Volume 30, Issue 3, 2022
Volume 30, Issue 3, 2022
Supporting employees through change
At the centre of every change is people, and effective communication with employees is critical to the success of any organisational change or transformation programme. But what does effective change communication look and sound like? The consensus among change practitioners is that messages must be planned, relevant, timely, and delivered through the right channels by the right people. But communication must also ‘feel’ right, and to effect change successfully, perhaps the most important element of a change communication plan is authenticity.
Targeted and purposeful change
Change is a constant in the business world. Companies are continually evolving to grow, outperform competitors, or respond to changing customer needs or other external influences. Covid-19 has intensified challenges for businesses worldwide, and their ability to survive – and even thrive – has been determined by how successfully they can change. For change to be successful, it is necessary for employees – the people ultimately implementing the change – to ‘buy into’ it.
People need to understand ‘why’ the change is needed and why they are being asked to do things differently. Global consultancy McKinsey’s ‘Influence Model of Leading Change’ maintains the importance of consistently communicating the rationale behind adopting a new way of working. According to McKinsey, there must be a clear narrative for the change effort and change leaders need to constantly check to understand the extent to which people seem to be buying into the process.
McKinsey also asserts that business leaders often tend to dramatically overestimate the effectiveness of their communication. The ‘why’ behind a new way of doing things may be obvious to them but not necessarily clear to the rest of the organisation. Employees mustn’t be forced to dig for details. The reason for the change should be offered early and communicated often. This should precede details around who will be affected by the change and who will be responsible for carrying it out.
What the change will mean
In addition to communicating why the change is happening, it’s important to be specific about what the change will mean. Effective communication must target a particular audience and address their concerns about where they fit into the change process and what they can expect. People will be more invested in the change journey if they have strong situational awareness and appreciation for the specific project risks and challenges.
Communication should be customised for the level of involvement in change for each team – and even each employee – so that they know how they will be impacted. While it may sound simple, people’s individual concerns can often be pre-empted by change managers putting themselves in the employee’s shoes and answering, ‘what’s does it mean for me?’ and ‘what’s in it for me?’
Early and frequent communication
There is often a tendency for senior people in an organisation to independently decide on a business change and then ‘roll it out’ to the rest of the organisation in the form of a change campaign. But creating a change plan in a vacuum can be a mistake – and a missed opportunity. Instead of telling employees what to expect, change leaders can draw them in and invite them to be part of the process.
Starting the change management with a participative approach makes ‘rolling it out’ easier and more successful. Employees who are involved from the start are more likely to stay engaged and become self-proclaimed advocates for the change. This involves asking the team meaningful questions from the start and tapping into their knowledge, insight and creativity. Putting the focus on ‘them’ creates ongoing buy-in. Once the change plan is underway, messages should be frequent (and repeated), and when each phase of the change will take effect should be communicated.
Employees at the centre
The people affected by the change are ultimately the ones responsible for making and sustaining it. Boston Consulting Group also advocates an employee-first change approach. At some point in a transformation (and certainly by the implementation phase), the responsibility for making the change plan successful shifts to employees. For this reason, there must be multiple opportunities to engage employees throughout the process.
Boston Consulting Group advocates for change management communication to flow both ways. Without two-way engagement, productivity and morale will often suffer, and the new target state will be harder to achieve and sustain. This means ensuring employees are heard and genuinely listening to employee feedback and taking it on board. It also involves encouraging employees to create solutions and actively identifying and addressing their concerns.
Change communication experts strongly discourage relying on one medium to talk about a new change and instead encourage communicating through multiple channels. Everyone has different communication styles and preferences, and it’s important to reach people through the channels they respond to best.
Each channel has strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the goal is to get the message across and make it understood and valued by as many people as possible. Capturing the attention of employees in a new and unconventional way can be very beneficial. Communication is also becoming more immediate and more personal. A creative and comprehensive video explaining a change can be more appealing to many than long text. This might be an effective way to reach a lot of people to launch a change, which can then be followed by more personal face-to-face communication in a more intimate team, or even one-on-one, setting.
