"Another year, another reorganization.”
“Did you hear the news? Why are they making this change?”
Cue the eye rolls, deep sighs, grumbling at the water cooler and millions of face-palm emojis flinging back-and-forth across Slack and texts.
People tend to initially see change as something negative. Annoyance, anger and panic don’t have to go hand-in-hand with organizational change, but oftentimes, they do.
Nearly 70 percent of organizational-change projects fail because the right message isn’t communicated to the right people at the right time, according to Harvard Business Review. That’s why it’s crucial that communications experts have seats at the change-management table.
And yet the success rate of change is stunningly low — because far too often, executives underestimate the importance of communications. The backbone of any organizational change, communication reduces uncertainty and guides a business through the transition.
According to a study by professional-services firm Willis Towers Watson, organizations that are highly effective at change management, engagement and communications are also five times more likely to outperform industry peers, 20 percent more likely to report lower turnover rates, and five times more likely to employ managers who actively support the organization’s vision.
Some organizational changes are well-thought-out and planned in advance, while others have to be managed on the fly. Some changes are just small tweaks. Others are complete turnarounds and transformations.
Whether you’re in the midst of a CEO shakeup, implementing a new policy or going through an acquisition, these six tips will help place your change project among the 30 percent that succeed.
1. Create a communications plan that prioritizes empathy.
When organizational change occurs, people try to make sense of something new asked of them — from learning an unfamiliar computer system to following a new chain of command — while also dealing with all of the organization’s usual demands. When writing your communications plan, try to put yourself in the employee’s shoes. Remember that we’re all creatures of habit, and during organizational changes people lose their known ways of doing things, and sometimes even their co-workers. As change agents, plan your communications with patience and understanding.
2. Develop clear, consistent messaging that other messengers can carry throughout the organization.
And then, repeat, repeat, repeat. People want to know what’s happening and why, and how it will affect them. Sanitized corporate-speak or contradictory statements only sow confusion and frustration. Employees will consider leaving if they aren’t well-informed, so keep the information coming. In times of change, it’s hard to over communicate.
Equip your messengers with talking points, an FAQ document and other materials to help them guide the conversation with their direct reports and address common questions and concerns. In that consistent messaging, the rationale for the change must be made abundantly clear. In addition to message points that explain the purpose of the change, craft responses to questions such as: What is the change and what does it entail? Who will the change affect and how? How will it impact the company? When will the change go into effect?
3. Think carefully about how you will deliver the news — and whom you should inform first, second and so on.
To minimize the chances of the information being leaked to customers and competitors — or of fueling the rumor mill with inaccurate information — make sure that everyone receives the same information in a relatively short period of time, and in the appropriate order.
The order of whom you share the update with may vary depending on whether your organization is in the public or private sector, and how it’s governed. Tell managers and change ambassadors the news before sharing it with the broader group; these leaders and influencers within your organization will be messengers and can help instill confidence within their circles of influence. They can also ensure that accurate information about the change is relayed. As soon as possible, brief those who will be directly impacted by the change, so they hear the news before it’s widely shared.
4. Never underestimate the power of face-to-face communication during changes.
Whenever possible, conduct in-person and town-hall meetings to communicate changes. To make sure employees don’t miss the news, choose the right channels and communicate consistently across your company email, social media, intranet and website, and through direct mail, flyers or other media that make the most sense for your organization.
Employees want to hear the news from the person driving the change (often the CEO) or their direct supervisor. They want to receive it from the source, or as close to the source as possible. When they do, they’re more likely to trust and understand the news, which is more important than just agreeing with it.
5. Get the timing right. Pay attention to important dates and plan your communications accordingly.
Think about the best day and time to deliver the news in the context of company deadlines, industry news and other events. For example, avoid delivering the news over the weekend or outside normal office hours, at the tail-end of another major announcement, or on the first day back to work after a major holiday.
6. After informing people, listen to their feedback and involve them.
By engaging in a collaborative, two-way dialogue, you give your employees (who are your best resources, after all) the chance to share their ideas about improving processes. Surveys and town-hall meetings are also opportunities for employees to comment and vote on ideas. Such involvement creates commitment. Conversely, lack of collaboration during change management means that employee commitment, motivation and efficiency will suffer.
Every change, organization and culture is different. But the best practices outlined above will help communicators develop effective strategies that win hearts and minds around any organizational change.
Ultimately, employees will determine whether a change succeeds. And how well you communicate and collaborate with them will directly impact the organization’s performance.