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Communicating change effectively – feature


This feature was contributed by Bill Quirke, Managing Director of Synopsis Communication Consulting.

Use English, not Management Speak

Plans are usually sketched out in management speak, with the benefits of proposed actions framed as advantages to the company, since this helps sell the proposals to management internally. The same information is then used, often with the same slides, to sell the change to employees. Without the same strategic insights as board members, and access to the same market and company data, employees often find plans hard to follow, tendentious or
simply baffling.

In presenting change, communication needs to change from management speak to plain speaking.

Answer 'What's in it for Me?'

Often employee's first question is about how the change will affect them personally. You need to have thought through the implications of change before announcing it. While it is unlikely that you will be able to answer their questions at the outset, you can explain the process and timetable for deciding.

You can therefore put boundaries on people's uncertainty. You can also give guarantees. For example, one financial services organisation announced at the start of a large change programme that there would be no compulsory redundancies for at least one year and that people would have at least 6 months notice of any substantial change to their job.

Acknowledge Employees' Concerns

It is important for people to understand why change is needed, and so you should communicate about such things as market and industry pressures and rising customer expectations.

However, it is equally important to acknowledge employees needs and requirements - things like job security, job interest and pride in their employer. This doesn't mean that you must guarantee job security, but it does mean that you should explain the options you considered and why
redundancies is the only feasible way forward.

Communicate Change Even-Handedly

People are not stupid and will ask you difficult questions. If you are being 'economical with the actualité' they will quickly discover it and you will pay dearly for trying to deceive them. Therefore you have to be
straight and credible about what changes are involved; over-weighing one side of the balance will be seen as either incompetence or deviousness.

Crash Test your Change Presentation

A good way to test senior management cohesiveness and understanding is to get them to field test a presentation - this flushes out misunderstandings, misinterpretations and lack of agreement to specifics. Role play being a union official or a cynical employee (go on, just try to imagine what it would feel like) and try to see how they would respond.

Put it in Writing

Managers have different philosophies and value systems, and differing hopes and expectations of the change. Creating a brief summary document as a hand out for employees is a good process for flushing out these implicit disagreements and ensuring that there is a robust, coherent story that all
can agree. This process will take much longer than you think.

Give People Signposts and Directions

Any presentation to employees needs to give them a road map at the outset - how much time will be spent on context, how much time will be spent on changes and implications, how much time is allowed for questions and answers - otherwise, their minds will be straying ahead, and ignoring the speakers passionate commitment to the rigours of changes in their market, and asking themselves the question 'where's the beef?'

Communicate Principles, then Specifics

If you are illustrating structural change, put up an initial slide of boxes without individuals names in - get the principles of the restructure over first, possibly using colour coding, otherwise employees will get lost then
enthralled in figuring out who's up, who's down, who's in and who's out.

Summarise Pluses and Minuses

Make sure there is a summary chart that spells out the implications, both good and bad of change - the positive aspects of change usually get forgotten while attention focuses on negative and drawbacks - employees stumble upon the advantages some time later.

Start Preparing the for Next Change Now

When is the next major change going to hit your organisation? You almost certainly don't know. However, you know that change will happen, so start preparing people now. Communicate about changes in your market, industry
and customer base. Help people to understand that stability is a thing of the past, and educate them about the dynamics of your business environment. In doing so you'll smooth the path for the next major change, because you will know the rationale for it.

Anything to add from your own experience? Post your comments below.


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