Communicating Change: 3 Common Mistakes and 5 Ways to Make it Work

Stuart Sinclair - February 25, 2021

Change is inevitable. In fact, it’s crucial to the success of your business. History is littered with examples of companies that failed to move with the times and vanished as a result. But change is also very difficult to manage effectively. It’s an internal communications minefield. Less than one in three planned changes is successful, with performance objectives often missed during the transformation process. Research from Gartner revealed that the success rate decreases with the size of the company, sinking to less than 19% for organisations with over 5,000 employees.

It’s common knowledge that communicating change to employees is a highly emotive subject. It sparks fear, resistance and irrational behaviour. This in turn leads to reduced quality of work, missed targets and loss of production. But what is the root cause behind this unrest? Is it the change itself, or how change is communicated?

The role of internal communication is to help employees navigate a clear path through uncertain waters to a position of clarity and stability. This has never been more crucial, with the effects of the pandemic creating a volatile and unpredictable working environment. Changes have been coming thick and fast, often without warning. Communicating change effectively is now becoming a critical job.

Here, we’re taking a look at the main reasons why communicating change in an organization often fails. And then we’re identifying the techniques for communicating change that will actually work for you. Put these in place, and you’ll find that you can improve internal communication, put employees at ease, and ensure that necessary adjustments are implemented without disruption to your business operations.

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Why Communicating Change Often Fails: Three Mistakes to Avoid

1. Employees don’t understand the new ‘invisible’ rules

When communicating change in the workplace, company culture needs to be foremost in your thoughts. So, what is culture, exactly? It’s a mostly invisible set of norms and rules that impact employee behaviour and decision making. During a period of change, these cultural norms often come under pressure as expectations change.

For example, an employee may be working to the invisible rule that quality takes priority over speed. She will put extra time and effort into the outcome of a project. This her understanding of the company culture and it has been rewarded in the past. But now, during the period of change, speed becomes prioritised. The project needs to be completed immediately, giving quality a back seat. This is when the stress levels rise, as new expectations conflict with the employee’s understanding of the ‘rules’.

These invisible norms and rules can take on many forms in the workplace:

  • Quality vs. speed
  • Commercial vs. people focus
  • Efficiency vs. innovation
  • Central vs. local focus
  • Compliance vs. risk-taking
  • Consistency vs. empowerment
  • Unity vs. diversity
  • Profit vs. Purpose

In a steady-state environment, employees can use their intuition to work out the rules. They will be able to navigate competing priorities with confidence. But during times of significant organisational change, new expectations clash with embedded ways of working, and employees start to question whether they’re prioritising correctly.

2. Employees don’t know how to balance competing priorities

The transformation from old to new ways of working inevitably creates tension in the workplace. In fact, change often creates more than one set of competing priorities that employees don’t know how to balance. Every internal communication strategy needs to address this potential conflict.

The most common ‘invisible rule’ which comes into question is quality versus speed. Gartner revealed that nearly half of all employees going through a transformation will experience this conflict. Another frequently questioned rule is commercial versus people focus. For example, the company may choose to focus on financial goals, forgoing their previous prior commitment to customer care. Efficiency versus innovation is another area that often creates tensions as requirements change.

Communicating change to staff needs careful management to avoid this clash. The outcome is invariably negative: increased employee stress and reduced performance. As the number of tensions increases, so do the stress levels. Nearly half of employees experiencing a single conflict feel moderately stressed, and nearly 30% report feeling highly stressed.

Comments you may hear from employees under this pressure:

“Ever since this change, I have felt a sense of loss and confusion.”

“My work environment is changing in an unpredictable manner.”

“I’m emotionally drained from my work.”

3. Change communications try to reassure rather than clarify

Business leaders often view the existing company culture as an impediment to change. They know the rules need to change in order for the transformation to be successful. Meanwhile, employees feel that the change is disrupting the culture they understand, so feel resistance towards it.

