“Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time;
what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.”
Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author
It’s true: most of us are more or less averse to big changes. Add to that dilemma the fact that in recent years, we’ve been hit by so many huge shifts so fast, “change fatigue” has become a real, painful thing.
If you’ve been involved with change management initiatives at work, I’m sure you can relate. After all, McKinsey research has shown that 70% of them fail, in part because of poor communication.
I was recently reminded how communication can help people deal with major change—this time, on an issue that’s close to my heart.
I’m deeply concerned about climate change and its effect on all life on earth. Talk about feeling overwhelmed by change—yet wanting to contribute to a change for the better.
I came across a miracle of a book recently, “The Carbon Almanac: It’s Not Too Late,” and The Carbon Almanac Network (started by best-selling author Seth Godin and the book’s global authors). The vision for positive change can be summed up in their tag line: Facts. Connection. Action. They believe in the power of giving people facts, opportunities for connection, and specific actions they can take on a small and large scale to reverse the biggest, most daunting change of our time.
Their daily e-newsletter gives me one climate-change fact and small steps to take to make a difference. (There’s also an inspiring list of specific action areas or “Carbon Dots” to choose from on their website, including things like “A Corporate Race for Sustainability,” “Bioplastics,” and “Backyard Regeneration.”)
Getting the information to understand the changes needed, plus specific, realistic steps I can take makes me feel a little less overwhelmed, more optimistic, and focused on what I can do to help.
And that made me think, is this an idea worth borrowing for our workplace change-management efforts? Are we doing enough to inspire and enable individuals to take steps to adapt to, and even support change?
During our August PowerSpeaking Live! panel discussion we addressed the challenges of change-management communication, as well as advice for doing it well. From that rich discussion and our own research and experience, we’ve put together our best-practice advice in this blog.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with communicating change. After reading our advice, drop a note in the Comments section.
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Gather and Document the Details
The leadership, management, and communication team needs to first identify and document the key details and impacts of the change. Stepping through a question exercise like this will help:
What exactly is changing?
Why is the change being made?
What were the alternatives?
What are the benefits to the business?
Who will be impacted and how?
What’s the timeframe?
What will happen if we don’t make the change(s)?
What’s staying the same?
What (if anything) are stakeholders being asked to do?
Why might stakeholders be concerned about the change?
What questions do we anticipate they might have?
It’s a lot to think through. But once the team has gone through this information gathering process, you’ll be better prepared for the next step . . .
Craft the Core Message
Your core message is the driving vision behind the change. Like any core message, say for a speech or presentation, it should be clear, concise, and compelling. Fewer than nine words is ideal.
Here are two examples of core messages . . .
Salesforce has encapsulated their vision for and commitment to sustainability:
They go on to detail what Salesforce is doing to achieve sustainability, but the core message is short, to the point, and moving.
The Carbon Almanac Network I mentioned earlier has an equally clear and compelling core message:
While the profound impacts of climate change are all too real, and the network doesn’t mince words about it, their core message is one of hope: “It’s not too late.”
Once you’ve identified your core message, all communications should flow from and support its vision.
Next up . . .
Know Your Stakeholders
If you want to help people understand and buy into a major change, you first need to know who they are. Again, ask yourself questions like. . .
Which of our stakeholders will be impacted by the change?
What do they need to know?
How will they benefit?
How might the change impact them adversely?
What are they being asked to do?
What’s the best way to reach them?
I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to understand and empathize with how a change might affect your diverse stakeholders, and tailor your communications accordingly.
Take the growing reality of virtual vs. in-office vs. hybrid employees, for example. Not surprisingly, communicating an organizational change becomes logarithmically more complex when your people aren’t together under one “roof.”
So, your communication plan needs to take into account the diverse work locations and the best way to communicate with them.
A few examples:
- The best way to reach people “in the field” might be via text rather than email.
- If you’re holding a meeting to discuss a change with both in-office and remote employees, be sure to make the virtual attendees feel included by asking for their participation.
