In a nutshell

1. What constitutes change?

Change at work may be

  • Procedural, such as a new management process
  • Organisational – a merger or downsizing
  • Strategic – for example, to another sector
  • Cultural
  • Cosmetic


2. How do people react to change?

Most people react to the knowledge that changes are on the way with concern, worry, uncertainty, insecurity, introspection and fear. Questions that arise include

  • Will I still have a job?
  • Will I still have a future?
  • Will I have to move house?
  • Will I still be able to pick up the kids at 4 o’clock?
  • Will I have the same work to do?


3. Change fails!

When people say that most change projects fail, what they usually mean is that the change failed to produce the ‘expected business benefits’. Often, the minutiae of the project were ‘successful’, but the change still failed actually to produce the benefits expected. Failures in communication are often a cause of problems:

  • Perhaps the team didn’t know what was expected from the change
  • Perhaps they failed to tell those leading the change that their expectations were unrealistic


4. Best change practices

A survey of 12,000 professionals produced the following list of best change practices, all of which relate in some way to communication:

    1. Effective communication
    2. Employee involvement or buy-in
    3. Leadership and commitment from senior management
    4. Evidence that management is living the change
    5. Explicit business imperative for change/market dynamics


5. Worst change practices

Note that four out of five of these relate to communication:

  1. Failing to communicate to all employees about change
  2. Not clearly expressing the change vision/objectives/rationale
  3. Being dishonest about change processes and implications
  4. Not giving employees a voice in the change process
  5. Failing to plan for change


6. Change communications strategy

A standard communications strategy revolves around transmitting the message. For a change communications strategy, it is important to bear in mind the need for employees to have a voice.

  • Consider the purpose of the communication – are we telling, selling, sharing or empowering?
  • What do we need to say and how will we listen?
  • How should we segment our audience to make messages specific?
  • How far are we open to feedback about tactics?
  • What medium or media will we use to communicate?
  • What about timing?


7. Channels of communication

Which channels of communication should you use?

  • The two most valued media are one-to-one meetings and team meetings with managers and/or supervisors, so the change sponsor should communicate with these directly and train them as messengers.
  • Emailing, leadership presentations, newsletters and help lines can be used additionally.
  • It’s important to feed the various employee grapevines with accurate information to avoid wild rumours.


8. Timing your communications

Inaccurate rumours undermine effective change.

  • To avoid dangerous rumours, it’s necessary to communicate while you are still planning.
  • Communications can then gradually move from uncertainty (possible outcomes), through to the initial plan, and on to changes to the plan and final implementation.


9. The language of change

For all our ‘transmissions’ of information, we need to remember to get our message across in real language. This means language that the audience will understand and relate to.

  • Avoid management speak and jargon.
  • Speak in terms of evolution, not revolution.
  • Don’t take short-cuts with translations – make sure the translator understands the business and adapt your style to the culture.
  • Always have local people review the translation.
  • Never use a machine for a translation.


10. A dozen tips

Top tips to make change communications work include

  • Specify the nature of the change
  • Explain why
  • Let employees know the scope of a change, even if it’s bad news
  • Make sure communication is two-way
  • Target first line supervisors
  • Support change with new learning
  • Model the changes


Common questions

  1. t is patently obvious to everyone that we need to make this change, so why bother going to the effort of all this communication?
  2. Can’t we just use the normal internal comms strategy?
  3. The boss is going to do a presentation, surely that is enough, isn’t it?
  4. The HR director want lots of dry ice and thundering Wagner, that’ll get the message across, won’t it?
  5. We need to get all the planning done first, then we start communicating, right?

1. It is patently obvious to everyone that we need to make this change, so why bother going to the effort of all this communication?

People may know that a change is needed, but they won’t necessarily agree with you, or each other, about what that change should be and when that change should happen.


2. Can’t we just use the normal internal comms strategy?

There are recommended differences to the ‘normal’ strategy; change is not ‘business as usual’, so an unusual approach is appropriate.


3. The boss is going to do a presentation; surely that is enough, isn’t it?

You’d be surprised how little value most people put on a senior management/leadership presentation in comparison with some other media. By all means, we can get the boss to do their bit, but we need to be a bit more holistic if we want to get the messages across, both ways, in a style that works.


4. The HR director wants lots of dry ice and thundering Wagner; that’ll get the message across, won’t it?

Probably not, for the majority of the workforce; people are generally uncomfortable about change, so a slick, theatrical production is unlikely to dispel any fears people might have.


5. We need to get the planning done first, and then we start communicating – right?

T J Larkin, one of the most influential and respected voices on the subject, disagrees entirely; his research suggests that you should start communicating the very moment you start planning!


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Want to know more?


Communicating change: winning employee support for new business goals

T J Larkin and Sandar Larkin, McGraw Hill, 1994, 252 pages

This book is packed with great practical tips that have been proven in the real world.

What works: a decade of change at Champion International

Richard Ault, Richard Walton and Mark Childers. 1998, 181 pages

A fascinating, decade-long journey charting the transformation of a mediocre company into a team-based top competitor.