No matter how you slice it, change is a critical part of life. It fuels the good, the great, the extraordinary. It pushes us to try new things, learn new skills and evolve ourselves in ways we never imagined. It keeps us from becoming stagnant, comfortably status-quo. And yet, despite its inarguable benefits…man, change is hard.
I’m no psychologist, but I do know that we as humans are creatures of habit. The more we do something, the more it becomes ingrained in our brain…and the harder it is to change. What’s more, the mere idea of change terrifies most of us. The great unknown is pretty tough to reconcile.
This makes things particularly challenging for today’s business leaders who must inevitably lead their organizations and people (read: creatures of habit) through some form of change at some point in the company’s life. No matter its size, shape or focus, an organization simply won’t survive without change. Market shifts, environmental changes, customer demands…all these pressures require companies to adapt in order to stay out ahead. In today’s world, it’s “change or die,” as author Alan Deutschman so blatantly put it.
Big or small, a change movement requires time, patience and a top-down commitment. It also calls for a smart communications approach that considers the competing priorities and preferences of a vast group of people. When done right, a change communications strategy has the power to rally employees, unite them around a shared goal and inspire lasting change that can be felt across the organization for years to come.
Getting ready to lead a change journey for your organization? Here are some dos and don’ts of change communication to consider when building your strategy.
Tell (and show) the why.
Without broader context, change can be perceived as an unnecessary and rather pesky disruption to business-as-usual. Your leaders may get why it’s critical, but each of your employees – from your front-line customer reps to your back-end manufacturing support, must understand why change is important, how it ties back to the company’s vision and goals and in what ways it positions the company for future success. Through a mix of words and actions, make sure your people know why it matters – to the organization and to them.
Engage in two-way dialogue.
Effective communication is equal parts talking and listening. This is especially true in times of change. It’s important that you regularly give your employees a chance to be heard throughout the change process. Whether in-person or via email, any and all forms of communication should incorporate a feedback loop that encourages employees to share their thoughts. It’s a win-win: your employees will feel like they have a voice and you might just learn some valuable things you didn’t know.
Repeat, repeat…and repeat, again.
Each day, the average person consumes more than 34 gigabytes of information. As frame of reference, that is more than the total storage capacity on most iPhones! With so many messages competing for our attention, it’s no wonder things don’t always stick the first time around. To help keep your change story top of mind, build in opportunities to repeat your most important messages throughout each step of the change journey. And, since everyone takes in information differently, consider employing a blend of communication methods, like infographics, short videos or Town Halls to help those messages resonate with all types of learners. In short, look for ways to make it fun, fresh and engaging.
Show commitment at the highest levels.
In a previous post, I mention that for a corporate program to have true staying power, leadership must fully participate. Organizational change is no different – in fact, I’d argue that active C-level commitment is even more important in times of change. For employees to buy in to change, it must live at the very top. Leaders must be visible stewards of the change, not only with their words, but with their actions as well. No matter their location, role or level, employees should believe that their leaders are truly invested in the change.
Take the time to celebrate the milestones you achieve on your journey. Big or small, each one is an opportunity to show that important progress is being made, to reinforce desired behaviors and to give your employees a well-deserved pat on the back. These milestones can also be a great time to inspire the next wave of change among your people, positioning your organization to achieve the next level of success in its journey.
Use a one-size-fits-all approach.
Change means different things to different people – and the impact can vary. Employing a one-size-fits-all approach is a dangerous and ineffective way to approach change communications. Instead, spend some time upfront thinking about the diverse needs and priorities of your employee population. Put yourself in your employees’ shoes and ask yourself “what does this change mean to me?” “what do I need to do?” and the ever-important “what’s in it for me?” Once you’ve answered those questions, you can begin to develop a tailored approach that targets each employee base.
Across any kind of change, there’s always some degree of resistance. And that’s OK. Resist the urge to challenge it or suppress it. Instead, offer safe opportunities for naysayers to voice their concerns in a productive way. Carve out time for open discussion in your staff meetings, provide a unique email address to which employees can privately share their concerns, or create dedicated 1:1 check-ins for managers and their employees. These actions show that you respect your employees’ opinions, value their unique insights and are truly committed to bringing everyone along on your change journey.
You never want your employees walking away from one of your emails, meetings or videos with a big question mark. Ambiguous communications do a large disservice to your organization, often igniting the rumor mill and leaving employees wondering what it is you really want, need or expect (and what it is you may be hiding). Instead, use specific, targeted language that provides context and makes the ask very clear. In other words, take them from “huh?” to “aha!”
You may think you’re saving face, preserving goodwill or plain old avoiding conflict, but lying to your employees is never the answer. Truth is the single most important currency your organization has. Instead, be transparent and honest. Even if they don’t like it, your employees will respect you for it.
Expect change overnight.
Change simply doesn’t happen overnight. If you embark on your change journey with unrealistic expectations, you run the risk of setting yourself – and your people, up for failure. Instead, consider that change takes time and it happens in increments. Create those important change markers upfront so you can communicate your successes to your people as they happen and show that your collective work is making a difference.
Change isn’t easy, but with the right communications strategy behind it, it’s entirely possible. In fact, it often makes an organization better and stronger. If you’re headed for organizational change but aren’t sure where to start, let’s talk (firstname.lastname@example.org).