Re-examining the role of communications in change management

change communications
change management
Martin Fenwick

Communication is at the root of change management

By Martin Fenwick, Change Agent, The Change Factor, and Executive Coach at Altris

In well over two decades of leading and consulting on change, I can honestly say I’ve seen successful and unsuccessful change, as well as well-executed and poorly executed change.

I’ve also seen a range of methodologies and beliefs about what makes change work applied in different organizations around the world.

Whatever the approach, process and style of leadership, everything I have seen reinforces my belief that communication is the root of change success and that good communications channels and media are vital.

There are organisations whose first ever newsletter was something I produced as part of a change initiative (normally met with ‘why do we need this?’ by local managers, such was their novelty). Some continued it and the flash vehicle that they have today was founded in those early documents I produced with hand-created diagrams and pictures to explain what was happening.

In recent years more organisations tell me that: “We have a communications vehicle and recognized channels”. But I’ve learnt to test and check these statements rather than tick them off in my change readiness survey, because having them and using them well are two different things.

So what is the place communications professionals who are in corporate communications roles when it comes to change? I firmly believe that they have one, but they need to be open to the idea that communications in change serves a different purpose and follows a different flow from their regular communications.

I have been faced with a communications team pumping out good news stories and what I see as CEO ego pandering when we are deep in a difficult consultation and staff are concerned for their jobs. Just imagine going to a funeral and screaming “It’s all going to be wonderful” if you want to know how that goes down.

The following are some thoughts to help communications professionals see the world of communications from the change agents’ perspective. It’s by no means everything you will ever need to know, but hopefully it gets you thinking.

Change communication is support, not publicity

Change communications should be a vehicle that supports managers in engaging with their people to help them on-board the journey that change is. It should never do the managers job for them or undermine what managers need to do to build trust and engagement.

I’ve seen managers go to a team meeting and just toss the company magazine on the table and say: “It’s all in there just read it”. With an action like this, the language and approach used just doesn’t match the language that the team would use or give the manager space to fulfil their role. This is important because the people work for the manager not your magazine. Therefore, on a daily basis they must look to their managers for guidance and support.

Change is a time where managers need to build trust and faith in their leadership, so that they are ready for the months beyond the launch where they will be in the detail of the execution of the plan; managers can’t do that by being absent or undermined during the buy-in phase.

Many company communication vehicles are driven by the CEO agenda, but the change journey is not a time where the CEO needs to drive all of the messaging. This is because the CEO is unlikely to be tuned to the phases and needs of the initiative at every stage. Yes, they are the key to launch, but after that the work gets done by the management levels. Change fails when C suite, presidential, GM, Director levels i.e. the top tier – however you name them in your structure – take over and leave the managers and team leaders without a place in the trust and engagement game.

So communications professionals need to know the flow and rhythms of change and work with the people that need them in support of what is trying to be delivered at the change coalface.

Change is much more than a launch

We all love a good trumpet fanfare. Communications professionals are one step away from PR and event professionals and there is something great about the launch of the new and exciting and interesting (I mean, who wants to write about business as usual when there is the communications equivalent of balloons and streamers or a journalistic scoop!).

CEOs love launches too. They are the place where their vision comes to the fore, where their raison d’etre hits the road, and living breathing evidence of why the board appointed them.

There’s less joy in the “I know we said this last month but let’s go through it again” that change communications is often about. The launch is exactly that; an initiation of a journey that goes through confusion, uncertainty, worry, and takes a lift when it reaches understanding to hopefully meet the eventual better performance we are looking for.

Time and again I’ve seen a launch be treated as the only communications that’s needed. When I work with leaders I ask them: “How long have you been working on this?” and “How much time and energy have you put in to getting it to this point?”. Inevitably, the answer is months and in some cases years. And then I say: “But you expect your people to understand it within a week, write their comments the week after and say “Yes please” on week three?

At that point I suggest we promote all the staff because they are obviously way more intelligent than their leadership if they can grasp a thorny complex topic in weeks instead of the months it’s taken the leaders.

So a launch is a start and that’s all. Have fun with it because it’s hard repetition and re-enforcing articles thereafter.

Where the hard yards are done

Once the change is out there you will have whatever legal compliance you need to undergo. Then you will have a long period of clarifying, repetition, answering questions, and finally embedding to communicate in support of what your managers need to be doing.

To do this takes an understanding of how people respond and react to change and the emotional processes that they need to engage in to go from an idea that the boss puts to them to playing their part well in the new world. This is where you need your change agent to guide you.

If your change agent is any good they will have an understanding of the phases of change, will have put feedback loops in place to sense where the journey is at, and an understanding of what may be needed to meet the needs of your staff at every given stage.

If they don’t and you don’t, then . . . well you know where I am or you will be playing this blind.

In my personal utopia of change I would have a change communications vehicle for every division in the organisation. These would beat to their own change rhythm which will be very different from the division next door even when the change is cross organisational or cultural.

People transition through the change journey in their own time based on the state of their heart and mind. Groups of people often go through things together with a collective, almost tribal, mindset so the flow matches the common state of mind.

