Communicating Change

by Rus Slater

Channels of communication

The 2002 Mercer Study also went on to ask how change messages were communicated. The 12,000 people were asked to rate the availability (use) of different communication channels and the value they would place upon them. The results are shown below.

Channels Availability Value
Individual meetings with supervisor/manager 89% 76%
Department/team meetings with managers 90% 67%
Email or other information technology 95% 65%
Leadership presentations to employees 82% 45%
Organisation newsletter 90% 32%
Information packages/brochures 81% 27%
Information help line 51% 22%
Employee grapevine/rumours 98% 19%
Videotape messages 66% 14%
Bulletin boards 80% 12%

Let’s look at each of these in turn to see what we can do to make the most of our channels.

Individual meetings

The two most valued media are one-to-one meetings and team meetings with managers and/or supervisors, yet the received wisdom is that it is the stick-in-the-mud middle managers and supervisors who are usually the people most resistant to change and therefore the cause of most change programmes being scuppered! This is often attributed to the feelings of powerlessness and being excluded that these folk may experience during change programmes.

Obviously, you need to turn this around if you are to harness their effectiveness as communicators. First, get the message conveyed from the change sponsor directly to the middle managers/supervisors of those who will be affected. This means bypassing the normal management hierarchy cascade and going directly from change sponsor to supervisor/team leader.

Coach the supervisors and give them special training on how to cascade the message to their team. People will always turn to a supervisor first and will usually trust the answer far more than anything from more senior people, so there is a need to coach and train the supervisors as messengers.

Equip them with the answers they need to give to all the questions their team members will have, because what they say about it will count and will make the difference as to whether the change is accepted or resisted by the shop floor people. Their answer to any question about the change is critical and, if the supervisors are unprepared, the answer could be ‘What do I know? Your guess is as good as mine.’ And that will kill your change initiative stone dead.

Equip them with the time and ability to inform their teams, answer the questions that arise, get feedback from their teams and act on it. This also makes the supervisors feel special and ‘inside the loop’, because they hear about this stuff first, before their teams. It gets them out of the ‘I am but a pawn’ mental space.

This concept of working through supervisors comes from the work on diffusion of ideas by Professor Everett Rogers. His conclusion is that change will happen more readily when the new ideas come from local ‘opinion leaders’, compared with more distant sources, such as head office or politicians. T J Larkin adopted this into the organisational space.

Other channels

Other channels will, of course, be used in addition to individual meetings.

Email or other information technology

The comparatively high value allocated to email is probably a bit of a surprise, as received wisdom suggests that face-to-face is so much more valued than the dry disposability of the email. Perhaps emailing could be used for office-based staff or home workers, to provide additional information and updates.

Leadership presentations to employees

Of course, you may have a hugely charismatic leader to do the announcement, but this is rare. Let’s face it, most senior managers did not get where they are by dint of being brilliant motivational speakers. Although the ‘top dog’ mustn’t be conspicuous by his or her absence, it has to be recognised that no matter how zingy the presentation, it will still leave people turning to their neighbour or supervisor and asking all those questions which no senior executive, however good, can answer all at once!

Organisation newsletter and information packages/brochures

Newsletters have their place and are probably best used in conjunction with other media. Each organisation that has an internal newsletter or other type of publication will have to know what the readership is.

Tip

The comparatively low values placed on information packages/brochures and bulletin boards suggest that, while posters, coffee mugs and flyers are traditionally a staple of change programmes, they are best used as-well-as rather than instead-of!

Information help line

Not all organisations or all changes can carry the investment entailed in setting up an information help line, but what cost is there in publicising the contact information of the change sponsor or the change manager and committing to answering all questions within, say, 48 hours? Doing this may provide an alternative to speculation and suspicion which are, in the absence of information, the fuel and the blue touch-paper for the rumour mill.

Harnessing the employee grapevine/rumours

What we have to bear in mind here is the sheer availability of rumour – it is the single most available medium identified!

And yet it is almost at the bottom of the league table in terms of its value. Every organisation has its grapevines, and they exist at all levels, from the smokers’ grapevine, the executive washroom grapevine or the social club football team grapevine to the senior-managers-on-a-strategy-awayday-over-the-port-and-cigars grapevine.

The trick, as quoted below, is not to try to ban rumours, but to provide the grapevines with ‘real information’!

It would be unwise to ignore the power of the ‘grapevine’. Instead, you should try and harness this channel. There will always be informal avenues of dissemination, but by recognising these outlets, you will minimise the risk of inaccurate information passing through the business.

Philip J Kitchen and Finbarr Daly, School of Management, Queen’s University, Belfast

The utter disaster is to fail to realise that the rumour mill goes into overdrive in the absence of real information. We can anticipate what the rumours may be, because they will inevitably be about the probability/possibility of worst case outcomes: job losses, closures and relocations, outsourcing, having to apply for your current job, painful changes to working practices, cost cutting, re-grading, changes to benefits packages, new reporting lines and so on.

Note

One of the strongest findings in rumour research is that most individuals do not intentionally pass on or originate rumours they genuinely believe to be false.

We can manage the accuracy of the rumours by communicating probable and possible outcomes as early in the planning stage as is humanly possible. This works because employees generally do not want to pass on inaccurate information.

The received wisdom that rumours are initiated and circulated by troublemakers is wrong. People want to pass on accurate information – they just can’t figure out what information is accurate and so, in the vacuum, rumours are born. Some of the worst aspects of rumours come from the assumption that someone, somewhere, knows the real facts, but is deliberately hiding them, for nefarious reasons!

In the hurly-burly of the modern world, many people will have a short memory span. It is consequently wise to ensure a constant top-up of information. This goes for a straightforward ‘change of mind’, as well as a big change programme.

Keep the messages constant. Like water dripping on a stone, the messages must be delivered constantly and repeated and reinforced regularly throughout the process. Any and every member of the organisation must be aware of and repeating the same message when asked by anybody.

And to ensure that this is happening, you need checks in the system to find out what message is actually being received. This checks whether the message is being distorted by managers in the cascade to suit their own agendas as well as ensuring that the ‘right’ messages are getting into people’s conscious awareness.

The clear message this tells us is that we need to pick our media with as much care as we do our message. We must use media that are appropriate to the audience: email and other technology may have a 95 per cent availability score on the Mercer survey, but if we are realistic, we will recognise that the fork lift operators and picker-packers in the warehouse and the delivery drivers on the road don’t have easy access to email, so we will have to use a range of media to reach different people.

Tip

Consider your audience and the availability of different media to each segment of it. You may decide to use

  • Email and information packs/brochures for the office-based staff
  • Text messages and bulletin boards for the warehouse and delivery staff
  • A leadership presentation to the head office managerial staff
  • Email and video tape messages to your remote workers/home workers
  • Regular updates in the organisational newsletter, if you have one
  • Individual and department meetings with supervisors/managers for all.

And remember, just because a segment of the workforce has access to a specific type of medium, this doesn’t mean they routinely access it or believe it.