Thanks to the financial crisis, the fundamental shifts in the global economic balance of power and the extraordinary pace of technological progress, we’re expected to cope with change that’s more significant, more frequent and more intense than anything we’ve faced before.
So how do we deal with this as managers and communicators? How do we communicate about all of that change positively in a way that engages the workforce and retains the best talent at a time when money is tight and people’s fears are heightened?
Typically, the default reaction to the prospect of change is unhappiness and the reason for that unhappiness is uncertainty. People think ‘it’s all changing at work so how am I going to suffer as a consequence?’ This uncertainty is what makes good communication so vitally important.
The assumption people often make is that the outcome of change is going to be worse for them – and in truth they’re sometimes right – but in many circumstances changes are actually for the better.
Stressful and unsettling though it can be, change needs to happen. Businesses don’t make big changes without thought; they do it for positive reasons that usually involve improving the performance – and therefore wealth – of the business and ultimately for the people who work for it.
Our job and the job of anyone responsible for effecting change is ensuring that we communicate effectively to the workforce so they really understand why the company is doing what it’s doing and how it will affect the individual.
Effective change communication must be quick, open, honest and trustworthy and it must address the needs of its audience.
Ideally your initial communication should anticipate the change – to map out what people can expect. As well as laying a good foundation for your main messages later, this also helps to prevent leaks.
It’s not always wise to wait until you know all the details before you communicate. Organisations can be very nervous about communicating when it’s still unclear exactly how things are going to turn out but it’s better to say you don’t know than run the risk of appearing to hide. Hiding is always seen by employees and breeds great nervousness and panic – and of course not saying anything is itself a devastatingly effective form of communication.
People’s first reaction is always going to be to ask ‘what does this mean for me?’ No amount of explaining how important it is to the company is going to placate people’s fears about what the change will mean for them personally – in fact if you want to alienate your workforce I can’t think of many better ways to do it than to go on about macro issues, shareholder value and so on.
Trust is the key. Ultimately you want your staff to have faith that you are making good honest decisions based on a desire to do the right thing. Then even if it’s bad news they will be more inclined to believe it’s happening for the right reasons and not because of some sort of cold-hearted corporate strategy that may sever people from their jobs without concern for the impact that this has on their lives.
Here we are 500 words in and I’ve barely touched on this broad subject. Of course change is unsettling but it is designed to bring growth to the business and create a positive new culture. There are all sorts of important issues around communication technology, language and tone of voice in how this is delivered.
But I think the golden rule for change communication – remember we’re all individuals. I know you can’t always share everything but if you are seen to be telling people everything you can, you will gain their trust and that will serve you well.