June 2006

Communicating Change

CIDMIconNewsletter Terry Barraclough, Symitar; a Jack Henry Company

In the fast-moving field of technical communication, or in any business in the 21st century, there is an imperative to communicate major organizational change to employees and secure their buy-in to ensure that changes can occur, will occur, and will have the intended consequences. Too often, the ways in which we communicate far-reaching changes in a business environment guarantee more confusion than understanding, more resistance than acceptance, and more fear than excitement. We just don’t have the proper understanding or use the right tools.

Communicating Change: Winning Employee Support for New Business Goals was published in 1994 but is perhaps even more relevant today. TJ and Sandar Larkin, directors of Larkin Communication Consulting, provide clear, simple guidelines for communicating organizational change to employees. Their recommendations, while often contradicting standard current practice, are firmly grounded in research and common sense, their examples are simple to understand, and their advice is practical and useful.

Essential Principles

The preface to Communicating Change begins with the warning, “Most of the advice given to senior managers telling them how to communicate change is wrong.” The authors debunk the standard methods of top-down communication and state unequivocally that there are three essentials to successfully communicating change:

  • Communicate directly to supervisors.
  • Use face-to-face communication.
  • Communicate relative performance of the local work area.

Traditional top-down methods such as costly corporate videos, company newsletters, memos, or even extensive training programs ignore these essentials. They communicate what management wants employees to hear, not what employees need to hear to buy into change. What, after all, is the purpose of the communication? It should change workers’ behavior: “After receiving the communication, employees should return to their jobs and perform better than before.” To accomplish this goal, communication of organizational change must be receiver-oriented.

Communicate Directly to Supervisors

Why target corporate communication to supervisors? Research points to supervisors as the employees’ favored source of information. Workers trust their immediate supervisors. The further the level of management is from the front line, the less frontline workers seem to trust the communication. “There is some loyalty and admiration for executives among many middle and senior managers. This dissipates fast as you head toward the front line. On the front line, loyalty and admiration are replaced with suspicion.”

The Larkins recommend establishing direct two-way communication between supervisors and senior management and provide a concrete example of how such communication worked for an offshore oil company making a major change to its maintenance operations. They also cite research and provide examples of why communicating directly from top management to the front line or trickling information down through middle management does not work.

Corporations should concentrate on improving the communication skills of middle managers because “information is moving in and through middle managers. It is not moving out.” No matter how much middle managers believe they know about communication, and no matter how well they communicate, if they communicate directly to frontline workers, they cause frustration and embarrassment for supervisors. Supervisors feel left out; they want to know what’s going on so that when their employees come to them with questions, they know how to respond. Middle management must be taught that, “changing the behavior of frontline employees requires strong supervisors armed with good communication.”

Chapters on communicating customer service, new technology, or downsizing illustrate with real world examples how these communications can be made to succeed or how, through miscommunication, they can fail to achieve their intended results. Especially in the case of a downsizing, remember that employees aren’t going to sit down and read a severance guide, and they aren’t going to contact Human Resources with their concerns; they’re going to go to their supervisors, and their supervisors had better know what to say.

Communication training isn’t the answer. The failures of communication programs “have nothing to do with supervisors. It’s the communication that needs fixing, not the receivers… Where did anyone get the idea supervisors don’t know how to communicate with their people?” A good supervisor already knows how to talk with employees.

Instead of the traditional avenues of communication, make supervisors the number one communications priority so they can relay the information to their employees, answer their questions, and address their concerns. Targeting supervisors will not only improve their confidence, but will give them what they need to know to communicate change to workers face to face, which is exactly what their workers want.

Use Face-to-Face Communication

Corporate communication often consists of employee reports, company newsletters, videos, posters, CEO presentations, and team briefing meetings. Producing these materials or holding meetings ignores the efficacy of and need for informal, face-to-face interactions between supervisors and their subordinates. In study after study, employees don’t rave about the quality of the new corporate video, but after seeing it, they want to talk with someone who can give them more information and answer their questions interactively.

