Leading Change Series, 2: Don’t just communicate more; communicate differently

This article is the second in a series aimed at leaders and managers who are working in an environment of significant or ongoing business change.  Each article is a short and accessible guide focusing on one topic.  They explore: why that topic is important and the risks of not addressing it; examples of what successful leaders have done to address that topic; the impact of those actions and the key learnings to take forward.

It’s no surprise that how we communicate is important during periods of change.  Productive and proactive communications between an organisation and those it employs are always important.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to communicate the same ‘change message’ until I’m tired of saying it and only then will my audience start to hear it. But is it just a question of doing more of the same?

Author’s own photograph taken at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, July 2018

What if it’s how we communicate that really makes the difference? 

When change is happening, questions will surface about our routines and habits, our capability, our relationships and sometimes even our ability to provide for ourselves and our loved ones.  We need information, and lots of it, if we are to begin making sense of the impact on us personally, and on the communities and friendships we form at work.  Communication is the vehicle through which we seek out, receive and absorb this information. 

My first article in the Leading Change Series talked about how communication voids can lead to rumours because people will naturally start to form and share their own assumptions.  

Because we often feel threatened by change on some level, we tend to be drawn to a deficit based model of thinking.  

 I know from my work as a Strengthscope® Practitioner that this  can stop people from seeing the opportunities and possibilities that could emerge as a result of the change.  Rumours and assumptions can quickly become ‘the truth’ and the impact on long term engagement can be significant;  affecting performance and reducing the trust between individuals and the organisation. 

Communicating effectively during change is definitely not a ‘nice to have’ 

So, how can leaders and managers communicate effectively during organisational change?  There is no single answer but I’ve been reflecting on this during my work at a University during a period of transformational change. Communications are happening, plans exist and those leading the change are getting ‘out there’ and communicating more regularly.  

However, it was when the team who are heavily absorbed in delivering the change started to think about their own team vision and purpose in the ‘new world’ and what working life would look like, that they really started to understand the change on a personal level.  They have grasped this as an opportunity to shape the kind of team they want to identify with.  They already knew all the change communication messages, attending and delivering presentations and talks while living and breathing the change for over a year.  

But interestingly, their personal transitions in response to the change only started recently.    

Below are 5 examples of the ways that leaders have communicated during change in order to support individuals and teams to engage and understand what it means for them.

  • Create opportunities to engage staff emotionally during communications rather than focussing on getting your message across.  Wigan Council(1) created an engaging ‘interactive walk through’ experience which introduced the new strategy and behaviours, as well as their meanings and how they would be supported. This helped to engage staff emotionally as well as physically during their ‘Be Wigan’ culture change programme.
  • During the same programme the Council knew they wanted to empower and engage staff in transforming services on a limited budget. They created a ‘Staff Deal’ with employees setting out the expectations of the Council and of every member of staff and a second ‘Deal’ for the 322,000 population of Wigan.  This was genuine interaction and involvement as employees could see how their feedback shaped The Deal, which became a core values document.
  • Bring team(s) together to explore and create a new team brand and vision.  Start with what you want to be known for including exploring any changes to organisational strategy and priorities and what they mean for you.  Then dig down into the detail of what you need to deliver and how you need to deliver it.  This allows individuals to share and sense-check information about the change and to ask questions.  I’ve used the Strengthscope® team brand pyramid for this.  It allows leaders to communicate key messages whilst empowering the team to shape their own future.
  • Embrace traditional presentations to staff groups about what’s changing, why, how and timings.  Senior leaders in particular need to show that they understand that change impacts everyone and be visible and available for questions and concerns during and around these sessions. Even if no one speaks don’t be tempted to stop doing this, but don’t believe that this means your communication work is done either.  
  • Bring together representative groups from areas impacted by the change and engage them as a two-way communication channel.  Define their role in communicating messages back to their teams and supporting you to get the change right by testing assumptions, feeding back and gathering information.  Peer-to-peer communications about why a decision has been made, the risks to be balanced and the compromises needed have a different impact.  Think about how you create and work with these groups at the outset and make sure they represent all staff levels. This approach worked well in a global Customer Relationship Management Programme(2) involving 14 different countries with sometimes conflicting needs.

For me, it’s not about communicating more, or more regularly, but about communicating in ways that support people through their own transitions. 

This means engaging your audience beyond listening, which is only one of the 5 senses. It often involves getting people physically engaged too. 

My 3 key learnings to share are

  • Focus on emotions as well as information in change communications.  One of the main learning points from the ‘Be Wigan’ change was the power of pride and feeling part of something.  
  • Don’t just ensure that communications are two-way, communicate to get people actively involved.  If individuals are working on their future they are actively processing information and asking questions that will help them to make sense of things.
  • Go formal, informal and totally casual. Engage with corporate presentations but spend time at the coffee point, go and work at a different desk and encourage people to talk about the change. 

People will process things in different ways at different times. Don’t overlook the fact that people need to go through an internal process of understanding and accepting what the change brings, before it can begin to be properly embedded and business as usual achieved. 

If you’re responsible for communicating to staff during change, engage the support of your organisation’s communications specialists. They will help with communication channels and ideas about building on other planned communications.  

Use your peer network to test out ideas and see what other teams are doing and don’t be worried about trying something new.  

 It could become one of the stories we tell about change communications going forward.

I hope you found this second article in the Change Management Series helpful.  Please share your experiences and challenges and let me know if there is a topic you’d like to see covered.  

Finally, what one action will you take as a result of reading this article? 

Please let me know.

(1) The ‘Be Wigan’ Case Study was presented by Lisa Rigby and Helen Baggely at the CIPD 2018 Student Conference in Manchester.

(2) The first phase of the Customer Relationship Management Programme was delivered from November 2017 to September 2018 in The British Council. The author was the Senior Change Lead for the Programme.