- If you throw a celebratory luncheon at headquarters to mark a milestone on the road to change, send gift cards to remote employees with a thank-you message.
The most successful change management communication plans don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. Be aware of and sensitive to the diverse needs of your stakeholders and you’ll boost your chances of creating buy-in.
Remember The Carbon Almanac Network’s “Carbon Dots” action areas I mentioned earlier? Their comprehensive list is a brilliant way to inspire people to engage and take action in ways that are most meaningful to them.
Use Best-Practice Change Communication
If you want to gain and sustain support for a change, you need to:
Be Clear. Use clear, plain language to tell people exactly what is changing and why. Avoid overly technical language, acronyms some might not be familiar with, and idioms people might not understand in another country.
Be Concise. Deliver your core message in as few words as possible. The more words you use, the more complicated and confusing it becomes.
Be Credible. Giving a clear, concise explanation of why the change is being made goes a long way in building trust and buy-in from your stakeholders. One way to do that is to include “proof points” for the change. Let’s go back to the core message examples I gave earlier, and look at one of their proof points . . .
Salesforce’s “Bold climate action is the only way forward.”
Proof point: “Scientists agree that globally we must reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by mid-century.”
The Carbon Almanac’s “It’s not too late.”
Proof point: “We’re still burning coal, 14.8 gigatons of CO2 worth in 2021. . . the largest single source worldwide. For the first time there are plenty of cheap, renewable, low-polluting alternatives to coal.”
Be Compelling. To win over people’s hearts and minds, you need to make your message meaningful to them personally, and do it in an engaging way. How will they benefit? And if you can use an anecdote or story to make the message come alive, do it. Storytelling is a powerful way to connect on a human level and make complex ideas or situations clear.
Be Consistent. Before you roll out the change, make sure your leaders, managers, change champions, and communication teams are on the same page. Everyone should be crystal clear about the core message and the key details.
During our August PowerSpeaking Live!, change-management experts Mary Schafer, VP, Strategic Advisory Services at ADP and Sandia Ren, Chief Transformation Officer at Vitech Systems Group offered some great advice about clear, concise, consistent communications. I especially like Mary’s tip to test your core message beforehand, and Sandia’s recommendation to create a cascading information framework to achieve consistency . . .
Next: It’s hard enough to persuade people to buy into a big change; but when it’s likely to be seen as a big negative, there’s only one thing to do . . .
Be Transparent With Bad News
Tempting as it may be to avoid or put a positive spin on the adverse effects of a change, don’t do it.
During the PowerSpeaking Live! discussion I mentioned earlier, Mary, Sandia, and I talked about the importance of not sugarcoating bad news . . .
Here are some best practices when you need to deliver bad news . . .
Say it honestly and be timely. The best way to gain support for a change is to first earn people’s trust. If they see you’re being transparent and timely about the downside, they’re more likely to buy into, or at least adapt to, the change.
Provide managers and change champions with accurate, consistent data. When people have concerns, they tend to go to their managers for information. Before the change is formally announced, make sure your management team has the information they need to respond to employees.
Be empathetic. Again, communicating change isn’t a one-size-fits-all effort. Often, people in various locations and/or functions have different concerns. Put yourself in your stakeholders’ shoes and tailor your communications as needed.
Next, something leaders and corporate communicators often don’t think to do . . .
Emphasize What’s Staying the Same
Leaders and people involved with change management are often so focused on communicating what’s changing, they neglect to communicate a vision of continuity, say researchers in a Harvard Business Review article . . .
“A root cause of resistance to change is that employees identify with and care for their organizations. People fear that after the change, the organization will no longer be the organization they value and identify with . . . [research] results showed that leadership was more effective in building support for change the more that leaders also communicated a vision of continuity, because a vision of continuity instilled a sense of continuity of organizational identity in employees.”
So, as you communicate the change, remember to also paint a picture of the valued familiar. It might look something like this . . .
