Change communication planning

We know from our research that managers—those who manage others directly—are a trusted source of information for employees. And when it comes to change, they often turn to their managers first when they need answers or clarification: “Does the change apply to us? What does it really mean? Do we have to do this differently?”  

But managers are squeezed. They’re dealing with their day jobs, managing administrative tasks and helping employees complete their work. And then we pile on the latest change initiative. It goes something like this: “Announcing an exciting new change initiative. Please see your manager with questions.” 

Can you feel managers’ eyes rolling? While managers instinctively understand they have a communication role, they get stuck when it comes to change—after all, they’re going through change too. They struggle to:  

  • Understand what’s changing and know how to explain it 

  • Have time to communicate  

  • Feel that explaining the change is not part of their job 

That’s where you come in—the communicator who needs to get managers on board.  

Here are six strategies to build managers’ knowledge of a complex change and prepare them for their internal communication role.  

  1. Understand potential barriers to change 

Before a change launches, it’s important to understand barriers to change so your communication plan can address them. Managers are a valuable resource to identify these potential barriers. Because of their experience and day-to-day interactions, they’re able to anticipate reactions to a change before it’s launched—where employees may resist or how it may conflict with other parts of the business. 

How to gather managers’ insights 

  • Pull together a quick focus group with managers across the organization. Explain the change and ask them two key questions: What questions do you think your employees will have? What will get in the way of employees adopting new ways of working? 

  • Remember, what you discuss will likely be shared outside of this session. Depending on the topic, you may have to talk about the change at a high level or use scenarios. And there are some sensitive change topics that won’t be suitable for a pre-launch group discussion, such as a layoff.  

  1. Create space for managers’ communication role 

Depending on the complexity of your change, managers may only need to spend a few minutes helping their team members through a change. Or, they may need hours over several weeks. In either scenario, managers need space to support the change.  

How to create space for managers 

  • Ensure leaders are aligned with managers’ participation in the change. Conduct a planning session with leaders or hold one-on-one meetings to walk them through managers’ proposed role and the time commitment. If the time commitment is substantial, address the impact to the organization.  

  • Then ask leaders to talk about the change with managers and support their role. Not only does this signal the change is important for the organization’s success, it also tells managers they have permission to participate. 

  1. Answer employees’ questions 

Now, let’s imagine your change is about to launch. It’s time to prepare managers to answer questions from employees—one of the key ways employees will build their knowledge.  

How to help managers answer employees’ questions 

  • Invite managers to participate in change workshops. Facilitate exercises that require 

managers to solve business challenges together and to try on the change. 

  • If you didn’t have the opportunity to gather questions about the change earlier, now is the time to hold an interactive session with managers to brainstorm questions employees may ask. 

  • Provide resources to help managers answer questions, such as a list of Frequently Asked Questions or an online tool where managers can submit questions that are stumping them. 

  1. Model new behaviors 

Employees are more likely to embrace a change if they see their managers working in new ways—whether it’s using a new system or supporting a new organizational structure.  

How to help managers model new behaviors 

  • Design interactive sessions that help managers experience the change before they need to explain it to employees. For example, training sessions on a new system or working through scenarios.  

  • Gather feedback during these sessions. It will help you refine your change communication plan when you launch to employees.  

  • Hold managers accountable. Ensure they continue their communication roles as the change rolls out, so their actions support the change. For example, if you’re running a cost reduction effort, do managers encourage their teams to find more opportunities to save money? 

  1. Translate the change  

When change initiatives are launched, they often include general, high-level language that applies to everyone. Managers are in the perfect position to translate the change—explain what it means for their teams, “Here’s what we need to do and how we’ll get there.”  

How to help managers translate the change 

  • As managers learn about the change, ask them to prepare for their translation role by working on three key questions: As a result of this change, what does my team need to do differently? What support do we need to work in new ways? How does success look for my team?  

  • Managers’ answers will help them explain how the team and each employee will contribute.  

  1. Recognize success  

There are few better ways to build engagement in a change than to recognize employees for their hard work and contributions. Since managers will be front and center as employees try new ways of working, they play a key role in celebrating success. 

How to help managers recognize employees 

  • Encourage managers to celebrate success by calling out individuals in team meetings or in online communication tools.  

  • Provide examples of low- and no-cost recognition moments—from a thank you note mailed to an employee’s home to a team lunch.  

  • Ask managers to share success stories, so they can be leveraged in higher-level internal communication channels, such as your organization’s intranet homepage, the microsite devoted to the change or a town hall.  

  1. Gather feedback  

As your change continues to roll out, feedback will help you adjust your communication plan to ensure you’re making progress and the change continues to resonate. Once again, managers to the rescue! They’re likely hearing it all—from employees’ frustrations and common questions to where employees are getting stuck.  

How to help managers gather feedback 

  • A quick focus group is an efficient way to gather the feedback you need to update the plan. Ask managers about employees’ frustrations and common questions. Do you see themes or patterns? Ask them to describe obstacles that employees experience. Can these challenges be addressed with communication or does the change team need to resolve operational issues, such as fix a data point that doesn’t display properly in a new system. 

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