Change Communication


I’ve worked with a number of companies regarding change and one thing still boggles my mind – a fundamental misunderstanding of change adoption and how the change team’s progress relates to the general population of the organization.  And more specifically, how delaying communication until you have all the data effects change adoption.

While there are a number of things that can influence the length of time for adoption (complexity, scope, pervasiveness, size of audience, etc.) on thing that has a direct correlation to the speed of adoption is communication. The sooner you let people know change is coming, the faster you can expect adoption. You can also get feedback to address any issues you may not have considered before they become difficult to implement. If you wait too long, resistance seems to become monumental and adjusting anything based on feedback feels like a slap in the face for all the time you feel you have spent considering all options. But there is one perspective you never gave a voice until you were almost ready to roll out the change – theirs.

The Root Problem of the Typical Approach

On a two axis graph (we love those, don’t we?) with time being the horizontal and change progress being the vertical, the change team and change leader start near point zero on both.  As time increases the change team is formulating what the change will look like, how to configure it, shape it, what training is needed (sometimes), who is, etc.  So the line begins to rise as time increases.  We get to initial system testing, or final review and the change line is still climbing.  Then we roll it out.  The change progress for the team is high, but all of the people who just learned about this are staring at zero in terms of change progress. They have had not chance to understand the motivation, reason, impact, disruption, confusion, or anxiety this is going to cause.

What sometimes makes this even more anxiety producing is, even when the communication does begin, the volume is way to low and horribly infrequent. Some companies I have worked with send out a pamphlet with people’s check stubs and that was as far as it went.  Despite all the other issues with that form of communication, the fact that this was the ONLY time and method they communicated a major organizational change left most people struggling to fill in any gaps.  In fact, six months later, some people were still unaware that a change had taken place.

The Psychology of Change

For most change processes, the act of change is linear – you start here and move some levers, change some forms, maybe do some training, and then flip the switch and you are at the end of the change project.  For people, change is never linear. The below graphic depicts the standard understanding of the change curve for most people.

How quickly someone navigates through this curve depends on a number of things: the pervasiveness of the change, how impacted the person is, how long the previous system/process/dynamic was in place, perceived benefit to the new way, etc. But a big piece that is not addressed in the illustration above is the cause for the dip. The cause for denial, resistance, and hesitancy, is fear. We fear change, not a new concept I know but something you can’t just expect people to get over quickly. And when you delay your communication and are expecting them to adopt the change quickly (in comparison to how long the change team has had to absorb it,) under-communication is your enemy.

Here is how under-communication leads to increased resistance. The human brain wants the world to make sense and it will fill whatever void it has to for the world to make sense. (See Gestalt Psychology) Typically, because factual data is not playing a part in filling gaps (hence the gap), our brains do not run to what is most logical – it runs to what is self-preserving (ala Triune Brain Theory). Example: you are hiking down a trail and see a hole in ground that you cannot see into – do you stick your hand in there? Before I get to why not, does the hole have a bottom? Of course it does, because a bottomless hole does not make sense. So what do you fill it with? A $20 bill? Winning lottery ticket? Or is it something more sinister – a snake, spider, scorpion, varmint – all waiting to bite you?  In reality the most likely scenario, is the hole is empty. But our brains don’t go there.  We fill it with something negative that we need to protect ourselves against. The same things happens when there is a ‘hole’ in the communication or understanding of a change. And rather than wait for more information, people fill the gap. That is commonly called “gossip”. We want to fill that gap, we need to fill the gap, and we will usually fill it with something negative.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

The longer gossip festers, the harder it will be to correct it.  What is worse, is negative gossip can feed cynicism which then begins to feed negative gossip – and so the negative culture spiral ensues.  Now communication seems to breed its own resistance, anger, dismissal, and hesitation. This commonly occurs when organizations begin communicating after the negative gossip has started. And it causes most change managers to avoid communicating because it seemingly does no good – and in some instances – can derail the change process by giving a formal channel for high-influence individuals to voice their cynicism.  So if you start too late, yes, sometimes you might be better off just dropping the change in on people, but don’t expect people to like it, gravitate towards it, or accept it quickly. In fact, the best you can expect is mild compliance at that point – people who only do it because there is no other option (that is, IF you take the old method away.)

