Communication Consultant / Leadership Coach Lewis Communicate Ltd
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Change management: how to take your people with you

Leaders are often reluctant to communicate changes in a business until there are official announcements to make, but this means employees often fill the void and fuel the rumour mill with their own assumptions. In order to get your change programme off on the right foot, a more transparent approach is needed from the outset. 

10th Mar 2020
Communication Consultant / Leadership Coach Lewis Communicate Ltd
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team of employees in a meeting
iStock/Drazen_

It’s a commonly quoted statistic that 70% of change programmes fail, but what is greatly concerning is that this is now said to be on the increase. In a time where we are seeing more change within organisations than ever before, that failure rate is alarming.

Another common statement that we hear is that change is becoming the norm. As a result, we are seeing organisational change as a regular and expected feature year on year. So, I was wondering if the familiarity of this could be making us a bit apathetic to our roles and responsibilities through change? Have we left it all to change project managers with set processes and models, who sometimes miss out one of the most important components – our people?

Excluding or avoiding a closer look at the impact of change on people happens because it can be messy. It’s not always simple and can take time. 

Change is hardly ever straightforward, yet it is regularly developed within a model or process, focused on what the change is supposed to fix rather than how it will impact people. I’m sure it can be exciting for a business leader – the prospect of increased profits, a new merger or acquisition, developing a more efficient business model or maybe streamlining the organisation.

Change is never done to cause disruption, but always comes in order to bring improvements to profits or productivity. There is generally a good intention or idea involved somewhere. The issue here is that we keep getting it wrong, which means the benefit hasn’t been delivered. In the process, people have been hurt, become disengaged and/or disrupted almost for no reason.

The role of good communication

In writing this article, I wanted to highlight a few things we can do and approaches we can take to achieve success, while taking people along safely. It is not one single department’s responsibility to see success in change – however, because of sensitivities the decision and purpose for change is sometimes confined to the few. This is understandable, but I would propose that communication and HR leads should be included from the conception of the idea to change. Also, both groups should work in partnership, as this can be a powerful combination and play a part towards seeing these failure rates reduced, making the change more positive overall.

Excluding or avoiding a closer look at the impact of change on people happens because it can be messy. It’s not always simple and can take time. This is especially an issue when change has a strict timetable. If people are not included in the planning and frame, however, then in many ways the change is bound for failure. I believe we can influence this by promoting the role of good communication.

Our people along the change curve

Change managers use models and processes (see below example). Many of us are familiar with the change curve and we recognise each of the stages it suggests. It’s important to look at your audience against the curve to ensure you are providing the right level of communication needed to see them through it. People will travel through the curve with or without communication. The question is: how will they come out at the other end without the correct input?

Adapted William Bridges Transition Curve from Managing Transitions
Adapted William Bridges Transition Curve from Managing Transitions

I recently read Hillary Scarlett’s book Neuroscience and Organizational Change, where she explains that the brain craves and even seeks out information to manage how it perceives and processes threat or reward. She explains what neuroscience is and how we can use it to develop an approach to effectively deliver change by understanding how the brain works. This in turn can help us to provide what people need to engage with at the various stages of change.

Looking at the audience involved and where they are on the change curve, then communicating accordingly is a powerful strategy to use. According to this example, it would be good to plan to communicate well from the outset when it is a surprise or shock. It might mean that some of the negative emotions along the curve can be alleviated or at least lessened to better prepare people for the impact.

Open and transparent

Senior leadership cannot always be open and share all the details of the change. A lot of the times I hear managers explain that there’s nothing to communicate based on the stage of the change, ‘so let’s not communicate’. The thing is your people are not aware of this and they don’t really care. As far as they are concerned, they know a change is happening, they have probably heard rumours and they have made their own assumptions. They will either remain in place slightly stressed at the prospect of what a change could mean to them, or they will start to look for their next role. I’d say this is one of the main ways we start to see retention rates affected in organisations. People won’t wait around until there’s ‘something to say’ about the change and those that stay will at times find it difficult to be focused and productive.

This is why, from a communications perspective, it is important to engage people along the way. By being open from day one and sharing the vision and some of the obvious challenges, people feel included. As time progresses keeping that openness with good and sometimes not so good news, will gain people’s trust. They might not agree with the change, but they will work with it if they think you have their interest at heart. If you don’t communicate anything until there are announcements, however, this just can’t happen.

 If the value of communication within change is not understood, and there is no awareness of the support we can provide to communicate correctly, then we will not have an impact.

Working together to develop an approach to communication through each change – in alignment with the programme itself – will make the difference. This means engaging the decision makers so they understand the importance too, and so that they know from HR and communications that they will get all the support they need to cover this element that for them might seem a like a big challenge.

Engaging leadership

We talk a lot about becoming a ‘trusted adviser’ and this is important. It is a focus for us as we attempt to engage leadership, understand their priorities and what drives decisions that we will probably have to communicate. It includes areas like understanding the business or business acumen, and the thinking behind the vision and strategy.

Together we need to find ways to gain trust to ensure we can advise and guide through times of change. If the value of communication within change is not understood, and there is no awareness of the support we can provide to communicate correctly, then we will not have an impact. The idea is to build relationship with leadership and be supportive. I once worked with an MD who was leading a major change programme. Spending time before much of the planning had taken place meant I was able to advise him along the way. He was able to communicate to the various levels impacted and achieve the change.

Communication is critical to the success of change. The good thing is that if we promote it to the right leaders and decision makers, using the approaches that have been highlighted more recently, like looking at neuroscience, we can support and perhaps nudge change towards success.

Interested in this topic? Read Change management: how to shift the behaviours and mindsets of your people.

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