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Five steps to effectively communicate and deliver change with your workforce

It is often said, in today’s fast-moving world, that one of the few constants in life is change. In fact we’ve been saying that in business for years, so as leaders and communicators you’d hope that by now we’d be pretty good at communicating change. Yet the results of the vast majority of employee opinion surveys suggest otherwise. And in many of those surveys, those involved in leading and communicating change, come in for some very fierce criticism.

I appreciate that some of this negative feedback could stem from the fact that people don’t ‘like’ the change, but ever keen to own the outcome, I wonder if that is because we didn’t do a good job of communicating it in the first place?

So, what can be done to communicate and deliver change more effectively? To be clear about the new direction your business is heading, and take your employees with you on the journey… In this blog, I share five steps to speed you on your way.

Step 1. Show why ‘we can’t go on this way’

Other than paying lip service, for career progression or role retention reasons, no member of staff is going to genuinely give up their old ways of working, let alone adopt new ones, if they are not convinced by a compelling case for change in the first place. They need to be persuaded, using examples that are relevant to them and igniting a passion from within them, in terms of the things they care about. Let’s be honest, a trip through the balance sheet, delivered by the FD, rarely achieves this.

What does, are examples of how the change will positively impact customers, or service levels. Or showing the improvement the change will make in the working lives of the majority of staff. Also, perhaps, the difference the change will make to the environment and local communities. What you are seeking to create is a groundswell of opinion, coming from staff themselves, that we simply can’t go on like this – that we have to change.

Step 2. Celebrate the past – to create the foundations for the future

Despite the need for the change programme now being called for, most businesses – and indeed the people who work for them – are not total basket cases. They’ve delivered some great results over the years in some parts of the business, and are rightly proud of their achievements. Actively celebrating these successes, especially in the context of delivering earlier change programmes, if carefully positioned, can have a number of benefits.

You can show that the business has successfully delivered change in the past, and can do so again. You can celebrate the successes of the past and the contributions of those involved, as part of the rich history of your business, but then leave them behind – in the past – and move on. This technique is especially important in helping people let go of the old ways of working. And you can build the pride and confidence in the workforce, and use that as a springboard to deliver even greater things in the future.

Step 3. Establish the credibility of your planned changes

So often I hear staff referring to latest wave of change as ‘another crazy idea, cooked up by people in HQ that have never spent a day working in the operation.’ Shifting that perception is key if your change programme is to achieve its full potential – through the actions of your own better aligned and engaged workforce.

Perhaps equally important is ensuring that the change you are creating is not in fact ‘a crazy idea, cooked up by…’ And you can kill the two birds with one stone by getting people from the coal face involved in shaping and championing your change programme. I find their insights often add immense value, and their involvement and advocacy carry great weight with the people you need to influence – the workforce who will implement your changes.

Step 4. Communicate your collective ambition

With your colleagues now telling each other ‘we can’t go on like this.’; with the foundations for success firmly established and the past left behind; and, with the trust in your proposed changes growing by the day – through steps one to three – now is the time focus everyone’s efforts on delivering the changes you want to see.

That means communicating your collective ambition, the things you are all working together to achieve, your North Star if you will. And not using ‘strategic’ language that only appeals to the members of the board or the writers of a thesaurus. Instead, use plain English, short sentences and even shorter words, especially if you are an organisation where English isn’t always the mother tongue. And bring your collective ambition to life in every part of your business; using stories, case studies, blogs, videos, podcasts – ideally featuring the voices of employees from beyond the Leadership Team.

Step 5. Promote the early wins

Having got the change ball rolling, you now need to build some momentum. That means communicating meaningful, often highly symbolic, early wins. For maximum effect these need to be wins that really resonate with the workforce, again ideally about things they really care about. And again, why not feature their faces, voices and stories.

Get them talking about the difference the change is already making to their lives – and those of the customers and stakeholders they serve. Bring out the human element of the change, not just the process. Processes and procedures rarely stir the soul, but people and how they are experiencing the change does. Critically, don’t forget to highlight the behaviours that made your early wins possible. Promote the right behaviours, and the next wave of wins will surely follow, as the change programme gathers pace.

As the saying goes, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. Well, I’ve given you five here. If this change is everything – to the success of your organisation – then you need your people to be saying ‘this changes everything.’

Follow these steps and they might just say that, and actually deliver the changes you are looking for!