change. For instance, certain jobs might be eliminated or changed (a ‘negative’), but the displaced employees may be guaranteed to be the first to be trained for the new jobs.
Obviously, sound communication and information-sharing are vital to reducing resistance to culture change. Without a purposeful communication plan aimed at those directly affected by the changes, an organization is asking for trouble. Rumors will consume valuable time and detract from ongoing, everyday performance. Misinformation will increase uncertainty and anxiety, further affecting performance negatively.
The provision of widespread training and practice opportunities to help managers and supervisors to improve their interpersonal communication should be integral to organizational change. It will be instrumental in helping concerned employees feel the organization has empathy towards them and is supporting them.
Leadership is central to the process of reducing resistance to culture change. Leaders are vital to changing and managing key people, incentives and the organizational structure. Probably most important of all is leading by example, which sends powerful messages to employees. Leader behavior is intensely symbolic. It tells people what is important, and therefore public relations practitioners should be prepared to guide and advise their leaders on the example to set, and probably more aptly, the behavior they should eliminate.
One valuable insight to remember is that organizations tend to make more changes than necessary in order to achieve the desired results, without focusing on the changes that really matter. This makes the change effort more difficult. Leaders seem to think that under-performing organizations are doing everything badly. Rather than doing everything well, high-performing organizations do the important things, or enough of the important things, well. Underperforming organizations often do many important things fairly well, but not with enough intensity. Doing something 60% of the way is often enough; doing something 40% of the way is often no better than doing nothing at all. The extra 20% makes all the difference. Fortunately, you can do a lot of things wrong as long as you do the important things right and drive hard enough on these to make the difference. Seek the fewest changes for the greatest result. 7 There is a lesson here for communicators – it is better to communicate about the few things that really matter, rather than spread the themes and focal points too widely.
Larkin, TJ and Sandar. Communicating Change: how to win employee support for new business directions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994, p. 216.
Kotter, John P. and Heskett, James L, Corporate Culture and Performance. New York: Free Press, 1992, reported in Larkin, TJ and Larkin, Sandar. Communicating Change. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc, 1994, p. 214.
The Weekend Australian, “Change handled better in-house”, 15-16 July 2000, p. 48 on AT Kearney survey.
Hrebiniak, Lawrence. Making strategy work: leading effective execution and change. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005, p. 261.
Hrebiniak, pp. 259-285.
Lawson, Emily and Price, Colin. “The psychology of change management.” The McKinsey Quarterly, 2003 Special Edition: Organization.
Dickhout, Robert. “All I ever needed to know about change management I learned at engineering school.” The McKinsey Quarterly, 1997 Number 2.
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