Talking About Change


Good communication is at the root of all successful organizational change. When done well, staff support the change and help their organizations evolve. When done poorly, staff’s resistance can linger for far too long, seriously damaging an organization. Since we all prefer the former, let’s talk about how to communicate well in times of change.

Say It More Than Once

When it comes to talking change, communicating once is never enough. Experts agree that to make a message land you must communicate multiple times through multiple channels.

We are all distracted by the pings of our emails, personal obligations, maybe even the score of a sports event or the upcoming election. Add to that the fact that people instinctively and instantly worry about how change will impact them, and you’ve got a recipe for people hearing only some or even none of what you say.

The only way to combat the distractions is to convey your message more than once using channels that your audience is familiar with: face-to-face meetings, emails for reference, updates to the intranet or newsletter articles, and anything else that staff relies on to stay in the know.

Managers are also channels, and in times of change it’s essential that they are leveraged. As I mentioned in a previous post, staff want to hear about the impacts of change directly from their managers, so they must be armed with information to share.

Now that you’re thinking about how to communicate, let’s think about what goes into the message itself.

Customize the Message for Your Audience

When you are putting together your message, no matter the channel by which it will be conveyed or how far along in the process you are, consider the following:

  • Why is the Change Happening?
  • How will the Change Directly Impact Staff?
  • What are the Benefits of Changing?

Generally, people resist change, and this resistance is perpetuated when they don’t understand why change is happening. Your communications should leave staff understanding the rationale behind a change and the vision for the future. They need to feel that change is occurring for a reason.

And since this happens to every single one of us, you know that once change is announced staff will be listening for details about how it will directly impact them.  They may be wondering if the new will inconvenience them or even reveal skills that they lack. No message about change will be complete without an explanation of how what’s to come will directly touch staff. When preparing to explain the impacts, think about how to describe the benefits of change in a way that’s meaningful to your audience. How does this change improve their work environment, most used process, ability to collaborate with partners, etc.?

If you do not know when the change is announced, it is essential to tell staff when and how they will receive information about its direct impacts.  An absence of information can spark rumors and destructive misunderstandings.

Remember, even if a change feels totally out of your office’s control there are likely still benefits to be highlighted. Without those benefits, or things to look forward to, staff will resist, productivity will drop and the impacts will be felt in morale.

Create a Two-Way Dialogue

Do you ever feel frustrated when someone is doing something to you and not listening to your feelings about it? You’re not alone. People want and need to voice their thoughts in order to fully accept change.

One essential way to engage staff is to establish a formal feedback loop that gives staff an outlet to ask questions and share concerns and gives management an opportunity to demonstrate that feedback is actually being heard, and ideally, used.  Informal feedback is also important and can be captured in manager-to-employee or peer-to-peer settings. In fact, once champions of change begin revealing themselves, ask them to reach out to their more resistant co-workers to discuss the benefits of the change that they’re looking forward to most.

Two-way communication (aka a genuine conversation where both parties feel heard) shouldn’t happen just once. The same communication rules apply here – you shouldn’t choose one channel over another. Instead, encourage a mix of conversations to take place to address staff concerns and ensure they don’t escalate into obstacles to success.

Evaluate and Address

The most effective communicators ask their audience how they interpret what they hear and work to fix any gaps that may be threatening understanding. “Asking” can be anything from a formal survey to an informal check-in between managers and their teams. Through a kind of rinse and repeat procedure, you can address both gaps in understanding and lingering concerns. Just remember to, convey your message many times in many ways, customize the message for each audience and create a mechanism for two-way dialogue.

Emily Yahr is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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