The Top Five Mistakes Organizations Make Talking about Change

03/16/2017 03:16 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2017

Communication is essential to the success of any organizational change initiative, but unfortunately, many companies churn out emails, newsletters, and other content for employees without considering how effective it will be. An audience-focused strategy is just as important for internal communications as it is for marketing and advertising. Otherwise, communications may be ignored or fail to create any desire for change.

As a Prosci-certified change practitioner, I find many organizations confuse effort with effectiveness when it comes to talking to their people about change. But you can avoid common mistakes with a little strategic thinking.

1. Failing to understand your audience.

Developing an effective communications strategy for your change initiative starts with understanding what your employees will need to do differently. Identify the behavioral changes different groups of employees must make for the change to be successful. That will allow you to specifically tailor your messages, increasing their relevance to each employee.

Companies with high effectiveness in change management and communication are three and a half times more likely to significantly outperform their industry peers, according to a Towers and Watson report. The study also found that these highly effective companies:

  • Are twice as likely to categorize employees into meaningful groups and understand what resonates with them.
  • Are three times more likely to focus on behaviors that drive success.

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to develop different communications for every role in your organization. By focusing on key behavioral changes, I can typically divide employees into less than ten groups, even in large, global organizations.

Putting your audience first will help you answer the “What’s in it for me?” question that’s essential to every piece of communication.

2. Sending information from the wrong person.

Often, when I ask a change project team who will be the primary communicator for their initiative, their response is the project manager, an HR representative, or worst of all, the IT mailbox. Using these senders can doom even well-crafted communications. Think about who you listen to. Do you read every email from IT as soon as it reaches your inbox? If a project manager that you never heard of called a meeting to discuss a change, would you attend it?

Prosci, a global leader in change management research, has found that there are two preferred senders for change initiatives. Employees want to hear from a leader about the business reason for the change—this could be the project’s executive sponsor or even the CEO. And when it comes to how the change impacts people personally, employees want to hear from their immediate supervisor. A boss is best at explaining what employees need to do differently and how the change will benefit them. Prosci finds that less than five percent of those surveyed preferred hearing from project managers or HR representatives.

Make an executive the primary communicator for all organization-wide messages, using broad channels like email. Every single manager impacted by the change should also communicate, cascading information that’s relevant to their teams. This two-pronged approach allows you to deliver both business and personal messages from the people employees most want to hear from.

3. Failing to develop two-way communications.

All too often, corporate communicators develop complex plans using tools like videos, emails, newsletters, and intranet postings. Top-down, one-way communications can raise awareness, but if you want to build desire for the change, including listening in your plan.

Look for every opportunity to encourage employees to ask questions, express concerns, and offer suggestions. If you wait to identify resistance after the change, you’re too late. Addressing concerns early in the project helps employees to feel invested.

The best way to communicate about change is face-to-face. It allows you to see the confusion in someone’s eyes or hear the fear in their voice. Any communications strategy should include both large group meetings, with plenty of time for Q&A, and team meetings. Tell managers exactly what they should say at various times throughout the project, using key messages you’ve developed. Global organizations can also get employee feedback through virtual meetings, enterprise social sites, and intranet comments.

You may also want to create employee focus groups, which can be especially useful for technology changes. If possible, hold a focus group for each target audiences you’ve identified.

A change champion network is another way to make sure the project team and sponsor are hearing from employees. Unlike a focus group, which should represent all employees, change champions are excited about the change and want to promote it. Their opinions may not reflect what a typical employee is thinking, but a key role for champions is actively encouraging and passing along feedback from other employees.

4. Failing to develop consistent messages.

Let’s say you have five distinct groups you want to communicate to. Does that mean you should develop five completely different sets of content? No. Some of your messages will be the same for every group, such as the business reason for the change. Other types of messaging, such as what employees must do differently, can be tailored as needed.

So, before you write any individual communications, create clear, concise, and compelling language to answer the questions below as simply as possible.

• What is happening? (include when and how)

• Why is it happening?

− Business reasons for the change

− Overall benefits for the organization

• Who is being impacted?

− What groups need to do differently

− Specific benefits for groups

• How are employees being supported?

− Training and resources

− Contact for questions, suggestions

Once you create this core messaging, you can use it in any format, tailored for specific audiences. Your key messages may evolve throughout your project, but it’s important than everyone who communicates about the change speaks with one voice.

5. Communicating too little and too late.

Prosci surveys have found that when change management practitioners are asked what they would do differently, they say they wish they had communicated earlier and more often. Project teams often tell me they don’t want to talk about a change too early because they don’t have all the answers. But even if you don’t know all the details, you can still talk about the reason for the change, which Prosci has found is the most important message employees want to hear. And early communications will help employees feel like they’re part of the process, instead of having the change dumped on them.

For example, I consulted a national retailer planning their biggest technology change in 12 years. An annual meeting for thousands of store managers was coming up, but some folks didn’t want to announce the change because launch was another year away. I argued that this was a great opportunity to not just explain the change, but get feedback. The development team created a beta version of the new system for managers to try out. Nearly all of those surveyed liked what they saw, which we were able to use in later communications to build support. And employees appreciated being able to provide feedback while the system was still being developed.

Communicate early and often. You can’t just send a couple of emails or hold a kick-off event. As mentioned in point #4, take a two-pronged approach throughout your change project, repeating your key messages:

  • Tell all employees what is happening and why, using broad vehicles such as emails, the intranet, and videos.
  • Tell specific groups what they’ll need to differently and how they’ll benefit, primarily by coaching their managers on what to say and how to listen.

If you can avoid these five common mistakes, your organization can help to build awareness and desire for your change, greatly increasing the odds for success.

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