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Susie Finch

Susie Finch


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Secrets of successful change communication


Sweep aside your assumptions about communicating change, says Bob Selden - the most successful methods may not be quite what you expect.

What positively affects change management:

  • frankness and openness of communication?
  • one-on-one and team meetings?
  • access to electronic technology (email and intranet)?
  • immediate manager and supervisor?
  • team interaction?
  • other communication approaches (including publications)?
  • electronic communication?

At first glance, most of us would probably give a resounding “Yes” to each of the above. Well, a major study of more than 1,000 employees across nine organisations (The Allen Consulting Group, Oct. 2003) found that the above factors did NOT have a major impact on successful change management. Whilst they all are perhaps good forms of communication, it’s important to realise that communication and change are not the same thing.

What works when communicating change?

 What did impact successful change? Think for a moment about the current economic crisis. What’s the main underlying need most people have? Job security. Any change in an organisation - such as reporting relationships, job status, restructuring or lay-offs - will have an effect on people’s current overwhelming need for security. So change management strategies must address this need for security. In short, the research showed the key drivers of successful change management included:

  • communication specifically about the change (who it would affect and how)
  • general organisational satisfaction (communication, culture, current morale, etc.)
  • communication across different areas, business units, teams (about the change and the part they would play in it)
  • chief executive/managing director setting an example
  • the respect and dignity with which employees are treated
  • communication upwards; ability to raise issues, express opinions and concerns
  • sufficiency of information
  • consultation about, and involvement with, the change
  • divisional management (executive director, general manager, department managers) involvement.
"For anyone involved in leading and managing change, it’s important not to confuse effective communication with influential change communication."

Read again the first list of items that did not directly affect change. It’s worth noting that the authors suggest that whilst the survey findings did rule these out as direct influencers, they may well have been supportive processes and mechanisms. This research shows that for anyone involved in leading and managing change, it’s important not to confuse effective communication with influential change communication.

Communication needs to be specific, not general

The point about managing change, is that communication needs to be specific, not general. For example, at a large public utility that was undergoing deregulation, a middle manager had to explain the radical changes that top management were proposing in language that his people would understand. He quickly realised that official discourse had little sway with these people who were inclined to be cynical about organisational change. So he actively engaged his workers, one by one, outside the office, in a social or sports milieu where they were more relaxed. He customised the change message in a way that was personally meaningful to each individual. This unexpected gesture pleasantly surprised employees, who were used to more hierarchical, formal relationships and it weakened their resistance to the change being proposed.

Change is about loss – whenever there is a change, we all lose something to which we have become accustomed. As trainers, we may be charged with implementing the change, perhaps as part of a project team or training and coaching people to manage the change either within themselves or their team. We are therefore motivated. We can see the advantages. Those affected may not.

The question we need to ask is: Who will lose and what will they lose? Eg Status? Relationships? Power? Privileges? Influence? To do this, you can use a simple diagnostic tool:

  • List those that are likely to be most affected by the change
  • Place next to each name, three negative and three positive consequences
  • Gather and categorise all the positives – use these as ‘advantages’ to highlight in your change management training and communication
  • Highlight those people who have the most serious negative consequences - Actively manage these people, address their concerns, and get them involved with the change management process as coaches, trainers, internal advisors/consultants or change management champions

Having looked at managing the losses, we can then turn to some of the other important change mechanisms highlighted by the research. For example, it is important to have a number of cross-divisional/departmental project teams working on how best to implement the change. One organisation I worked for put all their managers and project managers through a three day (residential) change management training programme. In addition to the excellent learning and cross-functional cooperation this produced, one major outcome was that all projects from that time on had to have both a project management plan and a separate, but complimentary, change management plan (this is the same organisation I wrote about previously who introduced the Day In The Sun creativity and innovation sharing process).

Upward feedback & communication

Then there is the important aspect of upward feedback and communication. This can take two forms – team and individual.

Upward team feedback tends to provide management with the things that are affecting people generally, particularly in relation to products, systems, processes, policies, customers, suppliers etc. A manager who has worked internationally for many organisations still talks about his experience with Team Briefing as being the most effective change management process he has ever experienced.

"Successful change management is not only about getting the buy-in of all employees. It also has one other key outcome – tapping the innovation and creativity that lies within all of us."

For those not familiar with Team Briefing, it is an organisational wide form of upward feedback. Each time the top team meets, the results of their meeting are immediately communicated to the next level of management who must have a meeting with their team within a certain time frame to discuss the issues. This time frame can be as short as one week and generally no longer than three. Each succeeding level of management holds similar team briefings until the entire organisation has participated. The key component of the process, however, is that each team must also provide upward feedback to the next higher level on how they perceive the messages and what they will be doing to implement, participate in the change etc. (You can see more information and get free templates on team briefing at Businessballs)

The opportunity for individual upward feedback tends to deal with more specific individual needs, particularly in relation to how people are feeling about the change. By its nature, this needs to be one-on-one communication between manager and employee and its effectiveness will depend on the strength of each manager’s expertise and perceived level of trust. Some managers will be better than others in this aspect, so you may need to implement an organisational advice (counselling service) provided by a neutral third party.

Successful change management is not only about getting the buy-in of all employees. It also has one other key outcome – tapping the innovation and creativity that lies within all of us.

The organisations that remain successful in the current climate and will therefore move positively into the future, are those who get their people onside and performing at their best. People need to be involved and motivated, not scared to do anything in case they will be castigated. As John Kotter, the doyen of change management, reminds us: “The hearts and minds of all members of the workforce are needed to cope with the fast-shifting realities of the business climate. Without sufficient empowerment, critical information about quality sits unused in workers’ minds and energy to implement changes lies dormant.”

Bob Selden has been a career trainer for more than 30 years – in fact it's his lifetime passion. Bob can be contacted via - he would be happy to help or advise with your career questions. If you'd like to see where his training career has led, check out the website for his book 'What To Do When You Become The Boss' at 

To read Bob's last feature Encouraging creativity & innovation, click here

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Susie Finch


Read more from Susie Finch

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