Is your organization struggling with a big change? There could be a number of reasons including lack of senior leader commitment, resistance from managers and communicating too soon. Communication can help! When it’s time to develop a change communication plan, don’t just focus on telling employees what to do differently, help them participate in the change. In this episode of Employee Buzz, we’ll discuss three key strategies along with other tips for communicating change effectively.

Episode transcript: 

Alyssa:
Back to Employee Buzz, everybody. I am Alyssa Zeff, your Frappuccino drinker, Billy Joel fan, Jeopardy junkie, and I am here with David Pitre, president of Davis & Company. Thank you for being here, David. Can you tell us a couple of things we may not know about you?

David:
Hi, Alyssa. Sure. How about one?

Alyssa:
Okay, good.

David:
Let's start with that. I'm an avid collector of chairs. Now what's a little bit weird about this collection is that they're all little chairs. They're replica models of famous chairs by architects.

Alyssa:
Wow.

David:
Yeah. Crazy, huh?

Alyssa:
I had no idea. Well, today David and I are going to talk about a subject that we hear from our clients and colleagues all the time is, top of mind, which is change communication. So David, we know that our clients tell us all the time they're in a constant state of change in their organizations. So first question, do companies need to think differently about change communication?

David:
Well, first I would say perhaps not differently, but communicators can build on what they're doing. So we've seen many communicators focus on describing the change and telling employees what to do differently. While that's a great step, it won't help change stick. So I think what folks need to do is take communication to the next level and we need interaction and that's when ... Those are sessions when employees can connect with leaders, provide feedback, and participate in the change. As adults, we learn by asking questions. We need to include those moments in our change communication plans.

Alyssa:
Makes a lot of sense. I'm sure we'll get into a little bit more about that as we continue talking. Okay, super-fast. What do you think are things companies get wrong when it comes to change?

David:
Well, we've seen a lot of things over the years, but I'd like to maybe summarize in five themes. So one, lack of senior leader commitment. Two, resistance from managers and leaders. Three, communicating too soon and therefore the information is vague. Four, not telling the whole story, but maybe just the good parts. Then finally moving on to the next thing too soon. But the change is not done and we've already moved onto the next change.

Alyssa:
So let's start at the highest level. If I was a communication professional, oh wait, I am a communication professional.

David:
Can we say that in quotes.

Alyssa:
Air quotes. Oh wait, we're air quoting. Nobody can see that. But that's kind of our thing. So we're addicted to air quotes, especially David. If I was a communication professional in a large organization charged with developing a change communication plan, what are the core things I need to remember?

David:
Well, I believe it all comes down to this. That is to create an immersive experience that engages employees. So how do you get there? There are three key strategies in my mind. One, engage leaders, two, support managers and three involve employees.

Alyssa:
Okay, that's very interesting. Say more.

David:
Let's start with number one, leaders. They set the tone, they provide context, and they help everyone understand why. Number two managers, they're the frontline and they're really this place where employees turn first with questions. So we want them to have that knowledge to be able to answer those questions. Then finally employees, they want to contribute and they're far more likely to commit to a change when they are given opportunities to ask questions, share ideas and give feedback.

Alyssa:
That makes a lot of sense. Can we bring this to life? Maybe we could do like a little mini case study. Can you think of an example of a time where a company didn't really get this right and how would we flip it and do it differently?

David:
Yeah, I can think of one example in particular. We worked on a project to improve accountability and decision making. The idea was that decisions would be pushed down into the organization. We were called in after the program was designed and communication was about to launch and the leaders of this project just decided they needed some communication support. So we came in a little bit later. What we noticed is that after we launched communication, the organization was starting to operate in this new way, and when employees tried to use the new process, they were hit with leaders saying things like, "I want to review this first, I'll get back to you with my decision." That kind of stuff.

David:
So really what happened is that the leaders went back to the old way of doing things. Of course what we realized is that no time was spent with those leaders to ensure that they were on board and ready to act with the new process. So what could have been done differently? Obviously spending time with them. But I think that giving leaders a chance to try this on for size would have been a really important step so that we would have avoided those reactions when they finally became a reality.