One company uses the simple and effective technique of arming supervisors with briefing cards that give them what they need to know to address frontline concerns. No video or newsletter can have the same effect as talking with someone who knows what’s going on.

Delving deeper into the use and misuse of videos, the Larkins maintain that videos “are effective

[only] under two conditions: first, communicating technical information with immediate application and second, senior executives responding to a dramatic event of concern to all employees.” Videos may be able to show employees how to perform a new function or defuse fears about a tragic event, such as the lethal methyl isocyanate leak in a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Videos helped Union Carbide explain the confusing and frightening event and defuse employee fears that it would happen again.

Briefing meetings aren’t the answer, either. Many supervisors are afraid of standing up in front of a group. The Book of Lists revealed that the number one fear of most people is “speaking before a group”; “death” placed only sixth. Supervisors want to communicate one-on-one, not before a lot of folding chairs. Besides, there are already too many meetings in most companies. Neither the supervisors nor their employees want to attend yet another uncomfortable, too-long, fidgeting-in-their-seats meeting. No way.

Company newsletters tend to be a quick fix that absolves managers from the responsibility of designing and delivering real communication. Many employees won’t read it, and of those who do, many won’t understand it or know how the change announced in the newsletter will directly affect them. They consistently miss the mark.

How about suggestion boxes? Ask the CEO campaigns? Such programs skip over levels of management and leave the supervisor looking like an ignoramus whom the company doesn’t expect to be able to address concerns directly.

Employee attitude surveys leave more questions than they answer. Why does the company want to know this? Why are they asking me? What are they going to do with what I say? Are they going to use it against me? Forget the fact that many, if not most employees will answer with what they think upper management wants to hear.

The Larkins challenge corporations to put their communications to the test. Examine how the forms of communication actually change behavior with clients, not employee surveys. Stop the communication and see what happens and who notices; chances are it won’t make a difference to frontline employees. They won’t care.

Communicate Relative Performance of the Local Work Area

“Your employees don’t care about the company.” On the face of it, this statement seems to imply that the corporation hired the wrong people. But it doesn’t mean that at all; it means that employees care about their local work area and how they can do their jobs. They have a pride in their performance, and this means more to them than a warm and fuzzy feeling about the company.

If you want to reach employees, compare their performance to similar groups both within and outside of the company. If they compare favorably, they will take pride in their work. If they fall short in the comparison, they will be shamed into trying to perform better. Don’t ignore either pride or shame. The bottom line is that employees work to improve their performance because pride or shame in their job has a direct correlation to how they feel about themselves.

Stop communicating quality, kaizen, or the next big buzzword. Employees will take them for just what they are: the corporation’s attempt to jump on yet another “values” bandwagon. Instead, communicate direct comparisons: performance, not behavior. Touch employees where they live. Make it relevant to them.

Remember, too, to communicate uncertainty. If you don’t know how a major change will affect the company and its workers, keep communicating what you do know to supervisors, communicate probabilities, and let the supervisors pass along the information along to their staff as it becomes available. This will enable supervisors to treat employees with respect, giving them as much information as possible and, whenever possible, updating them when things change. As the Larkins conclude, “there is good reason to believe that the longer communication is withheld from employees, the worse the damage gets.”

Now the Change Has Happened

If you have followed the guidelines offered in Communicating Change,

  • Adverse affects have been minimized.
  • Information is widespread.
  • Supervisors have gained credibility with their employees.
  • Employees know where they stand, what is expected of them, and how the change has affected their day-to-day work.
  • The communication has succeeded.

A better book on communicating organizational change would be hard to find. This is highly recommended reading for all levels of corporate management. Thank the Larkins for making it easy. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author

Terry Barraclough

Terry Barraclough
Symitar, a Jack Henry Company

Terry has been a professional editor, manager, mentor, and writer since 1972. He earned his BA in English at the University of Oregon, where he began graduate studies and research until being enticed away to a position as editor for an educational research agency where he could put his skills to work. He has worked in research, software interfaces, and technical communications and has taught technical writing and editing skills both on the job and at the college level.