Communicating change effectively is crucial.
It is essential for getting people on-side and gaining their buy-in.
But while change is an inevitable part of working life, the communication around it can be tricky.
There is a narrative that people fear change. That it means more work, less control and diminished status.
People may also be unable or reluctant to see the reward the change will bring.
So, how can we overcome these barriers and improve the way we communicate change?
This was the topic of our latest masterclass for members of the Media Team Academy, where Susan Bookbinder, one of our expert communication training tutors, was joined by Dan Boniface, head of training at The BCF Group, and Nick Chambers-Parkes, director of communications, brand and experience at the HCRG Group.
And they began by exploring some of the myths that surround change communication.
Change communication myths
Resistance needs to be met head-on
Change can often be met with resistance.
People may be unwilling to adapt to a new situation or ways of doing things. It might disrupt their day-to-day work.
And organisations often try to meet this head-on, believing if it is not tackled early, time and money will be wasted.
But that’s a flawed approach.
“You can’t shy away from resistance,” Dan said.
“But you have to understand when working through change that people are involved.
“So, you need to give them a voice, show you are engaged with what people want from the change and that you will listen to what they say.
“There are times when change has to happen. But you must be careful about how you communicate it to get people on board.”
People don’t like change
We’ve all heard this one.
And it often feels like a convenient excuse. After all, people make changes all the time – they move home, take on different jobs and start new relationships.
“I think it is the uncertainty around change that people don’t like rather than change itself,” Dan said.
“People want to know what is coming up.
“So, you have to create clarity around the change, no matter how big or small. Different levels of the organisation will need different levels of detail, but they all need clarity.
“You get resistance when people don’t know what the change will look like. They need to see what the picture looks like in a few months.”
Nick warned that if you focus on telling people that little is changing, they may think you are hiding something, creating uncertainty.
He said: “I looked after a huge change in the organisation around two years ago. We were acquired and overnight changed our name, which was perceived by the organisation to be a much bigger change than it was.
“It was December, and we are a health organisation. We wanted to focus on what matters, which is delivering services to the frontline and our communities. So, we focused on the reassurance and that not much had changed.
“What I learnt from that process was that this didn’t reassure. It created people searching for what we were not telling them. So, sometimes you need to talk about what is changing as much as what isn’t.”
Facts and figures make people change
There is sometimes a presumption that sticking to the facts will persuade people of the benefits of change.
But facts don’t change minds. They tend not to help people overcome emotions and fears.
“People want information and guidance about what the change looks like for them as individuals and their teams,” Dan said.
“Most of all, they want support from their line manager and senior leaders so change feels comfortable.”
We should remove people from the equation
Dan describes this as “probably the most damaging myth”.
He said: “If you take people out of the equation, you will have even more resistance to the change.
“Understand the people affected by the change and how it will impact them. The change may have to happen. But how it is communicated is crucial.
“Sending out an email saying ‘this is going to happen’ will get people’s backs up. A face-to-face conversation would be much more positive and enables you to positively influence those impacted by the change.”
You have to sell the change
One of the issues with change communication is that it can be all one way.
People are bombarded with messages about the positives of the change – potentially setting unrealistic expectations – and there isn’t the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns.
Nick said: “You don’t need to go in and say this will be amazing. If you go in and only do the sell, which is probably the instinctive way of doing it, it can become difficult when people question or challenge it.
“The process can be helped by being honest about the challenges and potential bumps in the road.”
Dan believes the selling can be done for you by people who are excited about the change.
“If you find people passionate about the change, they will be your champions,” he said.
“They will go out and sell the change for you. They will talk about it because they can see the benefits. And they will get people on board for you.”
Tackling how change is perceived and stopping small changes becoming a big concern
Not all organisational change is big.
But sometimes, the smaller changes can cause the biggest concern.
How can you stop it from snowballing and becoming amplified?
Well, it is often caused by a void in information that becomes filled with rumours, myths and speculation.
Dan said: “That void can create stress. So, we need to plug the gaps with information and create certainty.
“We have to work out what the resistance to change is and where it is coming from. If we understand what people perceive the threat to be, we can work around that and move them forward.
“In coaching, we talk about ‘away from threat towards reward’.
“It sounds a bit cheesy. But it is that mindset that no matter what the threat is, we have to move them away from that to the end goal.
“If we can keep people focusing on what looks good in the future, we are more likely to keep them motivated and prevent them becoming negative.”
Resistance and concern about change may not just come internally.
We may have our doubts about the change and the decision.
“We can also experience resistance ourselves and lack confidence we are making the right change,” Dan said.
“Those imposter syndrome thoughts can creep in and hijack our thoughts.
“Making sure we have gone through our root cause analysis, decision-making tools and knowing we have understood the people are key to overcoming these concerns, having confidence in the change and bringing people on the journey.”
It is also vital to remember that you don’t need to have all the answers.
