Category Archives: Change

Vision statements are like Fridays

FridayI’ve just read a book about a bloke who wakes up one morning, realises that everything on the TV and radio is bad news and then wonders where all the optimists are.   Intrigued by the question, he resolves to identify and track down the world’s biggest optimists to find out what makes them tick and why everyone else isn’t like them.   On his journey – via Bill Clinton, Archbishop Tutu, politicians, psychologists, sports stars and a fair bunch of nutters – our hero enters the world of neuroscience, transcendental meditation, high finance and religion.

Most of us, at the end of the day, tend to be optimistic about things we can control.   Most of us believe our children will go on to be successful.  Most of us think we’ll be healthy in our old age.  Most of us believe we can avoid accidents.   And as we prepare for a new year, most of us will genuinely be optimistic about achieving our new year resolutions.   But while we’re optimistic about ourselves, we’re often less so about other people.   People tend to think their own financial situation will improve even if they think the overall economy will not.   People have enormous belief in their own ability to whether storms and avoid loss.   Why is this?   And if it’s true, why do we see overt optimism as a sign of weakness or naivety?

Apparently when you ask people to rank the days in the week in terms of preference, they rate Friday higher than Sunday, even though Friday is a work day and Sunday is not.   Saturday is always tops, but why do people prefer Friday to Sunday?   The answer lies in our unique human ability to imagine.    Friday holds promise.  It offers anticipation for the weekend ahead.    Sunday may be a day of rest but we all know that lying in the back of our minds is the thought of work the next day.   I don’t know about you but I like Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day.  Christmas Eve holds magic and excitement.  And optimism.

In the workplace, optimism flows freely from boardrooms and business cases – we will achieve our vision, we will deliver the change programme, we will meet our objectives, we will deliver sustainable growth etc.   Why are leaders so optimistic?  Especially when history tells us that most change programmes fail and that most visions are never realised.   I’ve seen some ambitious business cases in my time and I can hardly think of a single one that has lived up to expectations.    One of the reasons behind this ‘blind’ optimism is that we focus purely on the things we want to change, and we assume that by changing them we’ll all be better off.   It’s that Friday feeling.

There are two problems with this.   First, while we have a natural optimism bias about things in our control, we have a natural pessimism bias about the things that aren’t.   So the people writing the business case or vision statement may well feel optimistic, but those observing from the side may not share the same excitement.   So when you try to engage the pessimists, you have your work cut out.   Secondly, when we set out on a change programme to ‘make things better’, we assume that by doing so we’ll enjoy the benefits on a quid pro quo basis (fix this blockage and we’ll be xxx amount better off).   The problem though, according to Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, is that “we underestimate how quickly and easily we adapt to new circumstances and we fail to incorporate such adaptation into our forecasts”.    We may be optimistic about starting a new job because the pay is higher.   So we focus on those things that will change (more money!) and that makes us optimistic.  However, we don’t take into account that we still have bills to pay, we still have problems to deal with, we still have to get up on a cold Tuesday morning, we still have office politics, we still have to load the dishwasher.    We may be optimistic about the weekend on a Friday but we all know that not all weekends live up to expectations.   Vision statements are like Fridays – full of hope, expectation and optimism.   But there’s always a Monday round the corner.

Cultures are the sum of all the stories

uluru3I’ve just returned from two weeks touring round Australia with my eleven year old daughter.   On our travels we visited Uluru, or Ayers Rock, and learnt all about the culture of the Anangu people, the traditional inhabitants of the area.    The Anangu are said to have the world’s oldest living culture, dating back more than 20,000 years, and one of the reasons for its continuity is the strength of its stories.   In this culture, knowledge is not written down but passed on through songs, rituals, stories and art.   We saw cave paintings on Uluru depicting a great battle between a python woman and a poisonous snake man, as well as tales of other colourful characters such as a kingfisher woman and an evil devil dingo!    These sacred stories are stunning in their simplicity and yet profound in their meaning.   They are passed from generation to generation with great conviction and passion, supported by the physical ‘evidence’ of rock folds, shaped boulders and glacial markings.   You can’t help but believe in them.

