Communicate Change to Staff Effectively
“Rumors are running rife, productivity is down and staff are in denial or resistant!”
Try these tips to communicate change effectively...
In today’s environment, change is a fact of life. Companies, resistant to change, risk losing their competitive edge.
Before engaging in communicating change, it is important to understand the psychology of change and your role in the change process. Change needs to be effectively managed and communicated so that it is embraced rather than rejected.
One of the more sensitive areas to manage is your senior management team. They may be driving the change initiative, but may not be so good at communicating ideas in a way that is accessible to all staff. They may not even have a framework for managing the change process. Part of your job is likely to be supporting your key stakeholders and making it easy for them to communicate effectively to staff at all levels.
How can I communicate change and minimise negative aspects of the change process?
There are change management methodologies, which have proven to be successful when implementing changes. These provide a framework for managing the change and change communications process. Select processes that suit you and your company’s culture and that are appropriate to the type of change you wish to implement.
When researching change management, it doesn’t take long to learn about trust. It takes time to win employee trust, which is the foundation of an employee’s commitment to the business. It takes time to build it but only moments to destroy it. Signs that trust has been eroded include lower productivity, poor morale, resistance to change, a strong rumor mill and good staff leaving. A good change management process with effective, honest internal communications can avoid all this and make implementing changes an exciting and rewarding challenge.
Understand the psychology of change
Don’t let the change curve become a roller coaster
Change is a complex issue. Many of us do not embrace the need for change, especially when things appear to be moving along just fine. We are firmly ensconced in our comfort zone and have a sense of wellbeing. In the business world, however, senior management needs to be at least one step ahead in order to maintain their organization’s competitive edge. Senior management may read ‘comfort zone’ as ‘stagnation’ and immediately start planning to innovate and improve.
Prior to announcing any change, someone has obviously thought about the current situation, analyzed solutions, and come up with a plan. This takes time. This plan is then often rolled out to the employees. Being suddenly confronted with a change plan, and feeling left out of the loop, makes many employees feel anxious.
During times of organizational change, employees can become less productive and question their job security. Their response to change is often emotionally charged and if change is not managed and communicated effectively the chances of success reduce significantly.
‘The Change Curve’ graphically describes the psychology of change. It lists stages that employees typically move through during a change initiative. These stages range from Satisfaction (I am happy as I am) through Denial (This isn’t relevant to my work), Resistance (I’m not having this), Exploration (Could this work for me?), Hope (I can see how I can make this work for me), right through to Commitment (This works for me and my colleagues). We mustn’t overlook the fact that when there are significant changes, people may need time to grieve for any perceived or real losses. To communicate effectively, it is vital to recognize your employees’ mindset at any stage of the process, so that you can support them, validate their feelings and move them through to the commitment stage.
Typically at the start of any change initiative employees experience:
• Fear; e.g. of job loss or of increased responsibilities
• Frustration; e.g. with the process or with lack of information, or even
• Acceptance; e.g. they recognize that change is needed or inevitable.
Understanding the needs of your key stakeholder groups and where they are along the continuum of the change curve enables you to hone your communications plan. Selecting a framework with an iterative approach, allows you to make subtle (or not so subtle changes) so your role in the change process is as effective as possible.
Think strategically and clarify your messages
Why are we changing?
Even when you have the trust of your employees, they won’t get alongside and make changes unless you provide a compelling and logical reason to change. Your strategy should be to motivate staff through inspiration, not desperation.
Having a structured process is only part of your strategic planning. An iterative process that allows you to make continual improvements depending on the feedback you receive is an excellent approach. Acting on feedback demonstrates that you are not only listening to your employees but taking note of them too. This can be a powerful way of engaging staff and moving them through to the Exploration stage of the Change Curve.
Part of a successful change management process must include communicating strategically. This includes ensuring that your management team communicate effectively. A strategic move might be to measure how effective managers are at communicating key messages and to provide some training for those who perform poorly. Roger D’Aprix comments that as soon as some leaders meet resistance they either ignore it or want to squash it. He suggests a more strategic approach; one that embraces engagement through:
• Compelling logic
• A match of actions and words
• Involvement of those who are affected
• Communicating a sense of confidence and minimizing fear
• Repetition of the primary themes.
Use the right communications channels
I found out my job was under threat by email!
As communications experts, you know how important it is to select the right communication channel. It is too easy to get so caught up in a busy project that you overlook some of the basics. So while planning your communications strategy, make sure you take time to select the right tool for the job.
Research shows that face to face communication is required if you really want staff to adopt new behaviors. Face to face is also the best channel for planning and dealing with sensitive issues. It allows you to gauge reactions, to get instant feedback and to ensure that everyone has received and understood the message.
You may not want to front up to people when you have to communicate bad news. But if you are honest and empathetic, and demonstrate that you are prepared to listen, to take note of feedback and to answer the hard questions, then you have delivered unpalatable news in the best possible way. They may not like the message, but they will respect you for fronting up.
Even if you are on a mission to save trees, don’t forget about paper. It is still best for complex and lengthy material. It is also very useful to support face to face and phone conversations.
The intranet is great for searching for and retrieving factual information. But take note, the intranet does not change behavior, you need the personal touch to do this.
Email, it is quick and convenient and overused. Communicating change via email or voicemail is just bad form.
In addition, email is not always considered effective. A District Court ruling in Massachusetts on employee communications found against a company that communicated a change in procedure via email, because the message was not effectively communicated. If you do choose to convey important information via email, make sure you get some acknowledgement of receipt and understanding.
There are now so many channels to choose from, it’s a good idea to list the ones you have available, and then match the message to the channel. Using a variety of channels means that you can repeat messages, without looking as if you are hammering home a point (even if you are). It means that staff can’t ‘escape’ from what’s happening, or deny all knowledge.
There are other issues to consider when devising your communication strategy. What information needs to be pushed out to staff and what should staff ‘pull’ in? If you are pushing information, how can you be sure they have received it? And if you have provided information for staff to find and use as required, do you need to know how many ‘hits’ the information gets, so you can measure how much it is used?
Using project champions can be a powerful ploy. Project champions communicate really strongly by modeling behaviors, through conversing with staff, and demonstrating how proposed changes really work for your staff.
Measure results, celebrate success
I am sure that we got the message across. But what did actually happen?
Measurement is critical in times of change and the best communication strategies involve measuring for effectiveness. It is important to understand whether messages are hitting the mark and to confirm that people are on the same page as you (or at least the page you expected them to be on).
Your first step is to list the desired outcomes of your change communications project, and decide how you will measure the success of each outcome. And do you have current data to use as a comparison?
You probably want to measure:
• Staff attitudes (to the project, to how well their managers get the message across)
• Staff emotions (where they are on the change curve?)
• Level of skill development or knowledge acquisition
• How well is your communications strategy working?
• Have messages been received, read and understood?
If you measure every step of the way, you can tweak messages and change tack when an approach is not working as well as it might. Regular surveys that give a snapshot of how people are feeling allow you to track the overall trend, otherwise it is easy to let your opinion of progress be colored by the ‘squeaky wheels’ in your organization;
You need to gather qualitative as well as quantitative data, and decide on effective ways to present and use the information.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah is a Director of Snap Communications, http://www.snapcomms.com, a company which provides specialist Internal Communications tools and Employee Communications Solutions.