Effective (i.e. engaging, relevant, compelling) communication is imperative if change management is to occur successfully, with leaders at all levels crucial in ensuring this occurs. Importantly, communication is inextricably entwined in the desire stage of change, as defined by the leading change management ADKAR model*.
Supporting this assertion is research undertaken by a leading change management model which determined the greatest contributor to change success is active and visible executive sponsorship. Inherent within ‘sponsorship’ is communicating with those leading the change, as well as those being directly impacted on by the change itself.
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It is executives who are sought after by employees for big picture, context setting communication, while for information directly relevant to their specific roles it is the employee’s supervisor who is relied upon and has credibility in their eyes.
Five key change management steps
*In full, the five change management (ADKAR) components/steps as Prosci sees it are as follows:
- Awareness – making those who going to experience the change aware of what will be occurring, why, and how it is relevant to them (WIIFM*)
- Desire – galvanising change targets to welcome, want and embrace the change
- Knowledge – giving those experiencing change the information which enables them to enact the change
- Ability – similar to knowledge, this gives those enacting the change the capability to put it into practice
- Reinforcement – reiterating the rationale for change, celebrating successes, addressing weaknesses before they become a disease which cripples the embedding of change.
Creating desire through change management
Communication is generally relied on as playing leading roles in the awareness and – often – reinforcement stages of change. But there are two important caveats that come with this.
Firstly, as it is necessary for leaders to build desire within impacted employees for change, the importance of what is classically termed ‘communication’ during this phase cannot be underestimated. This includes the notion of ‘engagement’, which inherently means conversations, listening and empathising. These are fundamental characteristics of two-way symmetrical communication.
As the change ‘product’ will have already been determined by this stage, typical two-way symmetrical communication tools such as market research are likely to be of little benefit at this point, as the product will not change (sic) greatly. There are relatively minor factors such as speed of roll-out, however, which could feasibly evolve based on employee feedback.
As with any communication, if the ‘product’ can be adapted at all based on target audience needs and wants, the higher the propensity for buy-in (and its extension, advocacy).
How many change programs have the in-built capacity for modification after roll-out is instigated, however, is the moot point (and one which I’d love to hear from if any readers have information on this).
Research has also determined – surprise, surprise – the most effective form of communication in change management is face-to-face, while the most important messages contain information on the impact of change on the individual and why change is occurring.
This is all seemingly straightforward – and research tells us many who have led change would, next time around in change, have more communication, a more comprehensive communication strategy and communicate earlier – but what do you do when an area of the business is being impacted on by multiple change initiatives?
In this case, impacted leaders (those on the ‘ground’ in particular) and employees are at serious risk of change fatigue. Humans aren’t all that great at change anyway, so having multiple pressures from different sides regarding change is, clearly, going to make the embedding of change even more difficult.
The challenge for leadership in change management communication
Change management crystallises a major problem any organisation faces, that of when managers are barely competent at managing, let alone leading.
Leading requires empathy, walking the talk and interpersonal skills that are difficult to teach and often seem to come secondary to technical expertise and experience. So often we see managers appointed because of how excellent they are at their chosen professional field.
At this stage in organisational development, after the massive amount of experience we have in this field, I should think it is the people leadership dimension which is prioritised over the technical expertise dimension when it comes to appointing ‘bosses’.
Clearly, the manager of a particular business group needs to have an understanding of the work that group undertakes, but that group will never reach its potential if it is not managed effectively and, most importantly, provided with strong, purposeful leadership.
This is the sort of leadership that supports and inspires. It is leadership that concurs with organisational vision but adapts to the needs and wants of individual employees.
Within change management, the pressures on managers escalates. And the chief trait which is needed is contained in the word, sentiment, burden and opportunity of leadership. This is the trait which is most likely to facilitate the generation of desire (for change) within impacted employees.
Without it, change is a mechanical thing, one more akin to an alienating burden, rather than a relevant process leading to a personally meaningful outcome and commercially advantageous outcome.
Have you been involved in change programs that have had the in-built capacity for modification embedded into them? How have you seen leaders impact on the quality of a change outcome?
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