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How to Communicate Change in the Workplace

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“Change Communications”
Head of Internal Communications

Continuing with the topic of communication, we now turn our attention to the second biggest complaint of comms professionals: communicating change.

At first blush, there’s nothing surprising about that. Change in the workplace gets a bad rap. There are so many ways employees can thwart the good intentions of their leaders. One, they can misunderstand the change. Two, they can understand it correctly and still resist it. Three, they can understand and give their consent and still get it wrong.

Under these circumstances, clear and strategic communication becomes critical…

Well. Okay. Duh.

Before we get too far down this road, let’s stop and think. When and why is change bad? When does it require a special effort to communicate?

We don’t seem to mind most changes in our private lives. Now that we've all become one-person media outlets, many literally can’t wait for something to happen to them—good or bad—so they can post it on Facebook. When nothing is happening, they post inspirational messages to help themselves and the loved ones prepare for that which is yet to come.

So, why do these same people want nothing ever to happen at work?

We know exactly why. Because we usually have some degree of say over what happens in our private lives. And, if sudden disaster befalls us, we at least get to groan and moan to our hearts’ content. We get to call it what it is. A mistake. A catastrophe. A stinking mess. We get to ask for sympathy and support. And we get to bathe in kindness and generosity of friends and strangers.

Not so at work.

First, how much say does the typical employee have over these so-called changes?

If the company plans to take something away from employees, like jobs or benefits, it won’t likely ask for their input. On the contrary, the management will judge it common sense to postpone any communication until after the fact.

What is common sense to most employers is common fallacy to a few great ones. SAS and Edward Jones both survived the Great Recession of 2008-09 with no layoffs. When faced with declining revenues, both companies turned to employees for creative solutions. Both found their people more than willing to tighten their belts for the common good. In the end, Edward Jones saved more than enough to offset the losses. While SAS did so well in the midst of the downturn, that it was able to hire many talented employees let go by the competition.

Isn’t it a fact that most people would sacrifice a part of their pay or perks in order to save a job for themselves or someone they know? Then why do so few companies involve their people in company-saving decisions? And if your whole communications strategy is, in essence, to excommunicate your employees from life-changing choices, how well can you expect it to work?

But let’s put the tragic aside for a moment. What about all these other changes the companies must undergo in order to keep up with the times? Technology upgrades. Reorgs. Processes and procedures.

There are changes that people ask for and those that they don’t. Nobody complains when a change fixes a problem, takes a load off someone’s shoulders, or just helps people get through their day. These changes originate in communication with employees, so communicating the results is a piece of cake.

By contrast, ramming a new and obnoxious procedure down people’s throats won’t go any better if you hire a team of Hollywood writers to spread the news. If you want it to go down easy, put yourself in the shoes of those on the receiving end. Does the change make them feel valued, trusted, included? Or the opposite?

In principle, a decision to cut heads is no different than a decision to monitor bathroom breaks. Taking the employee side into consideration before making your choice is communication. Asking the employee to take your side after the fact is not.

Okay, but even the best of managers make unpopular choices, be it with or without the input from the masses.

First, great companies believe that letting people have a say makes it easier for them to accept the outcome. So the risk of opening it up to discussion and the risk of sticking to your guns afterwards are both worth taking. The reason companies avoid these is not so much the risk itself, as the fact that they don’t know how to properly involve the people. So, it seems easier to do it the old way, even if you pay for it afterwards with disgruntlement and miscommunication.

To do it right, you’ll need to have a plan. In what form will discussion take place? What is the process for making the final decision? The answers to these questions are obviously highly specific to the task. In Who the hell Wants to Work for You, I have a few examples, especially in Chapter 19, Give Them a Voice.

Since I’ve discovered these practices, I’ve used many of them at Axero, and I’ve never regretted doing so. It might take some trial and error to create a workable model. And you might need to rethink it every time a major decision is at stake. But I never feel better about myself as a manager than when I tear down the walls between myself and my employees.

Now, let’s say you’ve listened to all the voices and you’ve weighed all possible outcomes. You’ve set your priorities, and you gave your decision. Will this satisfy every one of your employees? Most likely not. Nor is it your job to satisfy everyone. The question is—what to do about all the wailing and moaning when unpopular changes are taking place?

The technical term is employee feedback and, just as you did before, you want to keep giving it legitimacy and space. It’s a common mistake for companies to shame employees for being Negative Nancys. Doing so discourages communication and drives discontent underground. Consider that open criticism is the best form of opposition. Much better than passive aggressive behaviors that flourish at many companies and are ultimately responsible for the employee disengagement crisis we are witnessing today.

If you’ve done a good job of listening while pondering your decision, then you know and understand your opponents. Don’t ignore them—include them in your plan. If the company is embarking on a drastic change—like Zappos’ quest for self-management—many people will be predictably disappointed, confused and demoralized. Instead of letting the chips fall where they may, it’s wise to do what Zappos did: give them options. Transition plans for those who need time to get over the shock. Buyout packages for those who hate the idea.

So, you see, it’s not the change that defies communication. Actually, it’s the communicator’s resistance to change that creates a problem.

As communicators, we mainly resist change in two ways:

  1. We refuse to listen - For companies, this is not just about giving employees the right to talk back. It’s about listening and participating in the conversations employees have with each other. The technology for merging different streams of communication is there. What’s often missing is the culture shift towards openness and transparency.
  2. We refuse to put ourselves in other people’s shoes - Wouldn’t it be great if companies always looked out for employees and vice versa? How easy would the job of internal comms be, if it went without saying that the company always does its best to protect the people?

I started out by talking about communicating change in the workplace, and I ended up repeating the old maxims:

Turn the mirror on yourself.

Listen before you speak.

Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.

Thanks, Tim. That’s a real eye opener!

Isn’t it?

_____

If your company is going through a lot of changes, you might want to read my book sooner rather than later. Because it tells you how not to do it.

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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