Engaging people in change
It used to be said two things in life were certainties: death and taxes. This may have been true in days gone by, but in modern life three things are certainties: death, taxes and change. And during times of change, line managers play a vital role as communicators, role models and change agents.
FAIL TO PREPARE – PREPARE TO FAIL
Preparation is key, especially when you are communicating change. So arm yourself with as much information as you can before talking to your people. Understand the reasons for the change fully yourself and think about the needs of your audience. Decide what you want the team to think, feel, say and do as a result of the communication. Anticipate their questions and look to minimise surprises.
KNOW YOUR JOB
You’re the communication channel of choice for your people, especially during times of change. So your job is to address the needs of colleagues as you work through the change, to minimise disruption to business during an unsettling period, and to maximise the speed at which the benefits of the change can be realised.
MANAGE PEOPLE THROUGH THE CHANGE CURVE
When change is happening, people typically go through a series of responses. First they deny the change, then they actively resist it, next they explore it, and finally they commit to it. Let people know you understand that change can be stressful, but resist saying: “I know what you’re going through.” You’re not them, so you don’t. And remember – not everyone works through the change curve at the same speed. So, get close to your people, listen for the telltale signs, and adjust your one-to-one communication accordingly.
Include William Bridges, Managing Transitions
SET THE CONTEXT
You’ll need to paint the big picture first, so be clear about the reason for and benefits of the change. Sometimes the reason can seem too distant from frontline people who can then have difficulty relating to it. So be prepared to show the consequences of not implementing the change – e.g. lost business or job losses. But do justice to the benefits because different people are motivated by different things – some like the stick, some the carrot. You might also mention growth in market share, protecting the majority of roles in the future, or creating opportunities. Whatever you do, make it relevant for your people.
SET THE TONE
As a leader, it’s up to you to set the tone for your department. When you hear negative comments, don’t be defensive, and don’t argue points. Let people have their say, ideally one to one. Listen, ask questions, and respond in a positive way. You will have to adjust to change too and if you are anywhere else than the commitment phase, try not to let your feelings about the change taint the way you communicate it. Model the behaviour you want to see.
BE HONEST ABOUT BAD NEWS
If change has negative consequences, there’s no value in trying to hide this. Don’t sugar coat the message. Your team will see through it straight away and it will reflect badly on you and the organisation.
Indicate, as soon as you can, how the change will affect individuals. Each person will want to know specifically how he or she will be affected, so provide as many details as possible. This can be difficult during the early stages of the change because this level of individual information is often not known, but that’s not an excuse to avoid the question. You will need to explain why this information is not known and give an idea of when, and how, it will be communicated.
MAKE TIME FOR CHANGE
You know you’re going to get questions from your people once the initial communication has sunk in. So make room in your diary early and be prepared to be available to discuss the change at any time. And if nobody comes to you, then you go out to them. Silence does not equal acceptance, so get out of your office and on to the shop floor.
FILL THE VACUUM
We all crave communication and engagement, especially during times of change. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, if there is nothing to announce, I’ll say nothing. Left to their own devices, people make stuff up. And they rarely get it right. So if there are no new developments to announce, tell them that, and indicate the process for letting them know when there is progress. While you’re at it, consider taking the opportunity to remind them why the change is happening.
When people are in denial or resistance, they need to be heard, so give them the space, ideally one¬-to-¬one. That’s the best way to avoid them holding back those who are already exploring and committing.
LISTEN TO NEGATIVITY
Staff and colleagues may express negativity. You can be supportive by acknowledging their concerns, listening to, but not encouraging, negative comments or behaviours, and by responding in a positive, empathetic way, but always remaining focused on the need for the change.
As people begin to explore the benefits the change might bring, share them more openly. These ideas might help bring other people along on the journey. But keep an eye on business as usual. It can often suffer as people get carried away with the possibilities of it all and forget the day job.
ENGAGE BY INVOLVEMENT
Involve the whole team and discuss how you will cope with the change together. Ask for their help in finding solutions that will effectively implement the change. Acknowledge each contribution and discuss advantages and drawbacks. Using their ideas will increase commitment to the change – a classic example of engagement by involvement.
FLAG IT – DON’T BLAG IT
You may not have all the answers. It’s OK to say: “I don’t know. I’ll find out.” However, saying, “I don’t know – nobody has told me anything” sets a negative tone. Your people will be hanging on your every word, so take care not to say anything, however well intended, that could be misconstrued.
BE CLEAR ABOUT THE RESOURCES AVAILABLE
Let your people know what is expected of them and what they can expect in terms of support and resources (e.g. telephone support lines, career advice). And then offer your personal support to help them deal with the change.
STAND UP AND BE COUNTED
You are the first person your team looks to for a rationale behind decisions. So “own” the decision wherever possible, rather than pushing it off to someone higher up.
LITTLE WINS MATTER
Sometimes when you are in the middle of a change programme it feels like you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes it even feels like someone has run off with the light bulb. Little wins matter in these circumstances, little wins that are important to your team. So keep a sharp eye out for them, and publicise them as heavily as you can.
TELL THE RIGHT STORIES
People love to gossip and tell stories. We are good at it too – as a species we’ve been telling stories for a lot longer than we’ve been writing emails. Often stories that circulate at work can be negative and demotivating. So give your people some stories that are positive and engaging – they can have a big impact. Create some positive folklore in the organisation.
Summarise key points of discussions and highlight staff contributions. Sincerely express your appreciation for assistance and cooperation in making the change work. Outline what will happen next and highlight timescales, reminding people that these might change – they often do.
CELEBRATE AND LEARN
We all know change never ends: get this one out of the way and another will be along in a moment. But you can celebrate the end of a particular change programme and draw a line under it. And you should always look back and review what went well and what could be done better next time. After all, let’s be honest – you’ll be implementing another change before long.
Did you know:
From the 2009 Staff Satisfaction Survey, most respondents said generally, change within their Department (72%) and the University (68%) is managed well. 70% said they are consulted about changes that affect their work area/team/department. 73% however felt that more could be done to help staff prepare for and cope with change. This is where effective communication can help.
Elving (2005): The role of communication in organisational change, Corporate Communications: an international journal Vol 10 Iss 2