At the end of the day, that’s what culture is – the sum of all the stories.  In business, an organisational culture is defined by its stories, tales and myths, and cultures can span generations if the stories are strong enough.   It also explains why culture is so hard to change.   You can’t un-tell the stories once they’ve been told.   You can’t un-behave.    All you can do is to create the conditions for more stories to be told and – to an extent – you can be deliberate about changing some drivers of culture, like artefacts, behaviours, processes and environment.     As we communicators know, sometimes we can deliberately craft new stories, or narratives as we often call them.   We can introduce new rituals and create the modern day equivalent of wall art, but the lesson from the Anangu is that is has to have meaning.   That, I think, is where many organisations fail in their attempts at culture change – the change has no meaning to the ‘tribe’ sitting round the campfire.    Too often, we try to change culture by producing values posters and inspirational mouse mats, but these are simply artefacts.  It’s like having the cave painting without the story.   Culture change happens at a very deep, emotional level – below the surface – where the beliefs, mindsets and motivations lie.   And it doesn’t change overnight, or by Christmas.  It takes years of effort, heaps of role modelling and a shed-load of comms to make it happen.    I once heard culture described as “an active living phenomenon through which people jointly create and recreate the worlds in which they live”.    The key word there is ‘jointly’.    Cultures can change, of course, but bringing about that change requires a joint effort way beyond the tangible artefacts of open plan offices and innovation spaces.    It requires new stories, new rituals and new behaviours.    And it requires time.    That’s as true for an ancient civilization like the Anangu as it is for a bank.

A story of how one CEO delivered instant change

Eye of Man in GlassesThe leaked memo from Barclays boss Antony Jenkins telling 140,000 staff to sign up to a new set of values or leave the company has caused quite a debate among communicators.   Some are uncomfortable with the blunt tone, others are more concerned about imposing values onto people and some say “way to go AJ”.   Personally, I don’t have a problem with the frank tone of the message, which states (to the people who don’t feel they can sign up to the values):  “My message to those people is simple: Barclays is not the place for you. The rules have changed. You won’t feel comfortable at Barclays and, to be frank, we won’t feel comfortable with you as colleagues.”   From a language point of view, it’s clear, strong and refreshingly uncorporate.   And given the context of bad behaviour in the bank up to now, a strong message is the only option.   But will it make a difference?

Back in 1998 I worked for a CEO who faced a similar challenge of bringing about cultural change in a global financial services organisation.   He spent the first six months in the job travelling round and taking a good look at what he had inherited.   He didn’t like what he saw.   He knew that dramatic wholesale change would be required to fix what was an ailing organisation lumbering towards the 21st Century.    He also knew that the organisation was full of fiefdoms and parochial cliques, where ‘knowledge is power’ managers would run the rule as they saw it.   The CEO wanted to pursue an agenda of personal responsibility, customer focus, teamwork, knowledge sharing, trust, collaboration, learning, change agility and tech revolution.    Some chance.    So he decided to bring 365 of the company’s top managers together for an event in Barcelona.    They all turned up, expecting the usual away-day jolly, only to find coloured polo shirts in their hotel room and a request to wear them next day for the first session – blue for Europe, yellow for AsiaPac and red for Americas.   They didn’t fancy this, of course – “how naff” they chorused.    But next day they dutifully gathered in their shirts, looking and sounding mightily uncomfortable.    The stage was very corporate – plain lectern with a logo filled background.    Then on came the CEO, in a suit and tie, and proceeded to embark on a fairly dull PowerPoint review of business performance.

Then, 20 minutes in, something happened.   The CEO interrupted his presentation, looked out at the audience and said:  “You know, when I first took on this job I thought we needed to change by evolution.  I was wrong.  I made a mistake.   What we need is a revolution.”    At that point, the lights went down, and the dry ice came up.  The Beatle’s Revolution began to play (very loudly) and the audience started to revolve (they didn’t know at the time, but their seats had been constructed on top of a giant revolving floor).    As the song played, some of the audience reacted with smiles, others began to clap but most just looked puzzled.    Then, as the floor turned 180 degrees, a new stage opened up in front of them, with new branding, moody lighting and no lectern.   On came the CEO … miked-up and dressed in a polo shirt.   His first words were:  “From now on, we’re not the same company.”

Now why did this happen?   Primarily it was to put a very clear stake in the ground that things were about to change.  There had to be a moment in time when the change started – and that time (as I still remember today) was 9.20am on June 6th 1998.  The time of the revolution.    There had to be this one moment to signal that things would be different from now on.    It could only happen with all the top managers in the room.   Now of course, the excitement died down and the CEO and his colleagues proceeded to set out, over the following three days, how the organisation was going to change and what he expected of his leaders.    But he quite rightly knew that would not be enough.  He knew some were “up for it” but it was obvious that many would go back to their constituencies and carry on as before.     So on the final day, at the farewell lunch, he dropped the bombshell.

