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  • Gilbert Kruidenier

Communicating Change, a double-edged sword

This is a post about Change Communication, the second topic of the 2019 #changeblogchallenge, started by Heather Stagl and Jennifer Frahm for the enlightenment and entertainment of the global change community.

Comms is the most diverse and powerful tool available to a change manager, but like with any tool, if you don’t handle it properly, it becomes a double-edged sword and people can get seriously hurt.

My favourite thing to say about change is that there can be comms without change, but no change without comms. Yet, professional communication is even less understood than change management and good comms people in Change projects are true unicorns. It’s my experience that in every successful Change project I was involved in, the comms person/team made the difference. But if you think it’s hard to get budget for Change capacity, or a business analyst, try getting some funding for comms capacity…

First you have to deal with the truly clueless statements like: “Do we really need a comms person?”, “Isn’t communication every manager’s job?” and my personal favourite, “Isn’t that why we brought you in, you’re the Change manager, right?!”. Or you find out that the ‘comms capacity’ is actually an overworked executive assistant who started out with the best intentions and now finds himself in charge of Marketing, Stakeholder relations, the company newsletter (do NOT get me started on that one) and/or the company website and social media channels. After all, how hard can it really be, hmm?! This coming from the same people who are first to say in every.workshop.ever: “You know what this place needs?! Better communication, that’s what!”.

Okay, so what does better communication actually look like? Jason Little already posted a great blog for the #changeblogchallenge today about how we need to modernise change communication and Fiona Neilson Onfidan highlighted the value of the conversation and asking questions, so I’ll leave that alone and instead propose a few changes to how things are currently done. To stick with the analogy of the double edged-sword, I propose we blunt one edge by doing some things less and sharpen the other edge by doing some things a lot more.

Less multitasking, more expertise

Communication is at least as diverse a profession as Change and should be treated as such. There is an actual and noticeable difference between internal, external, stakeholder, marketing and social media communications, but when time comes to plan the resources all of a sudden, everyone on the project is capable of doing these things more or less by intuition and ‘lived experience’ (we all get marketing emails, how hard can it really be?). If your job is Change, do that, leave comms to the experts. Even if you are good with words and people, comms is a complex and structured process, with many detailed tasks that often take more time than everyone thinks, because no one but comms professionals really understand the job, that’s why they are the experts. I often get asked: “But what if there is no budget for comms?”. Think about that for a minute. Organisation X is making this big change and yet there is no money set aside for telling everyone impacted by that change the facts in a more or less engaging way? That should tell you something about what is really going on. If it comes down to an honest oversight due to inexperience/immaturity, either find the budget or offer your own position up to be replaced with a comms person. Without them your chances of successful delivery are virtually non-existent anyway and it sends a strong message.

Less strategy, more empathy

Most strategic plans, even if there is a change component included, are full of big words, lofty goals and key critical deliverable success metric outcomes gobbledygook. Sure, that’s all great and inspiring, but the actual work to achieve al that greatness will get done by people. People who, unlike machines and systems, wonder about things. Maybe they even worry about what is happening to the business, their colleagues, their team and themselves. So let’s focus a bit more on the empathy side of things and address the reality of uncertainty of the modern VUCA work place, the challenges and complexities that are now part of everyone’s daily routines and the simple fact that despite all the beautiful design and false confidence no strategy has all the answers and solutions. But you have the potential of all your staff to work with! If organisations start focusing more on using communication in all its glorious variety to create psychologically safer workspaces where people speak up and share solutions, that would make every Change manager’s life so much easier. She might just have enough time to focus on her side of the strategic process instead of looking after the people left behind by a uncaring strategic plan with no heart.

Less influence, more information

I’ve seen too many (strategic) comms plans that are full half-truths, selective reasoning and alternative facts, aimed at making things look good when they are just not. The frustration I often sense and hear from staff is that they feel these documents and the related messages are an insult to their intelligence and seem to have no connection to their everyday reality. Even if the original intent, however patronising, was to lessen the impact, not upset people or minimise resistance, basically, you’re still lying. It always puzzles me that organisations are willing to risk their reputation just to avoid some uncomfortable truths. And that’s not even considering that these practices place comms people (who need their jobs like most of us) in an ethically compromised position as they know very well they are getting a bit too creative with the truth, but what are their options? How about giving people the facts of the Change matter and have a conversation about what that might mean for them? I know this is a horror scenario to be avoided at all cost for the traditional ‘power and control’ folks. However, assuming you are in the habit of hiring intelligent people to have opinions and help you build a better business, it makes sense to pay them the courtesy to share more facts and less spin. Your comms person will know how to do that AND make it look good.

Less selling, more engagement

The big paradox of communicating Change is that there is so much to say and so little time to hear it. This often results in very high-level statements that can be explained in various ways without ever getting to the bottom of anything really. By now, most organisations get that it takes time to change behaviours and minds, but somehow the communication is still structured rigidly, with very little room for deeper and more meaningful engagement, it’s all about ‘the quick sell’. The frustrated reply I always get from executives is that there’s simply not enough time to have face-to-face meetings with everyone. Good. Because that’s not what people want anyway. Time and time again employee surveys show that about 80% of staff want to hear good and bad news that impacts them directly from their direct manager and not the executive team. The exec team generally get a 30-50% reliability score and are not considered a trusted source or a good channel by comms (not in your organisation of course). In this day and age, technology is comms’ best friend and as long as information is centrally available, in various formats and with 3-4 degrees of detail, staff will do most of the comms work for you. It’s not as simple as ‘build it (the dreaded SharePoint) and they will come unfortunately. However, having an accessible, transparent and single source of truth that managers (often just as much in the dark as staff) can refer and go back to, will leave more time in every engagement to get to the heart of the matter, because staff will eventually be better informed and have time to ask the real questions.

Less words, more language

Change communication is so much more than words, it’s imagery, delivery modes, tactile experiences and even the look and feel of a workspace just to name some key elements. According to the slightly antiquated saying, apparently “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. Yeah, nah. Words can do incredible psychological and ‘real-world’ physical damage. The higher the level of thoughtlessness expressed through communication channels and media in times of organisational change, the bigger the negative impact. Despite the shocking examples we see in politics, sports and social media, most people don’t start their day intent on offending, hurting and manipulating others. Even the best of change managers, weighed down by deadlines, workload and conflicting priorities can fall victim to sending out that ill-considered email, posting that incomprehensible roadmap or defending a really bad plan that was decided without any consultation. A professional and dedicated comms team or person will understand how much language matters. They get words, images and experiences need to be carefully curated to create a meaningful shared language that is relevant in the context of everyday working life. A shared language that allows people to make sense of what is happening to them and the people around them.

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