Dan added: “In leadership and management training, we teach that just because you are the leader doesn’t mean you have to have all the expertise.
“You need a certain amount of knowledge, but you don’t need to know everything. If you’ve built good teams around you, you will have experts in them. So, don’t be afraid to pull on them.
“Sometimes we are so afraid of failing that we might not turn to the person next to us because we feel threatened by how good they are. We need to bring them with us on the journey.”
Linked to this is how we position those conversations about change that we think will be difficult.
Rather than seeing them as difficult conversations, change the emphasis slightly so it becomes a ‘courageous conversation’.
Dan believes that getting away from those negative thoughts will put you in a better position to positively impact how the other person thinks about the change.
Communication is key
Well, you might expect us to say that as a communications training company.
But the success of change relies on how well it is communicated. People want certainty, clarity and the opportunity to raise concerns.
“Keep communication simple and clear,” Dan said.
“There can be a lot of jargon and acronyms in business. If we use these terms, let’s make sure everyone understands them.
“I’m coaching someone going through a big restructure in their organisation.
“It has been handled well. But the two areas it has fallen on are setting deadlines and having opportunities for regular communication – things like check-in points with line managers and senior leaders.
“So, they are losing the interaction and the engagement, and trust falls because people don’t feel as supported.”
Dan just mentioned deadlines, and he believes managing them has a crucial role in communicating change effectively.
He said: “Let’s stick to what we promise. When deadlines shift, it can break the trust in people delivering the change and in the change itself.
“We have to make sure we under promise and over deliver and not the other way around.
“If we think something will take four months, give ourselves six. Give yourself a buffer for things going slightly wrong because they will – when you implement change on a scale, things will go wrong occasionally.”
You may feel like appealing for some divine intervention when managing change.
But AMEN, as regular readers of our media training blogs will know, is an acronym that helps people and organisations communicate better.
It stands for Audience, Message, Example Negatives.
Susan believes the AMEN acronym we regularly use during our communication training can help people prepare for media interviews.
“The first thing to consider when planning your communication is who you are speaking to,” she said.
“If it is a town hall situation, who are you trying to influence in that audience? If it is a one-to-one, carefully consider how the change will impact them.
“Tailor your communication to land with your audience.”
“Make the message about the audience, not you,” Susan said.
“Use inclusive language like ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’.
“The message might be ‘Let’s get Brexit done’. That’s not a message I agree with, but as a communications consultant, I think it was effective because it is simple, and the first word makes it about us. “
“To help the message land, it is vital to have evidence or an example,” Susan said.
“There are various layers to this part of your preparation. You can add a metaphor, like Jonathan Van Tam in the Downing Street briefings.
“It can be a great way of illustrating the complex and making it relatable. An anecdote also works well and can do the heavy lifting to make your message land – ‘I’ve just been speaking to another manager, and they’ve been telling me this…’.”
“Think about what could come up and how you will deal with it,” Susan said.
“Sometimes, if something unexpected comes up, it ok to say you don’t know when faced with a difficult question.
“You can tell them that you will get back to them with the answer or defer them to someone better placed to provide the answer.”
It sounds like a type of boiler.
But it is a model that shows how we can influence behavioural change in people.
It stands for Capability, Opportunity and Motivation, with the B referring to behaviour.
“The model suggests that if we don’t have those three things in place or one is missing, we won’t change the behaviour,” Dan said.
“Has that person or your team got the capability to implement the change? If there is a skill missing, we need to address that.
“Do people have the opportunity to get on board with the changes?” This could include the opportunity to train and discuss what is happening with senior leaders and peers.
“You have to give people the opportunity to voice their concerns.”
Motivation refers to the determination and drive to reach the goal.
Dan added: “We have to create motivation. But we cannot just tell someone they are motivated.
“We must work out what inspires them towards the reward. What do they want to achieve? What do they want to take away from the change? What is the impact on them going to be?”
Fancy another one?
Once you’ve used COM-B, we have another lovely model to help.
It is called PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Act.
“This is used in change and project management,” Dan said.
“Because it is cyclical, let’s reframe it as continuous improvement.
“So, we might implement a change that becomes business as usual, then review it through the checkpoints we have in place.”
To illustrate this further, Dan talked about his work rolling out a leadership academy with a large energy organisation to help staff recruitment and retention.
“We designed the training and put it into action with a pilot for the board of directors,” he said.
“The ‘check’ bit was the feedback from them and any changes that were needed. And the ‘act’ part was rolling that out to cohorts throughout the organisation.
“We are then using feedback from the delegates to ensure it is having a positive impact.
“There was some resistance to the change, particularly those who have been doing the job a while.
“But doing the pilot scheme with the board resonated throughout the organisation because people could see the leaders had made changes to their practices.”
During this exclusive session for members of The Media Team Academy, Nick took members through a change of approach to the menopause in his organisation and how it was communicated. And Dan outlined two approaches you can use now to improve your change change communication.
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