At the point where he was expected to say “thanks very much, it’s been great, now have a safe journey home”, he actually said this:   “You know, over these last three days I’ve taken the opportunity to meet every single one of you.  I have looked into the whites of your eyes, and I know that some of you are ready to lead this change.  But I also know that some of you will go back to your part of the organisation and carry on exactly the same as you did before.   Well, to those people, let me just say this.  There are lots of good companies out there who would welcome your knowledge and experience.  So why don’t you go and work for those companies?    If you aren’t prepared to change, there’s no place for you here.”   We called this the “whites of your eyes” speech and it had a tangible impact on the room.   Over the following months, some great role modelling leaders emerged with innovative and inspiring ideas for engaging people.    Many other leaders left the organisation.  The change had begun and it captured the imagination.

So back to Barclays.   Antony Jenkins has just given his “whites of your eyes” speech, so let’s
see what happens next.   For me, the mistake Barclays have made is in their new core values.  They’re useless – respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship.   What does that mean?   As someone pointed out on a forum, Enron had three of these values!    Values shouldn’t be nouns – they should be verbs.  That way they can be actioned and measured.   Show me an organisation who doesn’t believe in integrity, respect, service yada yada.    Success will now lie in how they embed and role model the values, but I can’t help feeling it’s a missed opportunity.    The first punch was with a knuckle duster, the second was with a custard pie.

How to engage your middle managers

I’m a middle child, the second of three boys.   According to recent research, I should therefore be more successful, ambitious, open to innovation, empathic, well-adjusted, independent, generous, kind, devoted, balanced, confident and hard-working than my two brothers.   Well, I don’t know about that but I’ll take it!   Seriously though, a number of studies in the US and Europe have exposed the myth of us middle-borns being resentful and neglected underachievers.   Our middle status enhances our ability to keep the peace and negotiate.   The attention given to our supposedly responsible first and rebellious last-born siblings apparently gives us an inner drive to succeed, to get noticed, to rise above the pack.     OK, let’s assume all that is true.  Now let’s translate the same logic into the workplace and consider the role of middle managers.    My comms colleagues will immediately recognise this community as being a perennial ‘problem area’.   We worry about middle managers more than anyone else, because we know how important they are.   We ask more of middle managers than any other stakeholder group.   We need them to deliver and translate messages, manage change, improve wellbeing, motivate their people and role model values.   But unlike the senior leaders, who can be ‘picked off’ and coached individually, this middle community (what my old boss used to call the ‘marzipan layer’) is usually too remote and numerous (and busy) for us to nurture and support one-to-one.    What’s more, just like the middle child in the family, the middle manager has to juggle responsibilities and keep the peace, treading a fine line between ‘corporate mouthpiece’ and ‘voice of the people’.   They must support the ‘company line’ and embody its culture, whilst remaining loyal to the people they lead.   Middle managers are usually the unhappiest people in the organisation – stressed, over-worked, under-valued, constantly in fear of the chop and pulled from both ends.   It’s a tough ask, and then we communicators come along and make it even tougher.   I remember growing up wearing my older brother’s hand-me-down clothes, especially as there was (and still is!) only 17 months between us.   The metaphor translates to middle managers who are asked to consume hand-me-down messages created by others and which they are expected to endorse, interpret and pass on.  My industry devotes whole conferences to deciding how best to do that.   Maybe one way is to tap into those middle child characteristics.

In a recent study carried out by Dublin City University*, a number of middle managers in the Irish Health Service were asked to talk about a major organisational change event they had experienced.   About half chose the current top-down initiative (there’s always one isn’t there?) and the others recalled a change they themselves had initiated.    What the researchers found was that the corporate initiative came in for criticism around areas like strategic direction, increase in workload and poor communication.   On the other hand, those who talked about their own initiative were enthusiastic, pragmatic and highlighted the value of communication.    One participant neatly summed up the difference by saying his own approach was “we have an idea, can we talk to you about how it might work?”, whereas the top-down approach was more like “we have an idea and this is how it is going to work.”   Clearly this demonstrates the importance of ownership in times of change, we all prefer to be in control of our own destiny and we’re all nervous about ‘done to’ change.   But the Irish researchers made the important point that middle managers can be catalysts of change when given the opportunity to develop their own initiatives rather than pass on someone else’s.    In this particular study, they found that in most cases, the manager-led change initiatives produced many of the same outcomes that the top-down change was meant to enforce!   So maybe the lesson here is that rather than characterise middle managers as difficult, frustrating and hard to control, perhaps we should allow them to demonstrate those middle child skills of empathy, creativity and empowerment.    Be proud, you fellow mid-borns!

