Communicating Change to Employees: 7 Tips for Leaders

Organizational change will always be met with some resistance. But it’s bound to be stopped dead in its tracks if employees don’t understand it, buy into its importance, have confidence in the process or know how they fit in.

Meaningful employee engagement during times of change requires articulating a clear, compelling message while addressing the often unspoken question on the mind of each and every employee: What does this mean to me?

Seven tips to help leaders get traction:

  1. Own it.  You won’t inspire support for the change if you don’t appear to believe in it yourself.  Start by making sure you understand and are fully invested in the direction, and then share the message like it’s your own. 
  2. Personalize. By translating your organization’s story of change for specific groups and individuals, you’ll make it more relevant and powerful. Articulate what the change means to the people right in front of you. Better yet: Spark conversation that gives them the opportunity to discover it for themselves.
  3. Equip frontline managers. On many issues, employees typically trust their direct supervisors more than senior leaders. Bring managers into the conversation early and often so they can help carry the message, address questions and assess the state of adoption.
  4. Go ahead, sound like a broken record. Just when you think you can’t say it one more time, your employees are just starting to hear it.
  5. Tell stories. Metaphors, stories and examples illuminate ideas, make the message memorable and simplify the complex. Stories move emotions, something logic and analysis don’t do. Use them liberally.
  6. Listen. Actively. Continuously. You’ll be more likely to get to—and be able to address—the heart of the issues getting in the way of success. You can’t overcome resistance if you don’t know where or what it’s coming from.
  7. Actions count—a lot. What you communicate goes well beyond the words you speak or write. Be intentional about making sure your actions—the decisions you make, the behaviors you reward, the way you prioritize your time—reinforce the message you want to convey.

Driving Lessons

With each passing week, I seem to reconnect with more and more high school classmates on Facebook. It causes me to reminisce about those who influenced me most at Alleman. Oddly enough, the teacher whose classes I recall most vividly was Mr. Tietjens—my driving instructor, of all things.

Even then, I had the sense that Mr. T’s behind-the-wheel advice applied to something bigger. Today, I see how they’re sound lessons for leadership (and even life):

Keep your eyes on where you want to go, not on what you want to avoid. If you’re trying to steer clear of the tree just off the shoulder of the road, don’t fixate on the tree—stay focused on the pavement ahead. An effective leader-communicator keeps her team focused on the goal and the route to getting there. Of course it’s important to be aware of obstacles and to develop the skill to navigate around them, but it’s a constant headlight on the destination and the direction that gives employees the power to confidently and competently put the pedal to the metal.

Drive proactively, not defensively. By the time you’re placed in a defensive posture—having to respond to a swerving driver, avoiding a piece of junk in the road, or braking hard at a crosswalk—you’re already in trouble. By looking to the horizon and anticipating and communicating what’s coming, a skilled leader helps teams make the proactive adjustments that keep the organization in the driver’s seat and on its strategic path.

Separate your hazards. If a big rig is bearing down on you while you’re sneaking up on a bicyclist, adjust your speed so you’re managing just one danger at a time. Effective leaders recognize that scattered attention and diffused effort form the black ice for an organizational crash-and-burn. They’re purposeful about helping the business home in on a manageable number of meaningful priorities—and engaging and aligning teams around what matters most right now.

The power of conversation

Today’s Denver Post featured a story about El Paso County Rep. Amy Stephens’ decisive victory in June’s GOP primary. Stephens was able to turn the tables on a negative campaign launched by her opponent and sway voters her way.

We’ve all seen the campaign trick that Stephens’ foe deployed: Call Amy Stephens at XXX-XXX-XXXX and tell her...

So what did Rep. Stephens do when her voicemail got clogged with messages of opposition and discontent?

She picked up the phone and called back every single person.

Instead of treating the tactic as an attack, Rep. Stephens seized it as an opportunity. This was a chance to hear first-hand what was on the minds of her constituents, how they perceived her effectiveness, what they needed and hoped for. And it was an opportunity for Rep. Stephens to share her own story and way of thinking, and make a personal connection with the people in her community.

Some of those conversations had to be pretty dang difficult—I can only imagine the knot in her stomach as she placed many of those calls. But instead of viewing the callers as hostile saboteurs to be avoided, Rep. Stephens invited them in.

And, in the end, she secured way more supporters than detractors.

Amy Stephens gets it: the power of conversation. Talking with someone—not at them—deepens understanding and acceptance. It provides fertile ground for the generation of ideas, meaningful solutions and a shared vision. While it may not always result in agreement, genuine conversation creates community. It delivers the message: I see you. I hear you. You matter.

Apparently this is news in the world of politics, at least in the Rocky Mountain State.

Leaders and communicators should take a cue from Amy Stephens--because it’s too often news in the world of business too.

Four questions to answer during change

Change—transformational organizational change—is on my mind a lot these days. That’s because so many of our clients seem to be in the throes of it.

“Throes” really is the right word. At its most benign, organizational change is terribly messy. More often, it feels a lot closer to mayhem. 

And it’s the communicator’s job to help leaders and employees make sense of the change and bring it to life. Doing so means connecting people to a clear, compelling story of transformation that addresses four questions:

  1. What? What’s new? What’s next? Be sure to paint a clear, compelling picture of how the organization will be different or better. What new markets will we go after? How will our relationships with customers shift? What products will we introduce or eliminate? What operational processes will change?  You can’t expect your employees to move the business to Point B (or H or Z) if they don’t know where it is.
  2. Why? Change will always be met with some resistance. But it’s bound to be stopped dead in its tracks if employees don’t believe in the change or buy into its importance. Spell out the context for the change and what’s at stake. What are the conditions giving rise to the new approach? Why is it needed? What will happen if we don’t do this?
  3. Who? Changing an organization is really about changing people—asking them to let go of old ways, engage in unfamiliar behaviors, learn new skills, rewire their thinking. Articulate who is affected by the change and who is expected to change.
  4. How? Getting behind a change means more than just believing in it—it means doing it. A global engineering firm engaged us to help with the internal engagement effort when it couldn’t get traction launching a new operating process. What we discovered: Employees generally were supportive of the change, recognized the need and saw the benefits for the business, their clients and even themselves. What employees didn’t get was how to put the new approach into practice on a day-to-day basis. Most didn’t even know where to begin. So our strategy had to home in on offering the practical guidance, how-tos and tools that would help managers and employees step into the change.