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Communicating in Change: A Science and An Art

Posted November 2019

Communication is a science and a fine art. The science is built all around the purpose: to give people information on what, where, why, how and when. However the fine art to communicating involves the elements beyond the logistics. The timing, tone, methods, channel also all play a crucial role in communication. If the communication for a change is too early or too late, then it will miss the mark and not have the desired impact, begging the question, why do it in the first place. It is the same for the other ‘art’ elements.

Dr Steppins argues that the quality of communication is the “single most important contributor to managing resistance to change” (Stebbins 2017). So what makes a good communication and how does that contribute to successful change management?

There are a number of times when working on a project, when it seems like the ‘right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.’ This is a clear sign that there is a gap in communication. When there is a need to move people from one state to another, clear and concise communication is critical to help not just deal with resistance, but also rumours, mis-perceptions and mis-conceptions.

One a particular project with a financial services organisation, there was a great deal of frustration, confusion and even anger within the project team. The reason for this was predominately down to poor communication. To combat this, communication needs to be clear, concise, authentic and genuine in what and how it comes across. It also needs to be in an accepted form that fits the organisation. For example, if the culture of an organisation does not promote using email to communicate to staff, then using that method would not be the best way for people to receive the information. Several different types of mediums should be highly considered to ensure an appeal to a wide audience, such as video, posters, emails, newsletters, etc. It is never a one size fits all within any organisation. The content itself needs to also align with the company’s cultural norms - essentially this makes it easier for people to receive, accept and process the information.

In order to influence stakeholders, there needs to be a series of steps that enables to reach different processing levels in change. The Kubler-Ross model (1969) defines these steps clearly. From a communication perspective, it is about moving people through the change curve from awareness to understanding to acceptance and finally commitment. The space between understanding and acceptance is at the dip in the change curve and there is a risk that people go around and around in the dip – in what could be called as the “washing machine cycle”. To prevent this from happening, leaders and managers within an organisation need to clearly build and express their leadership, change and influencing skills by using good communication with their teams. The process of this should be integrated into the change and communication plan, in order to have a positive impact and help bring people along the journey of change. When change and communication is not properly planned, then the consequences can lead to high levels of resistance and eventually without the change happening at all.

For example, a Central Government Department was moving all the Agencies into one new overall building. The purpose was to have a workspace ready for the future and increase the level of collaboration across the Agencies. This would entail a total of 3,000 employees, utilising different not only different working styles, but also different systems and processes. The aim was to implement agile working and achieve a ratio of 1:1.2, in order to accommodate all the staff. The main issues were there was no visible project team to the staff, staff nor managers were engaged or aware of requirements of staff, agency’s offices were across multiple buildings in central London making collaboration or sharing of any information challenging.

As a result, a change solution was not put in place, or at least not one that was visible. Communications on the new arrangements went out to the Agencies and staff affected only 1 month prior to the actual move. There was no consultation involved and staff and managers were left to make assumptions. There was also no mechanism for staff or managers to raise questions and obtain answers. Ultimately this had detrimental impacts on the change. There were high levels of resistance which continued for years after the implementation. This was regardless of the new building and workspace being at a much higher quality level in enabling work and the experience of staff overall.

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