* Conway, E., & Monks, K. (2011). Change from below: the role of middle managers in mediating paradoxical change, Human Resource Management Journal

Change and the whining dog

Picture a hot, balmy afternoon in a small town in the middle of nowhere.  Picture a run-down house alone on the edge of a cornfield with a wooden porch and clapperboard windows.   Imagine an old, lazy dog laying out on the porch trying to escape the sun.   Imagine the dog shuffling uncomfortably and whining constantly.   Along comes another dog.   It sidles up against the whining dog and says “hey, what’s the problem?  Why are you whining so?”.   The whining dog replies “because there’s a rusty nail from the floorboard sticking into my side and it hurts”.    “Then why don’t you move?” says the second dog.   “Because it doesn’t hurt enough,” comes the reply.

I tell this story on my change workshops as a metaphor for organizational change.   You see, organisations are full of whining dogs.   There is often a fair degree of pain, discomfort and frustration with the way things are now – enough for us to build a compelling change message – but is the pain bad enough to encourage people to engage with the prospect of embracing change?   Offices and workplaces are full of people who complain about ‘the way things are’ but who then resist change – people who know there must be a better way, but who baulk at the prospect of making it happen.   The same point is made by the famous Gleicher Formula, which states that D X V X F > R, where ‘D’ is the dissatisfaction with the way things are now, ‘V’ is the vision of the future, ‘F’ is the clarity around the first steps to achieving that vision and ‘R’ is the resistance to the change.   In a nutshell, the formula says that the combined ‘score’ of D, V and F has to be greater than the score for R, otherwise change will not occur.   In comms language, it means that we have to have positive engagement around why we’re changing, where we heading and how we’re gonna get there … and then hope that all that outweighs the forces of resistance, such as fatigue, disengagement, lack of investment, flagging leadership commitment, active disruption and general apathy.   I often use the Gleicher Formula in presentations about change to make me look intelligent, but the whining dog story works just as well.   They both essentially emphasize the fundamentals of change communication – we have to reach a tipping point at which our people decide that the effort required to change is ‘worth it’ – that the uncertainty and stress of undertaking change is outweighed by the good that will come from it.  To do that, we have to move along the three lanes of the highway – ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ – at the same time.   Failure to have a convincing message behind each of these will reduce the score on the left side of the formula and risk the failure of the change.

I heard a third analogy the other day which I also think sums this challenge up rather well:   “Even hell is a hard place to leave if you know your way around.”

Forget the leader, it’s the first follower who deserves our praise

I love the concept of the ‘first follower’ – wonderfully illustrated in this You Tube hit – because of its relevance to change communication and creativity, my two favourite work subjects.   As the commentary on the video neatly points out, the real hero of many stories is not the leader at the front but the first person to follow.   It can take more courage to be the first follower than it does to be the ‘nutter’ at the front.   The subsequent appearance of a third, fourth and fifth follower allows others to join without being noticed, eventually leading to a tipping point where it actually becomes not only acceptable, but cool, to join the crowd.   As we see in the video, new joiners are no longer following the bare-shirted ‘crazy’ leader but following the followers.  It’s a nice visual analogy.

For us change communicators it highlights the importance of working hard to reach the tipping point whereby it becomes acceptable among the community to engage with and hopefully embrace the change.    We don’t need to convince every single stakeholder to ‘buy in’.  We just need to convince the first follower and others to do so, knowing that the crowd will follow.    Of course, we want to take everyone along with us and we’ll try our best to engage at an individual level, but the lesson here is that it only takes a few colleagues to take those brave few steps.   Reaching the tipping point on the change curve is our goal, when the organisation shifts from resistance to exploration, but by highlighting quick wins and supporting the first followers, we comms people can help get people on their feet.