“We are migrating to a completely new customer-service software platform, but we will keep all of our valued team members, our best-in-industry service procedures, and our ‘Shooting Star’ incentive programs.”
Speaking of how people feel, the best leaders and communicators know that managing change is ultimately about changing human behavior.
And that sometimes, the best strategy is to start small . . .
Ask for a Small Step First
That was the compassionate advice given by a father to his budding—but frustrated—astronomer daughter in the 1997 movie “Contact,” based on the science fiction novel by astronomer Carl Sagan.
Turns out that wisdom applies big time to change management efforts. In a 2022 Harvard Business Review article, “Persuading Your Team to Embrace Change,” Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor addresses the question, “So how do leaders persuade people to do things they would rather not do?”:
“One answer, which psychologists call the “foot-in-the-door” technique, is that the best way to get people to change something big, or do something hard, is to first ask them to change something small, or do something easy. By agreeing to the request, and then meeting it, people develop a sense of commitment and confidence that makes them more enthusiastic about agreeing to the next (bigger) request. In other words, the path to big change is paved by lots of small steps and little bets—each of which builds on what’s come before.”
Here’s an example from my experience with The Carbon Almanac Network. Their e-newsletter, “The Daily Difference,” gives me nugget-sized insights and ideas for small-step actions every day. I wonder how many corporations have thought to take a similar approach—via email? messaging app?—to help employees through change. (If you have an example, I’d love to hear it!)
If the change your organization is making lends itself to a small-steps approach, by all means, capitalize on this research-based strategy that takes human psychology into account.
Now let’s take a look at the mechanics of how you communicate . . .
Use Multiple Communication Channels
Twentieth-century Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote is just as true now as it was in the mid-1960s—maybe moreso. The medium you use to deliver your message is arguably as important as the message itself. Today’s workforce is incredibly diverse, global, virtual, and accustomed to getting information from multiple media sources. So, the best change management communication plans mirror that reality.
In an article in Change Management Review, Keith Katani, CEO of GuideSpark (whose credits include senior positions at Adobe and Macromedia) describes this best practice well . . .
“How employees get information—what channels, formats, systems and even down to the timing—matters. Leveraging multiple media, such as video, audio or interactive media, and even printed materials ensure that employees get the message via the delivery that best suits their individual needs for understanding.”
Mary Schafer uses a visual I love that captures possible communication channels, plus engagement activities that create opportunities for connection and trust building during a change . . .
Courtesy of Mary Schafer, ADP
So you’ve rolled out the communications and activities around the change.
But the job doesn’t end there, does it?
How Will You Measure Success?
Effective change management communication isn’t a one-off event. And the bigger the change, the more important it is that everyone views it as a journey that takes time and attention.
In the process, it’s important to find ways to measure your success.
How do you know if all of your stakeholders understand and support the change? Are there aspects of the change you need to make more clear? If people are finding it hard to adjust, what’s causing the resistance?
You need to decide exactly what outcomes you want to track and build feedback loops into your communication plan. It’s the only way you can get an accurate picture of how well stakeholders are adapting to and supporting the change, and discover where you have challenges.
Line managers are a good source to regularly tap, and employee engagement activities like Mary mentions—focus groups, town calls, Q&A sessions, surveys—are also good strategies for monitoring the organization’s success in getting people to support the change.
The ultimate sign of change-management success is stakeholder buy-in and action. Imagine a skeptical group of stakeholders who, in time, not only adapt to the change, but also, become proactive supporters who champion the change and contribute ideas you hadn’t thought of to drive success.
When that happens, you know you’re doing the right thing.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the road to successfully communicating change must start with inspiring hope. Not spin, but like The Carbon Almanac Network, an approach that helps people feel inspired to engage and move things forward.
Speaking of hope and action, I think former President Barack Obama captured them well:
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person
or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting
for. We are the change that we seek.”
President Barack Obama
Is there a change you’re seeking right now in your business or community? What communication strategies will you use to inspire action?
On the journey with you,