Leading a change effort? Talk to your employees

We’ve all been through it before. Corporate Communications sends a company-wide calendar tap for a meeting in thirty minutes and everyone starts to speculate. Layoffs? CEO resignation? Company being sold? In a matter of seconds, a frenzy ensues, the gossip starts and fear strikes, obliterating productivity for the rest of the day.

Why do companies constantly adhere to the “Big Bang” approach when communicating change? The aftermath of what this approach leaves in its wake – stress, uncertainty and shaken morale – is completely avoidable. It does not have to happen this way.

And frankly, your people don’t deserve it.

In our work with clients, we constantly find that employee communication during change is often neglected – it just isn’t made a priority by leadership when everything else is in turmoil. Change will continue to be a constant in business, and our experience suggests that by focusing on a few key fundamentals to communicating major organizational changes, leaders can improve their chances the message is heard – and that the change is sustained.

1. People want to hear from the CEO.

Most importantly, the leader needs to create a case for change, sharing the vision and providing clear reasons as to why the change is important. People typically want to believe, but the leader must convince them with passion and conviction. The CEO should share the process and the timeline for implementing the change (as short as possible please!) and commit to regular updates that she delivers personally. It is important to use technology and strong, consistent materials to get your message across, but not use them as a substitute for getting in front of the troops. The CEO should commit to multiple rounds of communication early in the process. This will get her leadership team on board and make sure that key stakeholders understand what is coming and are better prepared to handle questions and concerns that most certainly will follow.

Sometimes employee-level communication on change is not addressed because leaders haven’t worked out the aspects of the change to the level of detail that will matter to an employee. They’re about to sign on the dotted line for a major acquisition, but the names of new team members or details of the new commission plan is still a work-in-progress. So rather than experiencing a barrage of questions, leaders avoid communicating anything at all. Even if you do not know all of the details of a change, it’s important to communicate that it’s coming – and make a commitment to communicate more information as it is known.

Another important element to remember when communicating on change is to put yourself in the employee’s shoes. Leaders tend to want to lead the communication with what the company needs and how it will benefit from the change. You would want to hear why the change is important too and how it will affect you personally, right? Do not underestimate the positive impact it can have if initial communication discusses how an employee will benefit from the change.

2. People want to hear from their boss.

Once the case for change is shared, people quickly move to concern over their personal role and those of their fellow team members. Remember, on workdays your employees spend half of their waking hours in your organization, so how their day-to-day existence and that of their coworkers/friends is very personal. Questions that will likely enter their mind (and be discussed with others) are:

  1. Will I have a job?
  2. Will my boss change?
  3. Will my job change?
  4. Will my team change?
  5. What is the future of the business?

The individual best suited to answer these questions is the frontline supervisor, the leader who they most often interact with. There are a few issues with this. First, many of these leaders are often not fully informed of the change so may be learning at the same time everyone else hears the news. Second, these leaders may not be prepared to deal with the range of emotions that result from individuals processing the change. This is often referred to as “moving through the change curve.”

Below is a graphical representation of the change curve, and the correlation between an individual’s emotional reaction to change and the timing of the change. It’s important for leaders to note that at the midpoint of the change curve, an individual can make a departure from accepting the change, making communication on the change imperative not only to morale but retention.

Fortunately, there are some simple solutions to support the manager. As noted above, the CEO needs to bring these managers under the tent earlier in the process and educate them on the change. As we have mentioned before in previous articles on change, organization change efforts often ignore the people who are going to be most responsible for execution. When it comes to communicating the change, engaging your frontline leaders earlier will enable you to test your message, hear about potential concerns and, most critically, give these leaders the opportunity to get their heads around the ideas and be better prepared to explain them to their teams. Also, some basic training on handling reactions to change will go a long way in helping each manager navigate the ups and downs of their team.

Below are ArchPoint’s ABC’s of Change – a guide you can provide frontline leaders that will help them to manage their own teams’ reactions to change.

Another way you can help your frontline leaders deal with reactions to change is to arm them with a “potential FAQ” document, providing answers to questions they will likely be asked by their teams. Consider all aspects of what the change could potentially affect for an employee – compensation, training, benefits, technology, etc. You can develop this document and encourage frontline leaders to present the information to their teams, and allow a segment of the meeting for additional questions.

If the change impacts an employee’s job negatively, provide as much assistance as you can. Aid in developing resumes, changing roles within the company, etc. Regardless if after the change an employee will remain with the organization, you want the process to be as smooth and as positive as possible.

3. People want a place to vent.

Give it to them. The CEO at one of our clients conducted a road show as a follow up to the announcement. He held small group meetings across the country where he faced the tough questions and answered them directly. This face-to-face interaction humanized the change and gave the CEO the opportunity to engage the organization instead of trying to change it via email and polished presentations. You can also use your existing employee communication channels to open up the conversation. Add questions to regular employee surveys to get clear feedback on the change. Create anonymous outlets for employees to share their ideas and concerns such as a blog or via an old-fashioned suggestion box. Make sure that frontline leaders are charged with collecting feedback and getting it back to leadership, to create the continuous loop that is needed to ensure sustainable change.

In summary, during major changes in organizations, it’s important that leaders remember to:

  • Plan communication around the change (don’t use the “Big Bang” approach)
  • Engage middle and frontline managers as early as you can – and provide them with tools and information to be successful in managing reactions to the change
  • Not be afraid to communicate before all is known – it’s better to communicate something than nothing
  • Speak to the positives/benefits employees will experience because of the change, not just how the company will benefit
  • Give employees space and a platform to air concerns
  • Get in front of your employees (and encourage frontline managers to do the same) – don’t rely solely on electronic communication to implement major lasting change

Talking to your people during change is not simply about delivering a polished presentation once the change begins. It requires planning, clear and consistent messaging, and a commitment to educating those who will ensure execution. The CEO who spends time conversing with her leaders about the change will greatly improve the staying power of the initiative.

Jose Davila is a global human resources leader with more than 25 years of experience in retail, consumer goods, manufacturing, and sales. He helps ArchPoint clients with strategic human resources planning, organization design, change management and talent acquisition. Click here to start a conversation with Jose.

6 Comments

  • Hans Evers says:

    Having been through this painful process a few times now I couldn’t agree more. Communication needs to be open and honest and not spin that’s been prepared for weeks and tells the employees exactly nothing.

  • Diane Frank says:

    Thank You very much for this article Rick. Greatly appreciated !

  • Dennis McCann says:

    All of this is good. Change management is or should be more intimate. When the big meeting is called, the subject matter should not be a surprise. Having managed change through a number of organizations, it is critical to engage both the leadership and unofficial leaders.

    • Brenda Merino says:

      Exactly Dennis. Keeping your team on the same page and maintaining healthy relationships with them is crucial. Thank you for your comment.

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