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.
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