It is a truism to say that the rule for organisations is to change continuously. It is also well known that resistance to change is regularly observed, causing most change efforts to fail. Even when the need for change is apparently straightforward, people may resist for various reasons.
Therefore, this article will highlight aspects that can help change leaders to effectively communicate the need for change and mobilise their employees to make change happen.
The importance of clarifying the need for change: “why?”
However, your view is not necessarily similar to those affected by the change. Considering that people naturally seek stability and tend to avoid going into the unknown, they need to be clear about the necessity for change before they will be willing to implement it.
One important step to clarify the need for change “the why?” is to show that the benefits from the change are greater than the risk of not changing. However, this demonstration is easier said than done since organisational changes involve individual change efforts and “one size does not fit all”.
Understanding the need for change and ambivalence
It is to be expected, for example, that senior managers, who have progressed through their entire career by adopting a specific set of skills and procedures, will feel insecure when the organisation asks them to adapt to a new style and way of working more aligned to new market demands.
On the one hand, senior managers probably have strong emotional ties with the old way of working. On the other hand, they attained their current position thanks to a lot of personal investment and have a lot to lose should they fail to reinvent themselves. Such internal conflicts combined with an unclear understanding of the need for change can be the perfect recipe for undermining a genuine will to change.
This assertive mindset makes all the difference to a change project’s success (amount of energy invested, fast pace, commitment to quality, etc.), but, as already mentioned, this mindset does not come naturally. Efficient communication is the key to achieving this.
When the organisation is conducting business as usual, without a relevant change project, communication follows the management’s focus on providing a sense of direction, order, and protection. The objective is to explain “what is going on?” and “How to proceed?”.
So, during “normal” times corporate communication tends to have a more informative approach. It will announce a new product, a reward, a new management team member, a change in the law (GDPR), an upgrade in the supplementary health insurance plan, a new global client, the acquisition of a new company, etc.
The focus here is not to explain in detail why things are happening the way they are, but to update people about mainly technical information.
The Communication context during a change project
The context is very different during a change project that involves adaptive processes. Instead of just receiving technical updates that won’t significantly impact their lives, employees will be informed that they will need, for example, to learn new skills, change roles, work with a different team, adapt to new processes, etc.
Communication will need to adapt and go beyond the informative approach. For example, if in a digital transformation project, the communication only focuses on the questions: “What is the new software(capabilities/provider)?”, “How will it be implemented (actions/timing)?” and “Why is it important for the organisation?”, many employees will not see justifiable reasons for them to change.
In general, people understand what a new digital tool is, the steps for the adoption, the benefits for the organisation. In fact, intellectually, cognitively and rationally they can “get it”. However, they are not necessarily comfortable with the impact it will involve on their lives. Taking the example of a digital transformation, the most frequent questions are:
- Will I lose my job?
- Will my life become easier with this tool or will it increase my workload?
- Will it make employees’ mistakes more visible?
- What if I do not have the skills to use the tool?
- What if I suggest an improvement which will represent the loss of many jobs in the company?
What’s in it for the employees?
Thus, during a change project, communication should explore in-depth “what is in it for the employees?” and the answer should be: (i) examples of change benefits at their level from different angles and (ii) assurance that they will be supported during the entire transition period (training, sufficient time to learn, tolerance for failure and other resources).
By focusing on answering this question in the best way possible, leaders avoid the common risk of “falling in love” with the change project and limiting the communication strategy to repeating the same messages via different channels.
They will be able to adjust the “normal” corporate communication to an adaptive reality marked by ambivalences and fears of the unknown.
Communication tips to clarify “why” at an individual level
Focus on active listening to provide information that can build bridges between the mind (intellect) and the heart (emotions) of the people. Listening is fundamental to capturing people’s perceptions and real objectives, which can help understand emerging concerns and ensure that change initiatives continue in line with the organisational context. The idea is to get people’s cues to mobilise them. For example, suppose employees at a specific site are specially worried about losing their jobs because of an economic crisis in the country. In this case, communication should focus on the fact that by obtaining digital skills and fluency with an international tool the employees will improve their CVs and thus potentially gain access to global position opportunities.
Their communication must empathically recognise the difficulties and connect the past to the future, making sense of the need for change in the organisation and at individual levels.
Identify if employees are sufficiently and adequately informed about the change. Let them gradually get used to the idea. The right dose of communication is an important lever for this gradual appropriation by the employees. Some questions to help you get relevant feedback could be: “What are you struggling with?” and “Could you tell me more?”.
It is important to communicate when employees’ requests are taken into account to build trust during the change process.
Intranet, newsletter, town halls, and FAQs are useful tools to spread information about the change. Nevertheless, the need for change can also be transmitted very effectively by the direct managers, who are closer to the teams and can give personalised meaning to the change.
Even when leaders do not have all the answers yet or the answer is not pleasant, communication should be honest and clear. It is better to let employees know what leaders know when they know it and keep providing updates as the process evolves. People should know they have as much information as possible. The CEO of Airbnb sent a communication to its employees openly sharing the layoffs decided in May 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic crisis. He mentioned they did not have clarity about when the situation would revert, so a tough decision needed to be taken. It was very hard but easier to assimilate because it was transparent.
It can deal with fears caused during the transition and overcome resistance to change, as well as motivate employees to develop new skills and go those extra miles to implement the project successfully.
Become a true Change project manager at your own pace
 Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries (2011). The Hedgehog Effect: Executive Coaching and the Secrets of Building High Performance Teams, West Sussex, UK : John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Fra  KANTOR, Bob. Change management: A better way to explain the “why”. https://enterprisersproject.com/article/2020/1/change-management-how-explain?page=1 (accessed on 03/03/2021)  Header photo by Oleg Laptev on Unsplash