Why communication is critical for successful change management
Communication is both symptom and salvation for change management, writes Craig Pearce.
It is a manifestation of a culture that will either facilitate or stymie change being effectively implemented, while it can also play a steadying hand in leading the horse to water.
And as research consistently informs us the quality, nature and consistency of communication plays a leading role – if not the leading role – in change becoming embedded within organisations, then it’s imperative we get it right. Communication is one triumvirate element – along with leadership and culture – of the bedrock for change.
The emotional aspect of change is difficult to overestimate, making communication’s storytelling dimension a vital tool in including employees in the change journey and explain very clearly, and in a very customised manner, ‘what’s in it for me’.
When change entails positions being made redundant (with attendant ‘grieving’ impact on employees who remain), the loss of income or benefits, a change in work location and what duties roles are comprised of, then it is easy to see why change can be such a problematic undertaking.
A key factor – and outcome that is sought – through organisational storytelling is trust.
This goes directly to the heart of culture, because no amount of incisive, memorable storytelling will resonate – for the right reasons, at least – if trust is not granted from executive leadership and line management to employees. Similarly, trust will not exist within employees unless the CEO, as the Edelman Trust Barometer indicates:
- communicates clearly and transparently,
- tells the truth, no matter how complex or unpopular,
- engages with employees regularly to discuss the state of the business, and
- is front and centre during challenging times.
Each of these four factors is crucial to change management. If it occurs, change has a fighting chance of becoming embedded. If it is not occurring, either from the CEO or executive leadership, then…
Leadership in change management
It is leadership who are, in most cases, the communication source who will have the most impact on emotions and emotional – as well as intellectual – buy-in for change.
While we know from various sources that the two most important influencers of change being effectively implemented are communication and executive sponsorship, executives will not be doing much interacting with change-impacted employees.
Communication is an embedded component of executive sponsorship, of course, but for those being directly impacted on by change this is important for scene setting, not securing emotional commitment from employees. Commitment leads in turn to the ultimate business nirvana, that of discretional effort from these employees being invested into their jobs and, hence, the organisation.
Line management, therefore, possesses a fundamentally influential attribute of best practice communication – it will mostly manifest itself in face-to-face communication. An employee’s direct manager has opportunities to influence and to inspire, through characteristics such as listening (and actually making it obvious that they are hearing) and empathising.
Face-to-face is is two-way. It is dialogic, not monologic. It gives the employee a voice. They are a participant, not just a recipient. By applying this approach, respect is being shown to the employee bearing the brunt of the change. A positive outcome of this is likely to be enhanced levels of trust.
Communication – can it change behaviour?
Communication is excellent at providing information to people and creating awareness on a topic. And as a lack of awareness has been cited as the number one reason for resistance to change, the power of communication for change is a handy lever to pull. Through the provision of compelling information and the undertaking of dialogic communication that involves, rather than simply ‘tells’, target audiences, it can also influence opinions and behaviour (particularly opinions).
But changing behaviour is a substantial achievement and it’s arguable whether, operating in isolation, behaviour will really change on an ongoing basis due to the information which has been provided. This is but one reason why the change management business discipline has emerged.
Communication alone, no matter what the indisputable logic of the change (e.g. the business won’t survive and nor will your jobs if we don’t get on the bus together) and the effectiveness of getting people to recognise that logic, is not enough.
Communication is imperative, yes, but it’s not the be-all and end-all and its application, like all elements of change management, requires humility, collaboration and compassion from its exponents, including executive leadership.
The message is clear, however: communication counts.
Craig Pearce is an experienced corporate communication and change management communication practitioner. He blogs at Public relations and managing reputation.