Summary of: Advice on Communicating During Organizational Change: The Content of Popular Press Books by Laurie Lewis, Amy M. Schmisseur, Keri K. Stephens, Kathleen E. Weir, Journal of Business Communication, Volume 43, Number 2, April 2006, 113-137.
While this article from 2006 is a bit dated, it has valuable information on how to communicate to employees about and during an organizational change. The authors reviewed 100 of the top change management popular press books listed on Amazon. Their goal was to collect the dominant advice themes about communicating organizational change.
The article lists major themes. Much of the advice from subject matter experts, regardless of topic, is directive – telling what to do instead of how to do it. Rather than being purely directive, I want to focus on the few themes I have used pertaining to communication tactics from an implementation perspective.
Preference for Face-to-Face Communication
Only six of the 100 books reviewed emphasized creating a communication strategy and plan for the entire change journey. One specific quote spoke to me: “If there is a single rule of communication for leaders, it is this: when you are so sick of talking about something that you can hardly stand it, your message is finally starting to get through” (J.D. Duck, 1998, Managing Change, p. 61).
There is a tremendous amount of noise in organizations today. It is easy to think you are communicating about the change when you write a few articles posted on the organization’s intranet (which few people consistently read) and write endless emails (which always get buried or ignored for more important emails).
Several authors focused on communication that is face-to-face by the supervising leader, claiming it is the most effective method of communication. I also find this to be a best practice in my experience. Research has indicated that an employee’s most credible person is their immediate supervisor. When a supervising leader communicates about a change, employees are more likely to pay attention and believe it. I always create a leadership communication plan that addresses how to share accurate information with these leaders and how to equip them with PowerPoint or talking points for their teams. I give care and attention to this group because I realize they hold the power.
Address Pain Points
Another theme found in the research was how to address pain points. Some authors suggested focusing on the benefits of the change in order to gain greater buy-in from employees; other authors encouraged speaking to the pain points that are causing the change as a way to speak to how the current state is not ideal.
I believe this communication preference of positive versus negative is dictated by the corporate culture. Some cultures prefer to have a positive spin on everything, while other cultures paint a more realistic picture.
In my change management practice, I do take the corporate culture into account. I also tend to follow other research about our human nature to be loss averse. Losing something is psychologically twice as powerful as gaining something. A simple example is being angry over misplacing a $20 bill versus being happy you won $20 in a lottery scratch-off.
Loss aversion is a powerful change management communication tool, whether used in a major communication message or individual coaching. It can be communicated as a positive message that the organization has a plan to address the pain or loss through the change initiative.
Use of Persuasion
Persuasion is another theme of advice in the literature review. One author recommended sober selling – being transparent in the change’s pain or costs. Again, this is a best practice I use and recommend, as I have witnessed the opposite backfiring. Let me give you an example.
I worked on a transformational change project in which the corporate culture was to be positive in everything they shared. At the start of the project, the organization created a high-gloss video selling the benefits that would come to the organization when the change was complete. The video was played everywhere, and it got a lot of people excited. However, the video (and anyone connected to the project) neglected to mention that it would be a multiyear project and would have a staggered rollout across product lines. After the first product rollout, a year into the project, employees were disappointed at the limited benefits that were being realized. Many were vocal about this during the rollout, while others refused to engage with the new technology. The change team had a rough road trying to get everyone who was disappointed back on track.
I see this as a perfect example of pain now or pain later. When the change team is transparent in its communication, three things happen:
- Employees are more likely to believe the communication and subsequent transparent messages;
- Employees are more likely to be vocal with their objections up front. When given a voice early in the change journey, there is more time and ability to overcome the objection; and
- Employees will feel trusted, which often equates to active participants in the change.
Advice on how to communicate change is as common today as it was at the time the research paper was written. The research paper uncovered a variety of themes, some from authors who contradicted others. This made me ponder that advice needs to be handed out situationally. Yet, that’s not how books make it on the Best Sellers list. My attempt in this blog is to back up some of that advice with my own experience.