I read recently that recruiters and organisations with internal comms jobs to fill have ‘change communication’ at the top of their wish-list of expertise. The suggestion was that there are plenty of comms practitioners out there but they don’t all have the necessary skills, experience and confidence to lead the comms around a significant change programme. It’s true that change comms requires a particular set of skills, tools and techniques, but as well as knowing what to do during change, it’s also imperative to know what not to do. Having spent much of my comms career working on change programmes, and having run dozens of workshops on communicating change, I’ve seen some real horror stories. So I’d like to share my seven deadly sins of change communication. Avoid these mistakes folks, and you’ll be fine.
1. Not providing clarity around the ‘big four’
When you boil it down, change comms is all about four key messages … why are we changing, where are we heading, how are we going to get there and what’s it going to be mean for me? Without clear answers to the big four, you’ll be flawed from the start. The first question your audience will ask is not what or how, it’ll be why. So without a compelling reason for change, you won’t get past first base. But don’t just trot out a load of ‘burning platform’ jargon, make the reason why connect at an individual level. Your audience doesn’t have to like the reason why, but they do need to ‘get it’. When you’re clear on ‘why’, work on the ‘where’ (but keep it simple, don’t overdo this bit) and the ‘how’ (at least the first important steps of the journey). Then the really important bit … how will it impact me? You won’t have all the detail to satisfy everyone (anyone?) but don’t dress it up or play it down. You’ll regret it.
Organisations don’t change, people change. The big mistake I come across all the time is the failure to recognise the impact of culture and human behaviour during times of change. That doesn’t mean we all need to go and get psychology degrees, but a basic understanding of ‘what people go through’ is a vital ingredient of the change comms toolkit. So take time to understand the change curve, how people react and what people need psychologically. It’ll make you a much better communicator.
3. Having leaders who don’t show humility
During change, senior leaders can sometimes turn all heroic and macho, or they can go the other way and become conspicuous by their absence. Leadership behaviour is so important, and the most important behaviour of all is humility. They need to demonstrate genuine empathy and understanding with the people they are leading. Saying “I know what you’re going through” isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to be open and admit you don’t have all the answers and you have to recognise when people are hurting. The best thing a leader can do during change is not to go on stage and deliver a presentation, it’s walking up to someone, sitting on the corner of their desk and saying “so, how you doing?”.
During periods of change, people have lots of questions, especially during the early days, so giving them outlets to ask questions is vital if you want to keep them engaged from the start. But there’s nothing more disengaging than to ask a question and then not receive a response. Note I say ‘response’ not ‘answer’. That’s because we don’t always have all the answers (in the early days, many questions will be about individual impact, and that level of detail is usually not known at that time). But not knowing the answer is NEVER an excuse to not respond to the question.
5. Expecting them to engage with your agenda if you don’t engage with theirs
Senior leaders can sometimes get frustrated that change isn’t moving fast enough and they make the mistake of trying to move the communication agenda on too quickly. But people will only engage according to their individual needs and priorities. If they haven’t been satisfied about their own personal circumstances, it can be hard for them to get all excited about the future. If they’ve been bruised by uncertainty, they may be reluctant to start exploring. It’s vital to listen to what people are saying and to recognise what’s on their minds. And don’t patronise them – if they’re more interested in talking about parking spaces than strategy, deal with it. When they’re ready, they’ll move on to what you want to talk about.
6. Failing to engage and support the line
All the surveys say that during times of change people want to hear messages from their own boss. Line managers are the most important cog in the wheel – not the big cheeses, but the ‘on the ground’ people managers. During change, we need line managers to be briefers, presenters, facilitators, translators, listeners, social workers, motivators and role models, but we then just assume they can do it because they have the word ‘manager’ in their job title. No, these people (usually the unhappiest people in the organisation anyway) need our support. And remember, they’re probably going through the change curve themselves. Communicators, work really hard on the line managers. Without them, we’re doomed!
7. Thinking presentation will win over conversation
Somebody once said “for big change, use small communication.” That means, the bigger the change impact, the more the communication needs to be face to face, one to one, conversational and discussion-based. Nobody has ever had their behaviour changed (in a good way) by PowerPoint, so don’t rely on the big events to change hearts and minds. It’s the small conversations, interactions and collaborations that will make the difference. So get people talking, allow them to let off steam, encourage them to share their ideas and thoughts, have the discussions about what’s on people’s minds, bring teams together. Don’t try to manage and choreograph every interaction. Let people be people.