Six Faulty Assumptions about Organizational Change Communications

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Linda Ackerman Anderson
Dean Anderson

In the last decade, leaders have come to realize the importance of good communications during organizational change. Many have come to this realization because of the pain and chaos created in the absence of communication, or when their traditional communications have not worked.

Communications is now an expected component of most organizational change management plans, which is a step in the right direction. However, there is still a long way to go beyond standard communication to create effective change organizational change communications that can actually drive change in your organization. To produce good change communications, leaders must upgrade their old assumptions and practices. Here are the six most common faulty assumptions leaders (and corporate communications specialists!) make about change communications. Are any of these occurring in your organizatinal change efforts?

First, leaders often think, “If I just tell people the new direction, they will get on board.” They deliver one-way, tell-oriented change communications, which they assume is adequate. With this mindset, they use talking-head presentations or videos, newspaper articles, information-heavy PowerPoint shows, or email blast announcements, and expect these to suffice to get people’s buy-in. But these vehicles alone are not effective. When change impacts people deeply, they need an opportunity to ask questions, go home and think about the message of the change communication, talk to their peers to discuss the impacts of it on them, and perhaps ask more questions. Only then will they really integrate and understand the message. Only then will it penetrate their concerns or fears. Change communications is not successful because the message was delivered; it is successful only when it is heard, understood, and used. And this requires two-way dialogue.

Secondly, leaders assume that the corporate communications group can handle organizational change communications, since they don’t know that the two types of communication are different. Most corporate communications almost exclusively rely on one-way communication vehicles such as those named above, and are frequently trained to communicate key messages in “safe” language. Change communications, delivered through messages through traditional vehicles and “corporate speak,” often waters down the urgency or magnitude of organizational change, and sends an underlying message that nothing is really changing.

Typically, corporate communications people are wired to inform, not engage. If your changes are major, then your communications require—demand!— methods that get people’s attention and engage them in the organizational change dialogue. Corporate communications people are trained to write good copy, but are not skilled in the organization effectiveness approaches that promote stakeholder engagement. Since organizational change communications must engage people, partner your communications staff with your organizational development/organization effectiveness and change management professionals.  This will better integrate your change communications with an effective stakeholder engagement strategy for your specific organizational change.

Third, leaders assume that communication is an event…“I already made that announcement, didn’t I?” In reality, change communications must be treated as a process to be effective. Just because you delivered the communication (an event) does not mean that you are done. A communication is complete only when the receiver has integrated, understood, and applied the message. This often requires you to deliver the message multiple times using different vehicles, including face-to-face meetings where people have an opportunity to ask questions and openly wrestle with the impacts of the message. After each change communication, follow up with feedback and discussion, supporting people’s level of understanding as well as their emotional reactions. Plan a week or two between face-to-face change communication events so people can surface their concerns and have an opportunity to address them during the next meeting. Make sure each event moves the change communication process forward.

Fourth, leaders assume that change communications can be planned according to a predetermined timeline. But organizational change is so dynamic that you will never know with certainty exactly when you have something valuable to communicate. Consequently, much of your communications will need to be far more spontaneous than those you have predetermined on your timeline. If your organizational change efforts are complex and transformational in nature, then you will need a change communications person “attached at the hip” of your change project leader and team to help navigate to the “roller coaster” of your needed change communications. This person must be capable of picking up on the unexpected, sensing people’s fears and concerns, and able to respond quickly to rumors, course corrections, and surprises. Some of your most important change communication events will emerge as the dynamics of your organizational change unfold.

Fifth, leaders assume that they should only communicate when they have a decision to announce. Often during transformational change, more is unknown than is known, especially at the beginning. In the absence of clarity, what do you do when you don’t have answers, but people are expecting and needing you to communicate? It is far better for you to fill the void than to allow people’s fears and rumors to fill it. Continue to communicate, sharing the questions you are working to answer, the change process you are undertaking, the criteria you are using, and then the hoped for timeline when actual answers will be known.

Sixth and last, leaders assume that their “talk” will speak louder than their “walk” (but it never does!) Many leaders communicate one expectation for change to the organization and then continue to behave in the “old state” ways, as if the organization must change, but not them. Talk about sending an organizational change-stopping mixed message! Especially when change is transformational, leaders’ credibility is built or destroyed based on their ability to demonstrate the new ways in word and action. One of your most powerful change communications is when your senior leaders walk the talk of the new directions themselves, first, and continue over time to consistently do so. Then people know the organizational change is real. Remember, leadership behavior is a vital and extremely overt form of change communication.

To set up your organizational change efforts for success, make sure that your senior leaders understand the importance of sound, credible, and impactful change communications. Help them recognize if they hold any of the preceding faulty assumptions or practices, and then provide new ways to communicate that will help drive the success of your efforts. Your investment in good change organizational change communications is worth its weight in gold!

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  1. Nov 16, 2011
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