Best Practices For Communicating Change
These are some of best practices for communicating change.
• Build trust before change. The time to start building trusting relationships is before you need them! In times of change,the trust between you and your people is critical. If you don’t have trust, it may be too late to have real communication. Employees who trust you will hear the perfect phrases as you intend them. This will create meaningful dialogue. However, if your relationship with them is damaged from past errors, employees may hear any phrase as more “B.S.” from management.
• Be direct. We have found that many leaders either avoid difficult topics or are too timid with their people in tough change situations. It is often most effective to just give it to them straight rather than tiptoe around tough situations. Employees respect this. It tells employees you can be relied on for the truth. Also, in these days of corporate executive deceit, leaders have to go the extra mile to prove they are not one of the crooked lot.
• Talk to key people early. In the absence of information, people make up stories. The faster you discuss news—even bad news—the less negativity is created. With delays come rumors and false expectations. Get the news out as fast as you can. It will not only reduce anxiety, but it will give your team the time to start moving through a process that is often longer than you can predict.
• Adjust to your audience. While leaders may think they are just “sending” a change message, there is always someone having a reaction. Don’t forget to adapt your message to this reaction. Look at those you are speaking with and notice how they respond and react. Pay attention to what their facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, or e-mail word choices are. Some of the executives we work with undermine themselves because they overlook those signals. They are either too much in a rush to get the message out or overly involved with their own anxieties when delivering the news. Remember to adapt your message to your audience because whenever you are communicating change it is a two-way process.
• Watch your body language. Most leaders know the adage: It’s not what you say but how you say it. But it is worth repeating here. You have to believe in what you’re saying.If you don’t, your body language will give you away and no one will believe you. During times of change, employees are looking for the truth. You will need to find ways to tell the truth in a way that is believable.
• Find your style. Don’t get hung up on picking the perfect word; rather, find a style that works for your personality. Each leader has his or her own style. Some have a flair for the dramatic. Others focus on being inspiring. Some speak plainly and directly. They can all be equally effective change communicators. The same is true of the phrases in this book. Depending on where you stand, our phrases may be too cutthroat or too nice, too cheesy or too formal. Find the style and words that fit your personality and situation.
• Choose the right person to deliver the message. Who delivers the message makes an impression. For example, when communicating about a new position title—whether the message comes from a high-level executive or a Human Resources person has a very different effect. Having a senior business leader who you report to will have a big positive impact. However, choosing the leader closest to the employee may also be a good idea because that leader is trusted more and can better tailor the message to the audience. There is no simple formula. Choose the person who will create the best result.
• Don’t expect to have all the answers. You won’t and can’t have all the answers to questions you’re going to be asked during change. It is a characteristic of change that a lot of details are clarified as the change implementation makes progress. Yet, employees continuously search for security and clarity. In such cases it is best to just say, “I’ll find it for you” and then find out. If there is no answer, tell them so and leverage the phrases in this book to help them understand why. Remember, questions are a great opportunity to reinforce your business case for change.
• Don’t expect the “perfect phrase.” You prepare and plan. Then you get in the room and the human being(s) opposite you have a reaction different from what you expected. This is life. You will need to continually adjust your words, tone, and focus to get your message across. Rest assured that the best spontaneous conversations are well planned. Thinking through and practicing your words will definitely help you get as close to perfect as humanly possible!
I have seen leaders fail in communicating change in three basic ways: not telling enough, not listening enough, and not telling the truth enough.
Not Telling Enough
Leaders are usually ahead of the people they are leading. They usually know information before employees and have thought through situations before employees even know what is going on. This can lead them to forget that employees do not know what they know. The result is many leaders do not communicate enough. Not only is it important to share information, it is important to repeat it often. When stressed, scared, or overwhelmed, people need to hear things many times before it sinks in.
Not Listening Enough
As in other areas in life, leaders’ default communication mode during change is telling, not listening. Some reasons for this are:
• The chaos and ambiguity of change drive leaders to think they need to have all the answers. They feel obliged to lead, which often translates as give direction. Then, they focus their time on trying to give employees all the answers rather than have dialogues.
• Telling people what to do is easier than asking them how things are going and then really listening to the answer.
If leaders do ask questions, they tend to avoid the most important or tough ones. Leaders might not have dealt with or assimilated the reality of the changes yet and are uncomfortable asking employees about the same topics. This leaves employees feeling like leaders do not really care about what they think. Some good questions to ask are: “What do you think can really kill this change?” “What do you need to make this work?” These are the topics that employees want to talk about and leaders often do not want—but need—to address.
Not Telling the Truth Enough
As Dr. Robert Schachat, a veteran executive coach used to tell his clients and friends alike about honest feedback, “Give it to me, I can take it!” One constant leadership dilemma during change is the issue of how much truth employees can take. On the one hand, leaders want to be open and disclose what they can. However, there is fear that since emotions are running high, too much information or the “wrong” information will distract or upset employees. The problem emerges when the pressure to succeed pushes up against the need to know. In my experience, I have found that employees can take the truth yet leaders hold it back. my advice: Give it to them—they can take it.