Communicating change: who, when and how?

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What senior leaders and change professionals intend when planning change communications is not always what’s heard, understood and accepted by change recipients. How can this connection be built?

Most transformational change initiatives fail, but good change communications can increase the likelihood of success. Or at least that’s the theory - in real life, what senior leaders and change professionals intend when planning change communications is not always what’s heard, understood and accepted by change recipients.

Why is there this disconnect between theory and practice? How can organisations communicate effectively to deliver successful change now, and build “change readiness” in their organisations for the future?

TP3 recently investigated the principles and the practice of communicating change. The findings, captured in a white paper, Communicating Change by TP3’s communication manager Susan Dyster, can help senior leaders and change professionals better understand, and exploit, the approaches, impacts and implications of communicating change - from the importance of informal communication networks and critical role of frontline managers, to a devolved communication model that can increase desire and momentum for change.

The research considered the role of communication in change failure, how leaders can improve the effect of change communications, and whether devolved responsibility for communicating change increases the likelihood of change success by surveying a range of change and communications practitioners, interviewing experienced change agents and reviewing the academic literature. 

Light-bulb moments are few and far between

Findings included the fact that change practitioners seldom experience a “pivotal communication moment” during transformational change initiatives. Rather, it’s the steady, consistent and often repetitive communication of key messages that brings about the desire to change. These findings reflect the views of the research’s interview subjects. One manager described change as a “grind” of almost inevitable progress, with change resisters subjected to a changing work environment as they were effectively marginalised by the new behaviours of their change-ready colleagues. His view was that if the change resistor is surrounded by positivity about change, they will eventually surrender - or at least act in a less resistant manner.

Of those who did experience a “eureka moment”, several change practitioners nominated senior leader briefings as the defining occasion. One manager recounted a managers’ meeting that was, in his view, one such moment in a culture change project. He described a session in which the CEO told a personal story centred on the ‘journey’ as a key narrative, drawing an analogy to the current state and desired future state of the business. For managers, the narrative grounded the complex concepts and terminology of the project in a relatable, repeatable message, one that was simple to share with their teams and for their team members to pass on to others.

The challenge of turning frontline managers into change agents

With the Australian culture one in which the personal relationship between manager and subordinate is often prized above business imperatives, line managers may actually deflect responsibility for the changes being made in order to preserve these relationships. The reticence of line managers to get behind change was reflected in TP3’s research findings. For those driving a change agenda, this can have a substantial impact. Middle and frontline managers are a crucial connection between the business agenda and the workforce and they very much set the tone for how the change will be considered, respected, and accepted by employees. 

Implications for Australian organisations

The paper’s findings highlight the practical difficulties that come with leading a change agenda.  While the research undertaken shows change practitioners value the role of line managers in communicating transformational change, in practice those same middle managers are often inadequately skilled, can be personally resistant to change and can fail to give change communications sufficient priority.

The implications of this for HR practitioners are clear: building capability and culture regarding the acceptance and advocacy of change is both crucial and challenging. But it’s a challenge worth working at, as the reward will be pervasive and significant.

Further information

Susan Dyster’s Communicating Change white paper, as well as a TP3 webinar that discusses the paper’s key findings in more depth, are both available from TP3’s website, www.tp3.com.au.

 

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