First followers are just as important in creative environments.   Someone comes up with an idea that everyone else instinctively thinks is impossible, impractical or just plain crazy.  But what if one person stands up and backs it, and then another?  Where’s the tipping point?   Putting forward ideas and challenging the way things are takes courage, but so too does saying “I agree” or “good idea”.   It’s far easier to be negative than positive, we all know that, so first followers are vital to nurture ideas with potential.   Personally, I think the You Tube video acts a good analogy for the acceptance of creativity at work, or even creativity in internal comms.   Those of us who believe strongly about it are the mad dancers waving our arms around on the sidelines.  But it only takes a few brave first followers and then you watch the crowd run.   I don’t care, as long as we’re all up dancing.

The Change Communications Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943, Abraham Maslow famously introduced us to his ‘hierarchy of needs’ – a psychological pyramid of human motivation starting with basic physiological needs at the bottom (breathing, food water etc) through to safety, belonging, esteem and finally self-actualization a the very top.   The hierarchy has become one of the best known and most referenced psychological theories regarding human motivation and change.   So, inspired by Maslow, I’ve put together my own version of the ‘hierarchy of needs’ in the context of change communications.  In many ways, this is just a different take on the change curve, but here I’ve tried to map out the communication needs of workers facing organisational change.  The key point here is the importance of understanding what people go through during change and why their communications needs reflect their own psychological motivations.   So here we go …

Let’s start at the bottom, with what we should call security.    A natural human reaction to any change, or threat, is made in the gut via the oldest and most primal part of the brain.   Actually, it’s the amygdalas to be precise (see my recent post on this).   The instinctive question is ‘what does this mean to me?’ and almost certainly the psychological response will be to perceive the change as a threat.  The first priority then for our audience is to evaluate the extent to which the change will impact their security – will I still have a job, will I earn less money, will I still be able to support my family, will I lose what I value?    From the comms perspective, any other message is likely to fall on deaf ears, or its value will be muted.    But it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to satisfy these needs immediately – especially if the change has a negative people impact – so our focus will be to establish the basics around why the change is happening, what the future looks like and how we intend to get there so that people can internalise and interpret accordingly.   Support, clarity, dialogue, listening, reassurance, empathy and patience is the name of the game here.  Only when our people have this need satisfied, or at least acknowledged, will they be ready to move on.

The next question is ‘OK, so even if I don’t lose my job, will my role change – will I have to do something different?’.   This will spark a whole range of exploratory questions to ascertain the level of threat and the likely impact of personal change.  The key focus here for the individual is to find out exactly what will be different so he/she can come to a conclusion about what it means to them.   Of course, some people may welcome the opportunity for change because they may not be happy in their current role or may seek change or advancement.   Some people may even want to leave the organisation entirely  (although they will only do so if they can satisfy their need for security, like a big fat redundancy cheque!).   The comms need now moves to picture-painting, answering questions, conversations, timescales.  There will be frustration if needs aren’t met, so expect that and plan for it.

The needs then become more nuanced.   I think identity will come next.   So having satisfied the first two needs around security and role, the next big question will be ‘where do I fit?’.   This means understanding more about what the organisation will look like in the future – what team and department will I be part of?   Status will play a part here too.   Will I come out of this change in a better position, with a clearer sense of purpose, with good colleagues around me?   How will I contribute to the organisation?   Here is when we need to  ramp up the engagement.   People will begin to feel part of the future so they’ll be seeking answers around ‘what it will be like’ and what the wider organisation will look like.   It’s probably only at this stage that they’ll start showing true engagement around the big picture as they contemplate their position within it.

So next will be what I would describe as value.   If I’m satisfied up to this stage, I have reassurance around my security, I have an idea of how my job will change and I know more about where I fit.   So now I’m needing to know more about how I’ll do my job in the future.   What new skills will I need to learn?  Will my skills be valued in the organisation (and in the marketplace)?     To meet needs here we’ll need to provide clarity around things like operating models, capabilities and training.   Engagement will increase here as individuals look to understand what’s expected of them in the new world.

Which takes us onto the penultimate stage of my little pyramid – opportunity.   As our people gradually have their core needs met, they will start to look beyond the ‘here and now’ to what comes next.   They will seek and explore opportunities from the change, so their needs will become more forward-looking and personal.   They may ponder opportunities for advancement, they may seek new challenges and they may have ideas to contribute.  They may also be keen to play a more active role in shaping the future so this is a good time to engage them with opportunities to get involved.  By now, they’ll be through the change curve and exploring what the future holds.

