How to Be More Skilful
at Communicating Change

See also: Communicating Vision

In the world of business, the old adage nothing stays the same is still pertinent, whether you are a one-man band or you head a company with a workforce of thousands of employees. Change happens whether we like it or not, but there can be much to like if we embrace it and communicate change throughout the workplace in the right way.

Communicating change skilfully ensures we have a positive and motivated workforce that is happy to keep up with best practices and to follow through new ideas to stay on top of their game. After all, it is the quality of their work that helps to bring the company success and ensure its longevity in what can feel like a dog-eat-dog marketplace.

When business owners see change as an exciting challenge, instead of something to be feared, the magic can begin to happen. However, in our face paced, technology-driven office environments the personal touch can fall by the wayside and this is the magic touch that so many companies are missing, or at least are not making the most of. Employees are people and not machines. Even at work we are at our best when bonding with others and feeling connected, and, in the case of change management, an impersonal email or a set of instructions coming down from on high can derail a project before it has even begun!

So, as an employer, how do you be more skilful at communicating change?

The advice of change consultants is as follows:

Be honest with your intention/information

Company staff need to feel empowered and as if they still have a choice, even when following a planned program of change, because it is their own personal interpretation and individual experience of the change that will help determine the outcome.

It is estimated that 70% of change management projects fail (McKinsey research). This is largely due to resistance from employees who otherwise may have got on board if they actually felt part of the crew and knew what destination they were heading to, and why! Any kind of bluff, using jargon, or trying to sugar coat difficult truths is the quickest way to losing the trust and respect of employees. As valued members of a workforce, it is important for company directors and managers to say it how it is without being patronising and viewing staff as not being able to handle the truth. People respond best to communication that is personal, respectful and honest.

Use empathy

Many companies when orchestrating change management unintentionally upset employees because they don’t look ahead and see or appreciate how their staff will be affected as individuals. For instance, changing a health care benefit may impact greatly on an employee’s family. It is easy to forget that employees have a life outside of work, and that changes at work can impact negatively on their personal life.

Outline a clear plan of action

This is where you literally need to use your creative skills and outline the planned changes in any medium that will get the information across in a step-by-step process. Some employees will be more “visual”, so use graphics so they can absorb the details better than through the written word. Either way, company staff need to be able to hold a clearly painted picture in their mind of what is going to happen and when.

Call to duty

Staff who are given honest information delivered with empathy (even if it involves some hard-hitting changes), along with a step by step plan of how that change will happen, will usually show loyalty to the company cause.

It is up to management to ensure this transition period goes as smoothly as possible by continually assessing communication skills and how information and instructions continue are conveyed. The saying “There is no team in I” is probably relevant here; employees will want to feel as though everyone is in it together, from the very top layers of management to the office cleaner.

When everyone feels involved they are much more likely to fully join you in the change process. Using bulleted lists, links to websites, internal communication and regular staff meetings etc is the way to continue bonding in the face of change. And it can be the little things too that keep up morale – cake brought into the office and other treats for members of staff will go a long way to smoothing any frayed emotions!

Target your communication effectively

There is little point in bombarding the whole workforce with information that is only pertinent to a select few. There may be changes, for instance, that apply only to staff managing chronic health problems or disabilities, so it is important that focused support reaches the right staff sector.

Cascade communication from the top

Thinking of the metaphor of a fountain. Effective change communication starts from the top with the company director or CEO and trickles (or gushes!) down through managers to discuss in more detail with their individual teams. As in point 4, make sure you use a variety of media methods as well as the personal touch (emails, all-hands meetings and communication apps etc.) to cascade this information. You can also consider sending information via post (especially if family members are affected by changes).

Communication is a two way street

Skilful communication welcomes feedback that can be used to continually appraise the change process. Don’t forget to have a FAQ to iron out the nitty-gritty details and also provide the opportunity for direct and personal communications, such as employees being able to private message or ask tough questions without the fear of recrimination.

Change management training can teach us the skills we need to navigate the fluid, on-going process of change, but the two most important factors are clarity and honesty. These are key to communicating change to employees in general, and especially so in testing times.

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About the Author

Michelle Gillam works for change management specialists Change Quest. She has written extensively over many years about a wide range of topics related to project management and change management. She is a PRINCE2 qualified project manager with a special interest in improving facilitation skills and communication skills.