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Demand a bigger communication role in change management

01 Jun, 2020 Change communication

Managing organizational change is tough, but there is no escaping it. Every organization is in a state of continual change, especially in responding to the impact of COVID. Despite all the studies and books on change management (I have 739 articles, white papers and reports on change communication/management in my collection!), two thirds of all transformation initiatives still fall short of intentions, according to many claims. Every organization’s situation is different and requires a strategy tailored specifically to its unique requirements. This is difficult. One thing is certain – it is time for a bigger communication role in change management.

Change efforts don’t fail as much as commonly claimed

Firstly, change and communication consultant Jennifer Frahm makes 6 points in an influential article on the common myth of 70% failure rate of change projects. If you are involved in change projects, you should read her points to gain better perspective on change programs being more successful than commonly supposed, because:

  1. The definition of ‘change project’ is questionable.
  2. The definition of ”success’ is questionable.
  3. Success is measured at the wrong time.
  4. The units of analysis vary – in different companies, industries as well as in the type, scope and scale of change.
  5. As a change consultant, Frahm observes that her results, and the results of her peers, are significantly better than the mythical 70% failure rate.
  6. A career-limiting admission for a CEO. Have 70% of the world’s CEOs really led failed change strategies. Hardly!

A 4-step change communication role in change management

With her communication insights, Jennifer Frahm believes good communication is key to successful change management, but only if it is not simplified as much as many people think it should be. Frahm says most communication interventions follow a 3-step formula, which is unfortunate:

  1. Communicate the need for change
  2. Announce the change
  3. Communicate to reinforce the change.

Frahm considers a 4-step change communication formula is more effective:

1. Determine the purpose of your communication

Leaders often don’t explain clearly what they want as an outcome of the change process. They think of tasks, but rarely clarify the full extent of the change they are aiming for, according to Adjunct Professor Elsbeth Johnson in the Harvard Business Review in 2017. My view is that it is vital that CEOs are perceived by employees to actively lead and support the change strategy. You can read further on this in my article, “CEO’s key role in leading change communication, especially in tough times.”

Also, a 2017 survey by Quantum Workplace of the understanding of organizational change by half a million US employees found almost one-third were uncertain or didn’t like the way the changes were being made. The human brain is hardwired to dislike uncertainty, to associate it with danger. Research in 2016 found that people would literally rather know something bad is definitely going to happen than face uncertainty. And change is a movement into uncertainty. Research results published in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Venus, Stam, & van Knippenberg, showed a surprisingly simple solution: leaders should emphasize continuity, or what will stay the same, in conjunction with the vision for change. Other studies support this view, discussed by Michael Miller in a Six Seconds article in 2021.

When faced with several change programs, or continual change, it is important to understand the purpose of the change and the change communication needed to achieve this. Simply put – is it intended to create further change, or to create some stability? Both are needed at certain stages, if not simultaneously. Good change managers know when to employ different communication tools and tactics to achieve these purposes.

Communicating for stability is all about reducing anxiety and addressing the information needs of your employees. It’s about creating as clear a vision as you can and assisting the employees to make sense of what is happening. This is where thought needs to be given to the credibility of the communicator and the best choices of communication channels. Also, we spend so much time communicating about what is changing, we forget to communicate what is staying the same! When we communicate what is staying stable, we provide employees with an anchor in stormy seas, something they can cling to while they get accustomed to the thought of change.

Another important aspect of change, according to Morgan Galbraith in the Harvard Business Review in 2018, is to provide an answer to the spoken or unspoken employee question, “What’s in it for me?” or “How will this affect me?” If your employees understand what’s in it for them personally, you’re more likely to see individuals commit to and own the change. Failing to articulate “what’s in it for me” will only hinder your efforts.

2. Employee communication expectations

Image: results of a 2018 Prosci survey on preferred senders of employee messages during a change program.

It is vital to find out what employee communication expectations are during a change program, to find out:

  • What type of communication do they want about the change program?
  • Do they want to be involved?
  • Do they just want to be told what to do?
  • Do they want face-to-face or other options for communication?
  • How much information do they want?
  • Who do they expect to hear from?

Frahm notes that some researchers suggest that the frontline supervisor (or direct report) is the best source of communication for the employees because they have a strong relationship with them. Other research conducted by large consulting firms suggests that senior management need to be integral in the communication plan. Frahm suggests you won’t know until you ask.

Source of above image: Wendy Hirsch 2016 blog: “What is change management?

3. Develop communication competences

Developing communication competences is critical for responding well to employees’ communication expectations. Some change agents are particularly skilled at being able to switch styles depending on the needs of the employee. They know when to employ an authoritarian information based style which reduces anxiety, and they can switch to a softer style that emphasizes listening, engagement, empathy and learning when there is a need to enter into conversations about change. Most managers have learnt the former style, this is after all what a manager does – set the boundaries, makes it clear what is to happen, and is comfortable with the power position.

Managers are less comfortable with encouraging risk taking, acknowledging what they don’t know, and treating employees as equal partners in the change effort. Empathetic engagement and a genuine interest in another person’s position can be a challenging task. This means to create organizations that change continuously, they need to have two-way communication training – in which management and employees learn how to engage in discussion and learn together. This requires skillful communicators to lead the way in demanding a communication role in change management.

4. Engage in informal conversations – ‘the background talk’ of change
Interestingly, Frahm realized the importance of engaging with the background talk of change – the informal conversations flowing in the background of the organizations. Some people refer to this as informal communication, gossip and rumor. Few change agents are willing to engage with the background talk. However, background talk can be a very important barometer of change where you gauge the success, acceptability, and uptake of your change initiatives. It is a place to establish where there may be a lack of understanding that will impede your change efforts. And can also be the source of better ideas.

In recent years the experts have started to realize that the ‘soft’ issues of organizational culture, leadership, motivation and communication are central to change efforts. However, some of the most experienced experts from the high-profile Boston Consulting Group say “soft factors don’t directly influence the outcomes of many change programs”. They say the unfashionable ‘hard’ factors are the things that really count.

(At the same time it must be pointed out that management consultants have never fully understood the importance of communication. They seem oblivious to the fact that communication is at the heart of almost every aspect of change. Understanding the need for change and how to change doesn’t happen through mind reading, intuition or osmosis – it must be communicated, formally and informally!). It is therefore important that there is a prominent communication role in change management.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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