This is a time of rapid change. Technology, trends—and at the moment the economic forecast—all move so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. Some changes are good. Other changes are less welcome. For businesses, communicating change can be a real challenge. From small changes like a new process or a software upgrade, to significant changes like mergers, restructuring or lay-offs, it’s important to communicate clearly with internal and external stakeholders who will be affected by the change.
The recent webinar Communicating Change…Successfully Getting to Tomorrow from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), provided some helpful pointers.
When communicating change to internal stakeholders, it’s important to remember that management and employees may hold differing perspectives and experience different reactions to change. Management tends to view change with excitement, urgency, opportunity and optimism. Employees, on the other hand, often view change with fear, uncertainty, contention, helplessness and resistance. This is particularly true when the change is significant—a merger, acquisition, restructuring or downsizing of the organization.
Providing accurate and complete (as much as possible) information—as early as possible—helps close the gap between management and employees. It also helps prevent leaks and rumour-mongering, which can adversely affect not only workplace productivity but also your brand. Honesty, openness, responsiveness, empathy and engagement are the key principles of change communication.
Change also sparks emotion. It’s human nature. One mistake many organizations make during times of change is to discount emotional reaction to the news as unimportant—or just pretend it doesn’t exist. Yet one of the key principles of change communication is empathy. Recognize that some people will be upset by the change—whether it’s good or bad news—and be ready to meet the emotional reaction with these strategies that work whether the reaction is coming from people within the organization, or from the greater community:
- Handle the emotional dimension first: acknowledge the distress and that it is valid; do not belittle it or tell the person they are wrong to feel the way they do.
- Give control to others: helplessness begets fear and anger; give the person control over some aspect of the change to neutralize that feeling of helplessness.
- Find useful, positive facts: point out the tangible benefits the individual will reap from the change.
- Tell the truth: don’t be afraid of the negatives and don’t gloss over the downside of change.
- Avoid analogies: approach the problem from the perspective of the upset individual instead of trying to draw it across to be about you.
- Try for consensus: even the promise to work toward a resolution can help to diffuse negative emotion; this is a good area to use #2 and give some control to the individual.
Communications tactics that can be particularly useful during times of change include purpose-built web portals that allow interested parties to find information 24/7. Including interactive capabilities such as a moderated Q&A forum can aid engagement by allowing anonymous participation. You can also use the portal to collect rumours and misinformation that might be circulating and publish corrections and clarifications. Of course, information you are able to share with internal stakeholders may not be suitable for external stakeholders—or the entirety of the population of the Internet, so a special password-protected area strictly for employees is a good idea.
Clear communications with stakeholders is fundamental to successfully implementing change—for good or for ill—while protecting your brand.