Tuesday, October 27, 2015

5 Ways to Mess Up Organizational Change # I: One-Track Communications

Despite all the time, money and thought leadership that has been thrown at the problem, short term success in major change initiatives has scarcely advanced beyond coin-toss odds and long term success evades three quarters of all companies.
There are dozens if not thousands of ways in which things can go wrong.  But five common approaches stand out in terms of the severity of their negative impact and their enduring popularity with change agents across all sectors.  Surprise, surprise: they all have to do with people.
Each of my next few posts will deal with one Huge Change Mistake in detail.  First up, One-Track Communications:

1.     One track communications

Sometimes, it feels like there’s simply too much communicating when it comes to change.  Employees get so deluged with strategic messages, videos, speeches, emails, texts, social media posts that it’s no wonder that almost two-thirds of respondents to the recent Katzenbach survey complained of change fatigue.
But the problem isn’t actually the volume of communication, it’s the direction.  The vast majority of organizational change communication comes from management to employees.  The most effective change communication is usually the other way around.
Think about a time when you were asked to make a change.  Maybe it was at work, maybe at home, maybe – if your family name is Van Winkle – it was back when you were at school or college.   No doubt you were told you needed to do things differently, or asked politely to make adjustments.  Perhaps someone explained why you had to change, or set out the benefits you would get from changing.  But if they didn’t listen to you, if they didn’t get you involved first in talking about the change, then in making it happen, it is very unlikely that you changed in anything more than a superficial or temporary way.
We all know this truth about change when it comes to ourselves, but somehow when we get thinking about organizational change we forget the human fundamentals.  By the time we remember that employees are people like us with questions, concerns, fears and differences of opinion, we have often effectively communicated that we as leaders are out-of-touch, uncaring and disengaged with the lifeblood of the company.  Not a helpful starting point – or midpoint, or end point – for successful transformation.
Two-way communication so rarely happens not because leaders are stupid, but because they are scared.  Leading change is tough, exhausting and nerve-wracking.  Deep down, most leaders know that opening up the lines of communication from employees during change will mean having to deal with anger, with fear, with uncertainty and the deep resentments that surface in times of stress.  People are going to feel destabilized and vulnerable.  They will ask tough questions and expect perfect answers. 
Yes, you’ve got it – leaders are frightened not of what their people might say, but of their own capability to answer those needs.
It’s time for leaders to grow up.  If change is scary at the top, it’s terrifying at the bottom.  Your job as a leader is to, well, lead.  That means being one step ahead, emotionally as well as in terms of planning. 
Emotionally, you have the huge advantage of being prepared.  Think through the objections and concerns your people are likely to raise.  This should not be difficult – people are typically concerned for their own jobs, for the jobs of their friends, for how they will be measured, for their long term future with the company, for what they will have to do differently short term, what support they will get and what the change is meant to achieve, by when.  It’s easy to highlight the issues most likely to provoke anger or fear – just think about what people care about the most.  Practice ways of restating sensitive questions more neutrally:  for example, Joe asked about whether we’ll keep the same jobs in the division is a less emotionally-weighted version of, Are we all going to be laid off?  Recasting questions not only gives you valuable thinking time before you respond, it lowers the negative energy in the room.  The more open, authoritative and calm you appear, the more people will start taking an active part in the process instead of giving vent to emotional outbursts.  You want to lead a discussion, not a shouting match.  Keep control of the emotions – starting with your own – and you will be halfway to success.
Of course, you also need to be prepared in terms of substance.  Make sure, so far as possible, that you know the facts about the change goals, process and timetable.  Break complex questions down into simple, key answers.  It’s fine to admit that you don’t know something, so long as you can give people an honest overview of the change goals and process, and so long as you take down any specific questions and concerns and find answers – or explain why there are not yet answers – as soon as possible.   Plan for immediate follow-up to any communication, either by face-to-face meetings, by Q&A sessions on social media, by newsletters, by online resources, by virtual versions of the good old suggestion box (accompanied by answers) or by a dozen variations on these themes, targeted at particular employee groups and particular areas of concern.
The best way to make sure your communications run smoothly is to think of them as an ongoing conversation throughout the change process.  Don’t let yourself start thinking, What do we need to communicate at this stage?.  Instead, think,What are our people concerned about right now?  What do they need?  Your change implementation plans should be flexible to take account of what your people are looking for at any one stage.  Be prepared constantly to measure progress, listen to different groups and interests, adapt messages and tactics and sometimes even the timetable for implementing particular stages of change.
None of this is business-as-usual – that’s why it’s called change.  But by seeing change communication as a two-way street,  you have the foundations for long-term success…
…unless, that is, you mess things up by committing one of the remaining four Huge Change Mistakes.  Next up: #2: NIIFM (Nothing.In.It.For.Me)