Training Industry

Communicating Change

  • Communicating Change

Communicating about an organizational change can inform and inspire employees and set the stage for success. However, it can do just the opposite, when done without preparation and consideration A design engineer from a midsized, private R&D firm tells it well. “Everyone was herded into an hour-long talk from the company founder and CEO, a man with a strong, flamboyant personality. We all saw and heard his intoxication with a new Balanced Score Card approach. It had a glitzy acronym that I can’t even remember now. He told us, with flurry and frenzy, that our performance reviews would conform to the new BSC approach. Instantly, everyone went from understanding how their work was being evaluated to wondering if they’d ever cash another bonus check. The anxiety was palpable. He ended his presentation with ‘My door is always open.’ Every person there knew that there was no way that his door was open to our concerns.”

Disseminating information from informed managers to passive, uninformed employees who are supposed to soak it up is more theater than true communication. In real communication, a clear message develops from a give-and-take that demands listening as well as speaking. The two dimensions of effective communication are clarity of the message and the amount of interaction between the sender of the message and those receiving it. Understanding these distinct dimensions helps create an effective vision of the future that can move a change initiative forward.

A clear message starts with relevancy—what the employees need to know about the upcoming change initiative. Why an initiative is needed, how it will affect the employees’ jobs, and the planned implementation timeframe are all typically pertinent. Presenting the relevant information in terms that are straightforward—excluding hype, avoiding vague generalizations, minimizing jargon, and defining unfamiliar terms—increases clarity. Using vague terms or undefined jargon not only muddies the message but also signals that the leader may only halfheartedly support the change program. Not all clarity comes from words. Leaders who demonstrate honest commitment to a change through active involvement with it are communicating the value of the program loud and clear.

Interacting with the listener is as important as message clarity. At a minimum, getting feedback allows the sender to know whether or not her message was understood. Effective interaction requires respect for the employees hearing about the change—giving them time to express concerns and listening carefully to the points raised. Employees’ concerns may expose real issues about the change initiative or how it is to be implemented. Their perspective, experience with the processes, and knowledge of the product or service is different from that of the business leaders. These differences could give valuable information that strengthens the initiative or its implementation. Concerns or differences should be heard out and then acted on appropriately. Appropriate action could range from altering the rollout plan to plainly explaining why no action is necessary.

These two dimensions of communication—clarity and interaction—influence one another, resulting in a change message that is more or less effective, as illustrated in the table. Starting in the lower left quadrant, you can see that low message clarity and little interaction between the leader and employee results in a unclear change goals and a message that is easily ignored. Moving to the right on the lower half of the chart, significant levels oShapiro Dec Blogf interaction do little to improve an unclear message. Rather, the result is likely to be a vague, inconsistent message that is modified with each interaction, leading to ambiguity about the change. The upper left represents a clear message given by leaders who are unwilling to engage with employees. Ignoring employees’ views, questions, and concerns sends a message that management is not interested in engaging employees and all they care about is compliance. Compared with involved employees, those who simply comply are unlikely to contribute fully to the success of the change. The upper right characterizes the result of a clear change message delivered by leaders who listen to and engage employees. A clear change communication leads to an inspiring vision when leaders listen to employees and respond to their concerns and suggestions.

About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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