This leads to two competing perspectives that internal communications try to address. On the one hand, they want to promote the change in expected behaviours. On the other, they want to reassure employees that, fundamentally, things are staying the same. The result is mixed messages and confusion. Employees no longer understand what is expected from them or the new invisible rules they should be working to.

When communicating change in organizations, the internal communications process should be to clarify exactly what’s required of each individual. Trying to sugarcoat the core message of change will work against you. It’s better to bite the bullet; admit that major adjustments are required and set out a straightforward path to help employees make those changes.

Five Ways of Communicating Change Successfully

There are a variety of methods and techniques for communicating change in the workplace. Strong, unambiguous and measurable internal communications at this crucial time will help reduce the tensions arising from a change in the cultural norms of the company.

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1. Acknowledge the change

The first step is to acknowledge the tension employees feel due to competing priorities. Rather than attempting to hide it under platitudes that ‘everything is carrying on as normal’, concede that things are now different and the rules that everyone once understood no longer apply.

Although it is tempting to reassure and appease during times of change, it is not constructive to employee understanding. By putting the new requirements out in the open, you are eliminating any chance of confusion.

One of the key internal communication best practices is to speak with absolute clarity, and this is a scenario where transparency really counts.

2. Give clear guidance on priorities

Help employees understand how to make the new trade-offs between competing priorities. If the commercial focus is now more important than the touchy-feely people skills, explain how this will impact their approach to customer interactions.

Wherever possible, organisations must offer well-defined guidance on what to prioritise. Internal communications departments can work with leaders to clarify organisational priorities, thus reducing the negative impact of cultural change on employees.

When you are communicating change to stakeholders, employees and customers, remember both internal and external communication should be speaking the same language, and passing on the same core message.

3. Be specific about what you want

Don’t be vague. It is vital to translate the new company ‘rules’ in specific work situations. Communicating change in the workplace is a precise art.

Company values can often be broad and indistinct. Effective internal communication will show exactly how those values apply to everyday decision making. Wherever possible, leaders should specify the exact actions employees should take.

By translating the top-level principles into specific work situations, you can help employees prioritise the right behaviours in their work. Clear, firm direction will prevent employees from agonising over a decision or simply taking the ‘safe’ option.

4. Facilitate company conversations

Help to build new ways of thinking by encouraging discussion within the business. Interactive experiences can help staff practice and improve their judgement and have more confidence in their decision making. Facilitate peer-to-peer discussions to build support and shared experiences.

The more you can increase your employees’ exposure to new perspectives, concepts and social connections, the better their understanding of the new cultural norms and how they should be implemented. Collaboration should be at the heart of communicating change management.

An internal communications app is a simple way to put this into practice. By opening up new opportunities to interact, it will encourage staff to get involved and start talking. Conversation modules within an employee app will allow you to create social spaces for employees to meet, chat and share their experiences.

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5. Share success and feedback

Success stories are a powerful tool in applying values. Storytelling is a simple way to demonstrate how others in the company are applying the new ‘rules’ and navigating the trade-offs in priorities. Authentic, practical stories offer a real-life application of the required change. Storytelling could well turn out to be one of your most successful strategies for communicating change.

It is also essential to create feedback opportunities. By asking employees to give feedback on their decision making in the new environment, you will help to accelerate their understanding of the new cultural norms.

Internal communications software is an easy way to put feedback channels in place.

Whether you’re creating simple polls or an in-depth internal communication survey, your aim should be to ascertain whether staff really understand what’s being asked of them. Communicating change to employees is a complex business, and it’s vital to make sure that the message has been fully received and understood.

In Summary

Ultimately, when communicating change to staff, you need to make it absolutely clear how the old ways of working need to change. This needs to be as specific as possible, demonstrated through clear examples and practical stories. The new rules must be clarified and specified to the extent where no employee is left questioning their decision making.

The importance of internal communication during this testing time should not be underestimated. It is important to be completely open about the organisational change that is happening and how you expect employees to adapt. Once employees are confidently making decisions on their own, you know you’ve succeeded.

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