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Communicating Change – The Essentials!

by Bob Selden

People become less motivated when they are faced with uncertainty – not knowing what is happening and why. In the extreme, a lack of information and feeling of insecurity can take away the natural energy and drive to succeed.

Take the case of James, who became plant manager at a biotech factory, managing about 400 people. Before he arrived, there was an "Ask Gavin" column on the intranet site where employees could ask the previous manager questions, anonymously if preferred. It seemed like a good idea, although nothing can substitute for face-to-face communication, and people rarely use such vehicles to ask the difficult questions. If they do, they almost never give their names.

From the style of the intranet site, James got the impression that his predecessor had ruled on a "my way is the only way" principle, and, consequently, the communication channel was rarely used. One of the first changes James made was to change its title to "Ask Management".

Two weeks into the job, employees gathered in the cafeteria for the monthly site meeting and briefing by management. When the facilitator turned to James as the new head of the plant and asked if he'd like to do the usual thing and introduce himself, outlining his background, he stood up and said, "Would Francene Dante please stand up".

There was a hushed silence. Francene sank in her seat, but colleagues started urging her to respond, and eventually she did.

"Francene," said James, "I would like to thank you very much for giving your name when you asked a question on the intranet's Ask Management. I know you didn't have to, but I very much appreciate that you did. I value honesty, integrity and sincerity, and I like to be able to communicate freely with everyone on the site and personally, and they should feel the same about talking with me. So, thank you again."

And James concluded: "That's who I am."

Having immediately set himself apart as a leader and good communicator, and having stated and demonstrated his core values, he sat down again. He had made "actions speak louder than words" and emphasised that communication is a two-way process. Merely talking about the process of communication couldn't have achieved the results of this one, simple action.

When people are faced with uncertainty about an organisation's future and their own, internal communication is far more important than external, even in times of merger or acquisition. Of course, in addition to its motivational impact, communication has an important informing function. For example, when people know what's happening with an organisation, they are able to answer customer's questions honestly. If they are informed and feel secure, they are in a better position and frame of mind to provide feedback to management about the impact of strategies on clients.

When an organisation is in uncertain times, feedback to management is vital, and an effective communication strategy comes into its own.

In working with hundreds of organisations experiencing change, I have identified eight factors that help the more successful ones navigate the uncertainty. They are principles for developing and implementing an effective internal communication strategy.

1. Ensure the CEO is the champion of communication and the champion communicator.

Top management's attitude and behaviour influences the behaviour of other managers. Often top management, and particularly the CEO, is focused on achieving good financial results, which is important. But in many cases, while "communicating with the troops" is described as important, the reality doesn't match the rhetoric.

Can we justify communication as a return on investment? When asked about this, one senior executive said: "Enormous! We can move faster, jump higher, dive deeper and come up drier than anybody else in the business. When we hang a left, everyone goes left. It gives us an enormous ability to work as a team. Other companies in our industry are yet to work that out."

The rules for the CEO:

  • Communicate frequently and in person.
  • Be willing to address challenging questions.
  • Listen carefully and deal with the concerns.
  • Respond quickly to sensitive topics.

If you are a CEO, do you have a vision for your organisation that is easily explained? Do you regularly talk to staff about it?

People need to feel they belong. They need an icon. The CEO should fill this role.

2. Match actions and words.

People judge the performance of CEOs not on what they say, but what they do. Organisations that spout values such as "our people are our greatest asset", then lay-off staff at the first major downturn in the economy, are sending very mixed messages.

3. Ensure your communication is two-way.

If an organisation is serious about internal communication, it should devote as much time and resources to upward as it does to downward communication. Staff opinion surveys are one form of upward feedback, but their effectiveness depends on how well the feedback is managed. The most common comment from employees about their lack of faith in surveys is that "nothing ever happens as a result".

4. Place emphasis on face-to-face communication.

As they say, it's not what you say, but the way that you say it. An employee said recently, about a CEO's address to staff: "I didn't understand a lot of what he said, but it did give me the chance to take the measure of the man, to look him in the eye, ask some questions and see how he responded."

