The dialogue of change : how to get it right

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Communicating organisational change successfully requires a great deal of sensitivity. You must consider the appropriate method of communicating important messages and be prepared to open up a dialogue with your workforce.

The role of communication during organisational change is well-established. Indeed, the management of communication processes that deliver key messages at the appropriate time to stakeholders is considered in the literature on change management as a vital component of all successful change initiatives.

Yet it is often ignored, especially at the start of a change initiative, or else in many cases done badly and therefore fails to address the concerns raised by those affected. The first question employees often ask as they face significant change is “How will this change affect me?”

Let's meet Shirley...

To appreciate why this is a key concern, put yourself in the shoes of Shirley Woods. Shirley is an account executive for B&C Inc. She manages relationships with a handful of partner organizations that deliver high-quality services to the customer.

In a casual conversation with a co-worker Shirley learns that the company may be acquired in the near future. Her first thought is that her job may be in jeopardy or that she will not get the promotion she expects this year. That night she and her partner discuss the situation.

Job security is particularly important for them as the couple have two young children. Shirley’s fears escalate. The next day the company’s CEO sends a brief but enthusiastic email to all employees announcing the acquisition. Shirley approaches her manager and asks, ‘How will it affect me?'

Her manager is equally shocked and concerned. This story illustrates how what appears to be a positive change to the leadership team of an organization can create anxiety among the employees if they do not receive adequate and timely information about how it will affect them.

Few people take the time to read an emailed presentation and are even less motivated to make changes as a result of it.

The cursory nature of change communications?

The challenge is that communication although viewed as an important part of the change process is often ignored or dealt with in a cursory manner. Some managers are far too fond of sending a presentation by email which either goes unopened and is deleted or is, at best, skim read. Few people take the time to read an emailed presentation and are even less motivated to make changes as a result of it.

At best such emails are seen as a necessary evil. Their overuse springs from a mind-set that if the case for change is presented as logically as possible then people, being rational, will buy into it and take the appropriate set of actions. Emailing important news about change is an easy option and is also used as a corporate ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Those involved with change can remain in their respective offices with their doors firmly closed, safe in the knowledge that when asked they can say, “Well, it’s not my fault; I told everyone what was going on”. In fact, they did not tell everyone – they sent them an email presentation.

That is not communication; it is hiding behind technology.

At best such emails are seen as a necessary evil.

At the heart of communicating is dialogue

Creating change using dialogue is about changing the conversations that shape everyday thinking and actions.

This approach is about creating organisational conversations that lead to understanding and action. Dialogue has two components to it: listening and voicing.

To listen most effectively leaders and managers need to enter into a dialogue curious as to what others are thinking, and as to what forms the basis of their perceptions.  Dialogue allows more people to contribute to decisions about proposed change and to generate not only wisdom and a wealth of ideas but also immeasurable commitment.

This means bringing together the right people to offer meaningful input and support. In the context of organisational change dialogue is about people engaging in discussions about the why, how, what and when of change.

Dialogue has two components to it: listening and voicing.

People value dialogue and conversation. It takes much longer than email but is infinitely more effective. To create effective dialogue try and avoid going to all meetings with detailed and well-prepared presentations as this can inhibit dialogue. Instead initiate a conversation with people.

When I was working on the outsourcing and turnaround of a utilities company in the late 1990s we used an old concept called 'brown bag lunches' to start conversations about the changes. Basically it meant that you could invite anyone you wanted from any level in the organization to come and join you for a sandwich. Participants could talk for no more than five to ten minutes about the changes, and then invite other people to talk, share ideas and raise concerns.

This approach was always so much more powerful than doing presentations. People felt they had a voice and an opportunity to express their views. It was not a panacea but it was certainly an early part of building acceptance for the changes.

By participating in dialogue individuals can become more informed about other people’s perspectives, concerns and ideas. It is through dialogue, as opposed to monologue, that leaders and managers can understand what people are thinking and feeling about change so that they are in a better position to gain their commitment to it and address their concerns.

No longer an afterthought

The days when communication during change was merely an afterthought are long gone.

Today we live and do business in a world where communication is pervasive. Information is sent and received across the globe in seconds. Opinions, attitudes and perceptions are formed equally as fast.

A lack of understanding, a casual rumour, too much information, or not enough information, can influence the success or failure of engaging people in change. Creating change using dialogue is about changing the conversations that shape everyday thinking and behaviours.

 It is about creating organisational conversations that lead to understanding and action.

Three factors drive successful dialogue during organisational change

  • An organisation must encourage dialogue early, frequently and consistently. There must be an ongoing strategic approach to dialogue before, during and after any organisational transformation. Dialogue is, and must be, a constant.
     
  • The greater the value an organisation has for its dialogue, the greater the likelihood for success.
     
  • Leaders and managers need to encourage dialogue with care. Dialogue with care means choosing the channels for dialogue strategically, tailoring the approach to the aims of the change initiative, authentically engaging in conversation and being sensitive to the pace and timing of dialogue. This means bringing together the right people to offer meaningful input and support. So successful dialogue allows more people to contribute, generating not only wisdom and a wealth of ideas but also commitment and engagement to change.

Dr Julie Hodges is an author, academic, and consultant on change in organizations. Her most recent books include: ‘Managing and Leading People through Change' and ‘Sustaining Change in Organizations.'

About Julie Hodges

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