The Big Idea - Effective Communication in a Changing Environment

Peninsula Team

March 11 2011

Three years ago only the most pessimistic forecaster would have predicted the difficult economic environment in which we as business owners are now operating. Many of us will have seen our businesses go through significant changes over the past few years, for good or bad. Whether we’ve grown or downsized, changed direction, moved into new markets or shaved our costs, change is part and parcel of running a business.

One of the problems that all business owners face is how to communicate change effectively. The more autocratic among us may think that communication is simply unnecessary – “It’s my business and I’ll do what I like with it”. But realistically most enlightened business owners realise that unless changes are communicated and explained, it causes a vacuum in information which can leave the workforce at best undirected and at worst disillusioned.

Don’t think that only “bad” changes such as job losses and redundancies need to be communicated. Even “good” change can be unsettling and disconcerting if not communicated effectively by management. Perception is reality during times of change and what you perceive as something positive may not translate in that way to someone operating on the front line of your business, if they don’t understand why it’s happening.

Effective communication of change can and does positively affect the behaviour of your front line employees during such periods.

So as a manager what are the key things you need to think about when communicating a change to your workforce? Firstly, identify exactly what it is that you are planning to change and why. Clarify in your own mind the objectives for the changes being introduced and the results you hope to achieve as a consequence of implementing them. Avoid management jargon and “MBA speak” and think about your target audience – frame what you are doing in language they will understand.

The next thing is to ensure you communicate from the top and in person. If a major change is being implemented, then it helps if it’s explained by the leader of the business so he or she can be seen as championing the change and leading from the front. Everyone in the business will be influenced by the way you as the boss manage change - so you need to show that you’re personally committed to the process.

Start out by explaining the nature of the changes to be implemented, objectives, anticipated results and set out a clear timeline for the process including key dates, activities and milestones. Then be ready and open to take what may be challenging questions. Be as honest as you can so you are not risking storing up any nasty surprises for the future, even if you’re sharing bad news. Don’t spin it – if the news is bad for some of the audience then it’s only fair and right to acknowledge that openly. Listen carefully to feedback given, deal with concerns and respond quickly to sensitive topics.

But remember that allowing employees to have a voice is not the same as allowing them to have a veto. Nonetheless it does help them feel involved and gives them an assurance that their point of view has been heard in the process.

The next point is timing. Inform employees about a change process as soon as possible. Change takes time to unfold and the sooner they are involved, the less unsettling the whole process will be for them and the less disruptive to the business as a whole. If you don’t know all the facts at the beginning of the process, acknowledge that, but also tell your workforce that you will inform them of new information as the process develops.

Ensure you deliver on that promise. Employers are ultimately judged on their behaviours, not their words (something that applies to most of life in fact!) Try to follow through on your initial messages and if you do need to change direction during the change process, then explain why. Sending out mixed messages to your workforce is a recipe for mistrust which can lead to reduced productivity, disharmony in the workplace and even loss of key staff.

Throughout the change process, communicate often and through lots of different methods, remembering that different people digest information differently. If you’re an SME it could be as simple as an update in the weekly team meeting. But for a larger company, using different vehicles such as a newsletter, email, the intranet as well as face-to-face meetings and presentations can be helpful to cover off your bases.

As a rule of thumb, the Internet is best for getting over information that’s short and easily digestible. Paper is best for more complicated, detailed or new ideas. Additionally, face-to-face methods are best for achieving long-term changes in behaviour. Logical really, because people feel more involved and engaged when dealing with real people.

Whilst frequency of communication is important, don’t sacrifice quality. Ensure you’re sending out significant and substantial information that will mean something to staff during any process of change.

A common mistake is to assume that just because you’re putting out lots of information, it’s actually being taken on board by employees. It’s essential to engage them in the process actively so that you maintain their loyalty and buy-in once the transition is completed. Ensure your communication is two-way. Ask for their feedback on the process and give them many opportunities and methods to share their concerns, raise questions and offer ideas. Hold regular forums if necessary to express their thoughts, worries and contributions. Make sure that you as their leader through this process follow up with answers and updates whenever you can, preferably face-to-face. Developing a feedback loop as it’s called is essential to implementing and communicating change effectively.

During the process of change, people need to feel supported. It’s very easy to bring in new technologies, for example, which you know will revolutionise your business - but if you don’t train your people properly before or once it’s introduced, you’re wasting your money. So listen to what your employees tell you about the implications of the changes you’re introducing otherwise you could find yourself with an expensive disaster on your hands.

Make sure you support your workforce through recognition too. When you reach milestones in the process – the signing of a contract, the introduction of a new technology – then acknowledge and appreciate the people who’ve made it happen either privately, publicly or both. Even in a negative situation, such as redundancies, make sure you show your gratitude to those who’ve worked on dealing with the lay-offs - often a demoralising and dispiriting job however sensitively handled.

Remember that change is disruptive and difficult. There’s no perfect or ideal way to make transitions from one state to another comfortable or easy – we know that from our personal lives as much as we see it in our professional ones. But if you follow these simple and common sense tips, you should find the process a great deal easier to manage.

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses.


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