Communications is part of capturing hearts so that the minds follow. Therefore, you need to feed the heart what the heart needs to engage, and most importantly let go of the past mindset to believe in the proposal and commit to the process.

‘Why’ is the most important word in the early stages, and the ‘Why’ for your change will be tested, questioned and challenged until people can own it and make it their own.

When employees do question, it’s time to repeat the ‘What’ and ‘How’ that you will have told them in your launch but they’ve forgotten in their search for “What does this mean for me?”. (Yes, you will be part of answering that, too).

So the hard yards of change are repetitive. Focus on clarifying dialogue between managers and staff. This means that your communications vehicle is a re-enforcing tool used to fuel discussion, confirm what the manager is saying and give opportunities for reflection.

Don’t keep changing the storyline in the midst of change

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that intelligent people don’t like doing repetitive things. Intelligent leaders enjoy the progress of moving forward and the new things that excite them. Equally, communications people don’t really like writing the same stuff all the time.

When it comes to change you need to follow what I call the 3Rs of Regular, Repeat and Re-enforce.

Change communications needs to be regular, not sporadic. It’s a flow of: “Here is where we have got to this week”, not “Wow, here’s something exciting to tell you”. Change communication needs to repeat the key messages that your launch was built on.

The slogans, the straplines, and quotes explain the Why, What and How of change, and in doing so they reinforces the messages that managers are giving so that people get on board and believe it.

Time and again, when managers are asked to explain something or write an update for the change communications vehicle I’ve seen them change the language, draw the flow differently, produce a new model, or just say something in a completely different way from the last time.

This behavior underscores the fact that managers need communications professionals to point out these changes and to hold them accountable to the 3Rs. And they will find that boring. It’s more fun to look at things a different way and some creative or unconventional thinkers will say “But the idea has evolved”.  At that point, someone needs to point out that they had nine months for it to evolve, now is the time to hold to it so others engage.

Advertisers understand this problem as soon as I mention it because their world is full of building a solid brand in people’s mind. So why is this important? Think how it goes for the employee who is the receiver of all this.

It’s bad enough that employees have no choices because management is driving this (and no choice is alien to being human). Staff are worried whether they can do it, cope with it, or fit the new model. They don’t yet fully understand what it means for them. Then someone comes along and changes it. “What’s this?” employees ask. “It’s different from last week . . . did they lie to me last week?” they wonder. “Can I trust these guys if they aren’t being honest? . . . “Well, let’s face it all managers aren’t that truthful, so maybe I will wait and see”.

And there goes the trust in the leadership, all for the want of a short period of consistent messaging. If you don’t believe me take this down to the shop-floor, coal face, the lowest levels and ask them if it’s been their experience in their working career. They may say it a different way, but the essence is still the same.

Feeding the saplings during change

When we are through the early stages and managers have everyone beginning to see what the change really looks like and understand their place in it, then you will move to the embedding and nurturing of the fragile blossom that has been planted.

This is the time that most change initiatives stop communications because the structure is in place, the process has been started, and the new job descriptions rolled out etc. For many, that means the change is done and in stopping communication you bring about eventual failure of what the organization is attempting to create.

By failure I mean not getting the maximum out of the proposition. It’s only the ‘Get ready, set, go’ of the race you’ve done at this point – there’s still work to be done to run to the finish line.

Fortunately, this is almost natural ground for communications professionals, if not for managers. This is where the success stories are needed to spread the positive virus of change to the areas where it’s lagging or doubt and confusion are spreading.

“Look over there, that’s a great place to be” is what you are looking for. “If they can do it we can” is the reaction you are seeking.

Managers aren’t always good at seeing these. They are locked in the grind towards the ultimate KPI and that is still some time away. So a good communications professional will go looking for minor wins on the way to the big win, knowing that these stories build energy and motivation. For at this stage, stories they are and at last the communications professional can do what they are best at; write compelling stories.

Information for the change journey

Change isn’t a one hit wonder launch and that the journey from confusion to commitment needs to be fed with information . . . Information that is the root and cause of your communications vehicle. It’s information to suit the needs of the change journey so there is a flow and gradual change in style to how you deliver that information; from premise and philosophy to facts that clarify and confirm, to stories that engage and embed.

Most importantly, you become a key part of a team with your change agents and managers, holding them to the message whilst supporting their role and helping them to do the bits that may not be their strength.

With any luck, the next time your CEO tells you that the organisation is about to go through change, you will be ready to guide them in what’s needed from the communications vehicle to support that.

Change expert Martin Fenwick

Martin Fenwick is the author of The Change Factor and has been leading change since the early 1990s. He now coaches and guides leaders in their role in change initiatives. He owns and operates his own change consultancy, The Change Factor. Martin is also an Executive Coach and Director with Altris, where he delivers coaching programs for to develop high-performing leaders, teams and organizations

You can find Martin on Linkedin and Twitter.

Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is a journalist and content marketer. She has worked for newspapers, news organizations and in the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K. She is a Director at Gocontentmarketing.com and is available for freelance assignments. Contact her via the contact form or Linkedin.

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