Authenticity from the top
Change also needs to be communicated by the right people. A robust change communication plan requires ensuring multiple people within the organisation are set up to be advocates for the change. Employees generally want to hear about change through the change-maker and their direct supervisor. This means that managers and supervisors who will be communicating with their respective teams need to believe in the ‘why’ and have a sufficient understanding of the elements in the change plan to communicate accurately and effectively with their team.
Educating managers and supervisors about the change is crucial. Suppose the purpose of the change is not fully explained to managers and supervisors. In that case, they will not be able to confidently approach conversations about the change, and employees will be reluctant to put their trust in someone uncertain of the details.
Change experts also stress the importance of chief executives being visible in change processes and playing an active role in communication. There is a growing expectation from employees for chief executives to communicate the reasons and aspirations for change. Communication specialists also encourage matching the method of communication to a chief executive’s personality. A formal question-and-answer session might be a good fit for some, while a smaller and more informal discussion group might be a better fit for others.
McKinsey additionally promotes the importance of role modelling in change management. For change to be successful, it is critical for leaders to act and communicate in ways aligned with the desired change. In this way, they also become role models for fostering better leadership communication throughout the whole organisation.
Above all, there is agreement across the change management discipline that chief executive communication should be genuine. Employees want to see the human side of their leader, and communication should therefore be personal and sometimes even a little emotional. Transparency and authenticity build trust; if employees do not trust the person communicating the change at the top, they will fight it. Organisations should always be working to build trust in the workplace, but during an organisational change, it is especially important – and expected.
Last but not least
Where the change is communicated should not be overlooked and is an important element of the change communication plan. Whether communication takes place virtually or in a physical location, it is important to match the ‘where’ with the message and audience. Consideration should be given to the location, size, and even layout of meeting rooms (or another venue). The plan should also include whether communication happens in one central office branch – perhaps with an expectation for employees based in other locations to travel – or whether the people communicating the changing travel to individual branches create an opportunity for the communication to be more personalised.
Resistance and patience
Managing conversations about change is challenging, and there is highly likely to be some resistance along the way. People cannot be made to feel immediately enthusiastic about doing things differently, and emotional reactions and resistance are to be expected. Whether people come on board and adopt new ways of working comes back to their need to understand the purpose of the change. Providing details is crucial, and details are best delivered by people who are fully informed and on board with the change themselves. Resistance should be built into the change plan, and before announcing a change, it is important to map out potential objections and prepare meaningful responses.
The enduring components in a change process are perseverance and patience. A major change effort in a large or complex organisation usually takes at least 18 months to get real traction and probably three years for the desired state to be fully embedded. Employees and leaders alike will probably feel some degree of change fatigue at one or more points along the way. This can be minimised by an assurance that there is a plan and for everyone to be a part of it.
- Based on the content in this article, list at least three elements of an effective change management communication plan.
- List at least two reasons why change communication might be unsuccessful and the potential impact of each.
- Select two communication channels or methods mentioned in this article and list the likely advantages and disadvantages of each.
- Timing is very important in effective change communication. Explain the potential risks of communicating a message to an affected employee late in the process.
- The McKinsey Influence Model for Change comprises four key components. Research the model and summarise in your own words the purpose of all four components.
- List at least two ways in which effective change communication can minimise resistance to change.
- List one leadership behaviour or communication style that can have a positive impact on change management and one leadership behaviour or communication style that can have a negative impact.
- Other than the chief executive, list at least three other roles within an organisation that could be positive advocates for change.
- This article focuses on internal change communication within an organisation, however depending on the change, it can be important to also communicate with stakeholders outside of an organisation. Imagine a hypothetical organisation going through a change process. Consider the external stakeholders that are likely to be affected by the change and how internal change leaders might effectively engage with each stakeholder group.
Basford, T. and Schaninger, B. (2016). The Four Building Blocks of Change. McKinsey & Company.
Harmon, S. (2020). Change Management is a Mindset. Forbes.
Kirchhoff, E. et al (2020) The Elements of a Good Change Management Function. Boston Consulting Group.