Communicating change: How to be a Better Communicator part III

Butterflies and pupae representing change

Change communication is a crucial skill in any leader or manager’s toolbox.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Those are the words of the 18th century scientist, inventor, politician and statesman Benjamin Franklin. As one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he certainly knew a thing or two about change. And I can add one more to Franklin’s list: in modern business life, change too is inevitable.

The ability to communicate change well is a highly prized asset in any organisation. As one of our customers recently put it: “The only constant around here is change, so we’d better get good at it.” In that spirit, communicating change is the topic of this post, the third in our series on essential communication skills for leaders and managers.

Trying to predict what form change will take is notoriously difficult. Just ask Charles Duell, director of the U.S. Patent Office, who said: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Or refer to Ken Olsen, president and founder of DEC: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

But predicting that change will happen is much easier. There are so many triggers for change; competition and technology are two that Duell and Olsen missed, and the list extends to financial, demographics, legislation, globalisation, etc.

Inside organisations, see how many of these triggers for change you can tick: new systems, process changes, new products and services, changes in customer needs, mergers and acquisitions, new priorities and objectives, new leaders, restructures. Shout if you got all of them in the last year – it might be cathartic if nothing else!

Get ahead of the change curve

How people respond to change is well understood. First, we deny the change, then resist it, then explore what might be good about it and finally commit to it. These phases are often described as points along a change curve.

If you can predict how people will respond to change, then you can plan how to communicate it, every step of the way.

Effective leaders reinforce the need for change and stay ‘on message’ to help overcome denial. And they allow people to vent their frustrations and are empathetic, supportive, yet strong, to overcome resistance.

Over the years, I’ve collected over 50 reasons why “This change won’t work” from classics such as “We’ve always done it this way” and “It isn’t broke, so why mend it” to some more creative offerings such as “It’s too late to start that” or, my personal favourite, “But Thursday is my bowling day” – truly! We share all 50 in a workshop we run on communicating change where we challenge participants to co-create ways of overcoming these ritual noises.

As colleagues explore what might be good about the change, effective leaders harness the explosion of creativity among their colleagues, focusing their efforts by asking for innovative ways to achieve key outcomes of the change programme. They also involve the ‘explorers’ in helping move the ‘deniers’ and ‘resisters’ forward.

In their paper ‘The Inconvenient Truth about Change Management’ (PDF), McKinsey discusses why change programmes don’t reach their full potential (a bit rich coming from them!) They put forward that communication is often more acceptable when it comes from ‘a bloke like me’. What a peer tells us is more likely to get past our resistance and resonate with our experience: “Leaders would say that wouldn’t they, but when if Bill is saying it…” This phenomenon can be harnessed in change communication by involving influential people at all levels of the organisation in shaping and delivering the change programme.

Finally, effective leaders celebrate success and recognise the people who exemplify the behaviours and results associated with being committed to the change.

Stay patient

Critically, really effective leaders remain patient, not cross, with their colleagues as they work through the change curve.

I often hear leaders say: “Why don’t they get it?” and “Why aren’t they committed to this change?” The truth is that these leaders have already been on the change journey and arrived at commitment, via all the other stations along the way. Their colleagues are simply not there yet. The leader’s role is to take their people with them on the journey. Often, what’s needed is a powerful case for change.

Make the case for change

In his outstanding book The Heart of Change, John Kotter observes: “People change what they do, less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking, more because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” After all, Kennedy didn’t say: “We will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade… look I’ve got a Gannt chart to prove it” nor did Luther-King say “I have a dream… here’s my spreadsheet.”

Creating a compelling case for change that people can see and feel is key. That can be done in a wide range of ways – including using the power of storytelling and imagery to engage people in the big picture of where the organisation is heading and how it’s going to get there.

Providing an ‘inspirational dream’ of what might be possible is far more likely to move people along the change curve than trying to frighten them with the clichéd line that says: “If we don’t change, we’ll surely die.” How many times have we heard that approach in our time in big organisations? Often, the leader before said it too, and maybe the one before that. And we didn’t die – we’re still here. Faced with this negative messaging, people often simply carry on what they were doing before – hardly a recipe for a successful change.

Be the change you want to see

However convincing a case you make, it’ll fall flat unless people can see that you’re authentically committed to it.

Leaders are often adversely affected by change – sometimes more so than those lower down in the organisation – while also being expected to be ambassadors for it. It’s a tough ask.

Leaders’ attitudes to the change can leak out in the way they communicate it, sending unintended and often unhelpful signals to the people they lead. According to The Work Foundation in the UK, the failure of leaders to model the correct behaviour is one of the primary reasons change programmes do not achieve their potential. So leaders need to be a beacon of light during change, heeding the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see.”

All in all, if you want to be successful in today’s fast-moving business landscape, you’d better get better at communicating change – like London buses, another one will be along any minute.

More tips on communicating change

We’ve also written a handbook that provides a wealth of communication tips and techniques. How to be a Better Communicator is not for sale in bookshops. Instead, you buy copies direct from us and present them to your leaders and managers so they can sharpen their communication skills and engage their teams better than ever before.

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