On the other hand, what you say is also important. A CEO addressing staff needs to talk about the big picture, the future and how the organisation is progressing in broad terms. Whereas the specifics of current and projected performance come into it when talking with senior managers.

One manager said of face-to-face communication: "You get to be seen as a person who understands what's happening, who is cognisant of other's feelings, who doesn't have all the answers but is willing to listen and learn. Someone who has a vision so that their people will say, 'I'll give this person a go. They seem to have an interest in me.'"

Face-to-face communication does not obviate the need for other forms of communication, but other forms can't substitute for face-to-face.

5. Ensure responsibility for communication is shared.

Communication – downward, horizontal and upward – must be the responsibility of all managers, not just the CEO. Staffs need to be encouraged and supported to accept the responsibility for upward and horizontal communication.

For example, a manager's responsibility is not to be an expert in all aspects of every corporate issue, but to be able to explain why decisions have been made and how they will affect people.

To test the communication responsibility level in your organisation, can you answer the following questions positively?

  • Do all your position or role descriptions have 'communication' as a key responsibility?
  • Do your managerial performance agreements or contracts include 'communication' as a key result area?
  • Are managers recognised for communicating well and counselled or penalised for not communicating?
  • Are staff at all levels encouraged and supported to give critical upward feedback?
  • Does your organisation see training as one of your key communication channels?

6. Deal with the bad news as well as the good.

We often communicate only the good news in an organisation, but it is equally important to communicate the bad. Bad news comes in many forms – service or quality problems, delays, customer complaints, criticism from external sources and so on.

In a 1993 study of ten organisations selected for the survey because of their records of excellent internal communication, the one with the highest bad news/good news ratio also had the highest staff satisfaction levels and very good economic performance.

The results can be explained by two psychological phenomena: reciprocity and disclosure. Reciprocity suggests that if you do something for me, then I'll do something for you. Disclosure from one person encourages openness from the other – people are prepared to discuss both their successes and failures. Management being equally candid about good and bad news sets the example for staff to do likewise.

In the leading organisation, staffs were held responsible for telling management about problems. Communicating bad news was culturally valued and institutionally supported. "When bad news is candidly reported, an environment is created in which good news is more believable", added one manager.

7. Serve the audience's needs as well as your own.

We often think of the message as "Now hear this! We want you to know…" From a sender's perspective, this is important. However, if communication is to be effective, we also need to answer the receiver's request, "This is what we need to know…"

8. Design your communication strategy to suit your organisation.

Communication is a process, not a product. Newsletters, memos, videos, publications, meetings, team briefings and the intranet may all have an important part to play in your organisation's communication strategy. Be sure that you understand why each is being used – what it will cover and achieve.

In designing your strategy, apply these ground rules:

  • Ensure all communication includes not only what's happening, but also why and how.
  • Be timely. Communicate what can be communicated immediately. Don't wait to cross all the t's and dot all the i's.
  • Link the big picture with the little picture. Ensure that people understand how the big picture affects them and their jobs.
  • Don't tell people how they should feel about the news. Avoid statements such as, "This is exciting for us all." Communicate the "who, what, when, why and how" and let people make up their own minds about how they feel.
  • Match the message to the medium. Face-to-face is good for people issues, for which the intranet and email are totally inappropriate. If the message is likely to affect people emotionally, the only medium should be face-to-face. If this is impossible, a fallback is the phone or a video-audio hook-up. Never email or intranet.
  • Build a feedback loop into your strategy. Actively encourage people to provide upward and horizontal feedback.

Effective communication practices should be consistent under all organisational circumstances. Every manager is a communicator. Every staff member is a communicator.

In case you're wondering, in the days after the site meeting, James got many more people taking the time to talk to him at lunch and as he passed their workstations than he had in his previous two weeks at the plant. He also got many emails from people, giving their names and apologising for not doing so with previous questions to Ask Management.

Copyright © The National Learning Institute

About the Author

Bob Selden managing director of the National Learning Institute, has been an HR development consultant for more than 30 years. An Australian currently living in Switzerland, he is a part-time faculty member at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne and the Australian Graduate School of Management in Sydney. You can talk to Bob about communication and change via www.nationallearning.com.au

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