By Henry DeVries
Gulp. Suppose the time has come to communicate a major change for your organization. Perhaps it is a downsizing, a restructuring, or a switch to total quality management. The change is so important the future of the organization depends on it.
Employees are mustered to the cafeteria or large conference room where the manager makes an impassioned speech worthy of a field marshal. Following the call to arms, the communications campaign launches an offensive on several fronts. All locations are bombarded with videos. Special editions of the employee newsletter sound the battle cry. Platoons of department directors and team leaders fan out to deliver the message on a more personalized basis to the troops.
But the war is already lost. Why? Because this approach is wrong, wrong, wrong. Not only will it fall flat, it is positively harmful.
Ask employees what information source they prefer. According to a study by the International Association of Business Communications, 9 out of 10 employees said they want to hear it directly from their own “boss.” The mistake that dooms most campaigns seeking to win support for new organizational goals is the failure to let department directors and team leaders explain the change to employees.
To achieve optimal results, campaigns to communicate potentially unpopular changes to employees should be viewed as an applied science. Unfortunately, this does not happen at most organizations. Case studies, surveys, and research have shown that the leading practices for a major change are to communicate directly and to use face-to-face communication, which includes storytelling.
The rate of major change can accelerate rapidly today, and managers can be called upon to make major communications decisions. Knowing the four biggest mistakes of change communication will increase their chances of success.
Mistake 1. Many well-meaning managers attempt to improve change communications by going the direct route.
These managers naturally want to talk directly to employees, usually supported by the advice of senior human resources staff or consultants. Unfortunately, it is a mistake that is wrong for two reasons.
First, it can be viewed as a mere symbolic move, and today’s disillusioned employee has little love for the empty gesture. Second, and more damaging, these campaigns can weaken the relationship between workers and their team leaders. Team members want to work for someone who is connected and has a degree of power within the organization. They want to know their supervisor has some pull and is not viewed as powerless.
Mistake 2. Other well-intentioned leaders push for equality in the workplace.
They believe leaders should sit shoulder-to-shoulder with employees to hear the big news.
Again, a mistaken strategy because it is evidence of management’s failure to recognize the team leader’s superior status. This reduces the person’s perceived power and weakens his or her effectiveness as a force of change. What many leaders fail to realize is that the only communications with the power to change behavior is the kind between a team leader and a team member.
Mistake 3. Applying the strategy that more must be better, executives in charge of change campaigns use ink by the barrel.
They think the solution is more employee reports, posters, news bulletins, video scripts, team briefing outlines, brochures, and guidebooks. This too is the wrong approach, because the critical communication is the type that happens face-to-face.
Energy and resources should be directed toward producing briefing cards that will arm leaders to answer the key questions that are in the minds of staff members.
Mistake 4. Not giving team leaders a persuasive story to tell can be a tactical error.
Storytelling helps persuade on an emotional level. Stories are the building blocks of an organization’s culture.
If there is already a true story to tell about how the change will benefit the organization and its employees, so much the better. If not, at least give people a narrative to tell about how success can be achieved in the future. Every story starts with the name of a character who wants something. Make your main character likable or the victim of undeserved misfortune so the listeners will root for them. To make the individual likable, describe some of their good qualities or attributes.
Heroes need help on their journey. They need to work with a wise person. This is where your organization comes in. Be the voice of wisdom and experience. The hero does not succeed alone; they succeed because of the help you provided.
Finally, give the listeners the moral of the story. Take a cue from Aesop, the man who gave us fables like The Tortoise and the Hare (the moral: slow and steady wins the race). Don’t count on the listeners to get the message. The storyteller’s final job is to tell them what the story means.
The Bottom Line on Communicating Change
While other forms of communications should not be abolished, the emphasis should be on making team leaders, department directors, and other supervisory positions privileged receivers of information. The strategy is to empower them.
When the future of the organization is on the line, ultimately it’s the manager’s job to make sure change is communicated the best way possible. After employees know what is happening, then the manager can talk to all to reinforce the message.
Wise managers will use their teams, and properly arm them, to ensure success.
Henry DeVries is chief executive officer, Indie Books International, Oceanside, California, and the author of Marketing with a Book and Persuade with a Story! (www.indiebooksintl.com).