Finally, we come to the top of the tree – fulfilment.   Like Maslow’s final stage of self-actualization, this is about the need to reach ones potential.  In our context, this is achieving that level of engagement that leads to mastery, commitment and the pursuit of excellence.    We all have a need to be the best we can, but we must understand that other needs come first.   As change managers and change communicators, we have to be patient, plan our interventions and work hard to satisfy our audience’s needs.   I’ve always believed that change communication is as much about understanding human behaviour as it is about good communications practice.   I hope this explains why.

The ‘F’ word we just can’t talk about

At the base of your brain are too small almond-shaped organs called the amygdalas.  They sit deep in what’s known as the limbic system, the oldest part of our brain in terms of our evolution – the part that houses our most basic, instinctive and animalistic impulses and reactions.   Our amygdalas play a crucial role in controlling our emotions, especially fear.  They jump into action when we face any sort of threat – like a rampaging bull, a man with a gun or, er, a change programme.    When it comes to stress and anxiety, our amygdalas have a lot to answer for.   The trouble is, like the rest of the limbic brain, our amygdalas can’t answer for anything.   You see, the part of our brain that controls our feelings (good and bad) has no capacity for language.   Language, reasoning, planning and other conscious thought processes originate from the newest part of the brain – the neocortex (which is unique to mammals) or more specifically from the prefrontal cortex – the development of which puts (most of) us humans beyond the apes.    There are two reasons why this is important for communicators.   Firstly, it explains why people react instinctively to change.   When confronted with a threat – as complex changes at work could be perceived – it’s our instinctive limbic system that reacts first and generates stress.    Whilst the organisation is saying “we’d like to give you some details about the change programme” our amygdalas are waving their arms in the air shouting “run away, run away”.   Or “stand up and fight” if you’re that way inclined.    The human survival system kicks in and our behaviour becomes more irrational and unpredictable.   Or predictably unpredictable in some ways.    We might deliver award-winning, well crafted, meticulously planned and clinically executed comms but still find our audience feeling uncertain, disengaged and stressed to bits.   And that’s the key word – FEELING.    How do people FEEL when we ask them to change?  How do they FEEL when they find out they might lose their job?   How do they FEEL when they can’t ask questions?   How do they FEEL when no-one sits opposite them and asks them how they are?   It’s why good change managers (and change communicators) take account of both the hard and soft elements of the transformation.   Ironically, most organisations tend to be better at the hard, logical, practical stuff and not so good at the soft, emotional, behavioural side of change.   It’s the soft bit that’s actually hard.    Unfortunately, our ability to understand the answer to how people feel is hampered by the second reason why this stuff is important.   People can’t tell us how they really feel.    If you’re a parent, how would you put into words the love you have for your children?   If you play sport, how would you describe the feeling of winning?   If you’ve recently had a great holiday, how would you explain that sunset that took your breath away?    Hard isn’t it?   It’s why Olympic gold medallists – when asked how they feel – often say “I can’t describe it” or simple “unbelievable”.   We can’t describe why we love people –  we just do!   It’s because the part of the brain that deals with feelings doesn’t do language.   There’s a disconnect.   It’s also why we sometimes just feel a decision is the right one, without being able to explain why.   It’s why we refer to ‘gut reactions’.   My rational prefrontal cortex may say one thing, but my stomach FEELS something else.   Scientific evidence seems to suggest that ‘gut feel’ decisions made in seconds are often better than those taken after hours of rational analysis.   The advice to “go with what you feel” can often produce the best results.    In comms-speak, it’s why our first draft is usually the best one.   All of this puts effective change communication even higher up the agenda of must-haves for successful organisational change.    By understanding what people go through and anticipating how they may feel we can play our part in softening the impact of the change – controlling those screaming amygdalas!    We can put extra effort into explaining the ‘reason why’, we can manage the expectations of our leaders, we can train our line managers to provide support and empathy, we can take steps to address questions quickly, we can bring people together, we can help them articulate how they feel, we can time our messages to better reflect where people are on the change curve, we can use language that reflects their emotions.   When I run change comms workshops, I must use the ‘f’ word – FEEL – a hundred times.  I keep stressing it because I think it’s important.  I can’t explain why. I just do.

The seven deadly sins of Change Communication

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.

2. Forgetting that change is about people  

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?”.

4. Inviting your people to ask questions … and then ignoring them

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.