Start Your Own Gossip

Viral and teaser marketing tactics have been all the rave these days, and for good reason, they get people talking…even if sometimes all they are talking about is the ad and have no real knowledge of the product. Generating buzz about your change is a great way to begin communication. Primarily because it allows you three things right off the bat: no need for all the answers, feedback on possible early resistance, and early buzz. Now, obviously if the change IS negative in its impact (layoffs, pay cuts, etc.) you might want to formalize the message and opt for transparency, but for other changes such as a new technology, new procedure, change in product offering, etc. “viral” marketing can get you a lot of early traction and information. Imagine if Apple put out an ad that said, “get ready to change the world again..” And nothing more, maybe some elusive photos that don’t really show anything.  Trust me, people would be talking.

Doing It Right

Be Early: Even if you are vague.  If you want adoption, start before the gossip gets out of your hands.  Better to have curiosity chatter than negative chatter

Be Everywhere: Information rarely travels through a single medium.  Even if your formal communication channels are usually via one medium, trust me, people get their information elsewhere.  Email, website, intranet, twitter, Facebook, blogs, closed radio circuits piping Musak to your company restrooms, hold music, newsletters, bulletin boards, etc.  For viral messages, I would actually avoid all company meetings. To generate buzz, keep it unidirectional at first.  Coordinate your message releases so they are consistent but make sure you are not relying on one channel.

Be Frequent: Set a schedule and pace yourself to ramp up close to formal announcements.

Be Receptive: Once you plan your formal announcement, provide room for Q&A.  Communication by its very definition is not one-direction so simply telling people something is not communicating…it is informing. Informing has its place in change but do not confuse it with communication.  If you want to communicate change, you need to listen when people talk.  Resistance is simply data. And like all data, it is worthy of analysis. Some data is great, some is not so great, but ignoring it just forces people to fill in the gaps.

Be Transparent-ish: Don’t lie, and don’t hide things that everyone will learn anyway.  If there is a reason you’ve decided to go one direction v another, being honest, even when people don’t always like it, is better than destroying any trust people have in you or your organization.  Once the trust is gone, they don’t even listen anymore since they assume you are lying or manipulating information.  That does not mean always telling them everything, but obscuring the truth is not going to help people trust this change is the best thing for them.

Be Frequent: Doing one information blast is not going to help you get adoption. And don’t assume communication should stop after you have rolled out the change, if anything you should communicate more.

Be A Safety Net: You and your change team are the experts on whatever the change is.  If you want people to catch up to you, don’t assume training and education will happen instantly. Coach people, stay with them, and help them be successful. Telling someone to figure it out on their own usually results in heavy resistance and a gravitation back to what is comfortable. If you want them to make the leap to something new, you have to position yourself to make it okay and to catch them when (yes, when, not if) they fall.

Be Firm: There is a difference between helping smooth the transition for people and allowing the population to drive the change.  At a certain point, someone needs to be firm. Get input and modify implementation – yes.  Deviate from your vision and intended outcomes – no.

Conclusion

Change is hard, not only to implement but to adjust to. People feel uncomfortable in silence. If you are unsure about that, start your next meeting with 45 seconds of silence…and see how long it takes for people to start whispering under their breaths to their coworkers. People fill silence to make themselves feel more comfortable.  This is the essential importance of communication during change – if you aren’t having the conversations, they will.

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6 thoughts on “Change Communication

  1. I agree 100%. We’re all adults, it’s time to be transparent, open and honest with each other, even when we don’t have a lot to share, eg. “we’re starting to xxx, we don’t have much to share with you now, but what we can tell you is yyy… more to come.” Commit to regular updates and stick to your commitments.

    We do need to be very thoughtful about when to commence communication and at what intensity. If we go too hard too soon, we lose momentum and people think we’re crying wolf.

  2. Pingback: Why your boss doesn’t trust you… « Peak Alignment

  3. Ha, no offense taken, happens all the time! You’re right about how we fill in the voids. I describe it to my clients as a narrative. If we don’t create it, others will, and usually it’s a crazy quilt of nonsense. But once it’s out there, it’s hard to debunk. So stop it before it even starts!

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