Alyssa:
It's interesting because if we go back to the things you mentioned about what companies get wrong and you say lack of senior commitment, it's a really good way to sort of get that commitment, which is give them a chance to try it on, make sure they're comfortable with it before they have to employ it. I think you and I worked on another project where we were hearing things where thought leaders were involved and then when the change actually came to life, leaders would say, "Oh no, no. I'm not going to do that," and or, "Why is this happening?" Or stuff like that. So I think really taking the time to engage and get that commitment upfront is critical. So what about the opposite side of that? Any great examples where a company did a good job of communicating change effectively?

David:
Yes. One comes to mind immediately. We worked for a large pharmaceutical company, which had a really big IT team. This team was going through the introduction of a new operating model. At the core of our plan, of our communication plan, was a full day workshop for 800 managers. We really believed that this group of managers would be critical to the success of the new model. While it took a lot of time, as you can imagine, to run all 800 people through this full day workshop, it was really an important step to ensure that these folks were on board and felt confident that the new model would work.

Alyssa:
Great.

David:
So it really was the core element. Obviously there's lots of other stuff going on, but it really became the centerpiece of the plan.

Alyssa:
That's great. Again, this goes back to what you said earlier in terms of resistance from managers and leaders is something that they get wrong and this is sort of getting ahead of that, which is making sure that the managers, and you also mentioned that employees are going and managers are at the frontline and employees are going and this is sort of right at the heart of that is getting to that solution.

David:
Yeah. I think what's also interesting is we didn't tell managers, " You need to behave A, B, C ways." We said, "Here's how it works. Let's try it on. What questions do you have? Let's discuss what input do you have?" It created a whole new way for these folks to look at the change.

Alyssa:
That's great. One of the common things I think we hear from employees is they're overwhelmed with information, regardless of whether their organization is going through change, although they probably always are. They're just getting inundated with information. When it comes to change, what are ways that they can help employees really understand and care about the change that they're implementing?

David:
Okay. I have two ideas here. So, let's start with step one. I think when companies start communicating about a change, let's be fair here, sometimes they're small C change, which is pretty straight forward stuff versus big C change really complicated, maybe it's a new enterprise system or something like that. But they often fail to answer the very basic question which is, “What does this mean to me, the employee?”  Employees want to know what's happening now, what will happen, and most importantly, what the change means for them.

Alyssa:
What's interesting about that, David, is that it also implies that all employees are going to be impacted the same and not taking the time to stop and say, "Break down the employees by how they're going to be impacted by the change and adjusting accordingly."

David:
Yeah. I mentioned a system implementation just before. So take that as an example. If we know that, for example, let's pretend it's an HR system, we know that managers will be responsible to go into the system, let's say once a quarter to perform an activity, whereas employees merely meet with their manager. So we know that managers have more to do in the system than an average employee. So now when we understand that impact, we can spend more time with that manager and help him or her get up to speed.

Alyssa:
So I interrupted you. You had two things. The first we talked about was helping employees understand what it means to them. What's the second part?

David:
Yes. Back to step or step two.

Alyssa:
Yes.

David:
I think it's important to have a clear and concise story about the change. So this helps you move away from a set of facts, which often doesn't convince employees to do something differently, but it helps you then appeal to their emotional side.

Alyssa:
Okay. Well, you've given us a lot to think about and I know when it comes to change communication, we really only scratch the surface. In fact, I know you recently wrote the book on change quite literally. Can you tell us about the new eBook?

David:
Yes, I'm really excited about it. There's been a lot of work behind it, involved a lot of my colleagues here at Davis & Company and I think it'll be a really great resource for anyone who needs to communicate change, whether it's that little change or that big change and it describes a six-step process and that process is designed to help our clients overcome their change challenges and really make change stick in their organizations.

Alyssa:
That sounds great. Thank you so much for sharing. Well as we often hear, the only constant is change. So I'm sure our listeners really appreciate all of your insights. Now it is time to spin the wheel of games.

Alyssa:
Well, no. Thank you for being here. I think you've given us all, again, a lot to think about and I appreciate it and we look forward to seeing the new eBook.

David:
Thanks. Great to be here.

Alyssa:
Thanks for listening to Employee Buzz, where practical advice meets fun.

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