Have You Learned Your Lessons? 11 Communication Tips for Improving Your Change Initiative

I once worked with a company during a change initiative when a company’s business was not going particularly well. The CEO called a meeting of his upper management to discuss how things weren’t going particularly well. A huge process change was three months behind schedule and already $20 million over budget. He began by opening the meeting with, “I want to know who is responsible for the mess we are in, so we can fix this.” Then he proceeded to lay out a plan to make some much needed changes. Unfortunately for him, no one heard anything else that he said. After some honest feedback and coaching, he held another meeting the next day in which he took a more tactful approach to connecting with his leaders.

Communication during any change initiative becomes critical because people want to know what is happening and how well things are going in addition to the reason for the change. People will have a thirst for information. As a leader, you will also want to have a thirst for knowledge—you will want to understand how people are feeling, what obstacles they are encountering, and how they are adapting and addressing the challenges of change that no one could have foreseen.

Here are 11 tips for improving your communications during any change initiative:

1. Develop and follow a plan. You need to devise a communication strategy that you will follow on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. This plan might include the use of a regular newsletter that keeps people updated about what is happening, the successes experienced, the learnings encountered, and the new changes that will be adopted to improve performance. Your plan should also include the ways and means that you will communicate with groups and how you will gather information, be it through one-on-one interviews, focus groups, or work teams. Developing a comprehensive plan and a concrete strategy for communicating with everyone will bring consistency and security to everyone involved. Remember that when it is quiet at the top, it gets louder at the bottom.

2. Communicate, communicate, and communicate. You cannot communicate enough. An old marketing adage called the “Rule of Seven” indicates that most people don’t listen or understand your message until they have heard your message seven times. There is no concrete data that indicates it will actually take seven times. However people are busy, they are preoccupied with all they have to do, and sometimes until a certain issue directly impacts them they may not pay attention to what you have to say. The more you communicate those issues that are important, the quicker people will understand and engage on a topic and ask questions to make sure they have understood.

3. Tell the truth. Whenever possible tell the whole truth. If you hedge on the truth or only tell part of the truth, you may create another set of problems later. When people find out that they only got part of the truth, they start thinking that you may have something to hide. A partial truth may end up creating added speculation or confusion when compared to what others are hearing or thinking. Over time, a lack of the truth creates distrust which will have a negative impact on your company culture. Think about your message, determine what you can truthfully and fully share, and then share it consistently.

4. Share facts and feelings. Many of us are good at sharing the facts and figures that illustrate how we are being successful, but we can become uncomfortable in sharing our feelings about our successes. There is real power in your passion. Look for opportunities to share your excitement and enthusiasm about the successes that you, your team, or the company are having. Sharing your passion creates feelings of excitement in others and creates momentum in moving a change forward.

5. Tell Positive Stories. When things start improving, identify positive examples of how the changes you are making are having a positive impact. When people start hearing positive stories, they will look at what they are doing with new eyes and identify the successes they are having. If you can come up with a system for gathering this kind of organizational intelligence and share it frequently, you will create a catalyst and motivation for the change that you endorse. Positive stories can help people leave the traditions of the past behind as they transition to new and more effective ways of doing things.

6. Hold personal conversations. Don’t let all your conversations be large group conversations. You can learn more when speaking one-on-one with people than you ever can in a large group. People will feel safer and be more apt to tell you what is really going on and what is working and not working when you speak to them individually. Ask questions and then listen. Be sure that you ask more than you tell. You already know what you know. Be patient and take whatever time it takes to develop the rapport with each person that will increase their candor and willingness to share their perspective and experience.   

7. Walk the talk. People will always believe your actions more than whatever you say. You are an example whether you want to be or not, and people are watching your reactions, as well as what you say and do. They believe that if you don’t live or act the part, they won’t believe it. You cannot expect people to do something that you are not willing to do yourself. They will especially listen when things are not going well, so you need to be consistent in all the messages you are delivering.

8. Be positive. When things don’t go as planned or when you don’t achieve the desired results, acknowledge what didn’t go well, share the learning from the situation, and make new plans to move forward by doing something different. Positivity will attract others to you, and negativity will repulse people from you. Being positive creates movement forward, whereas, negativity dwells on past failure and does little to create positive forward momentum.

9. Explain why. Sometimes we take for granted that everyone understands the rationale behind a particular change. Don’t take anything for granted, particularly your assumptions when it comes to what others may or may not understand. Take the time to explain why you are making a particular change as well as your vision of the results. Remember a vision of the future allows people to let go of the past and helps them understand how they can make a significant contribution to the objective you are trying to reach.

10. Express appreciation. You know that organizations don’t perform, people do. When someone does something that makes a difference, acknowledge and thank that individual for their contribution. If you don’t do this very often, making the attempt will probably be uncomfortable in the beginning. Move past your own discomfort and commit to acknowledging the efforts of others. This will force you to start to notice when people are performing successfully. People will notice that you notice, and your efforts will go a long way toward creating a culture of appreciation which will increase engagement and loyalty to you and to what you are trying to accomplish.

11. Honor confidentiality. If people tell you what is not working, never identify them as someone who gave you the information. You want to protect those who are willing to tell you the truth about what is happening. When people honestly tell you what you don’t want to hear, you should honor their candor and the gift of the learning that they are offering. Making improvements is about improving processes and not criticizing people. Respect them for what they have to offer and explore what you can do to make improvements rather than being concerned with who said what about whom.

One of the hallmarks of a successful change initiative rests in the ability of those leading the change to communicate positively and effectively with others. Communication brings people, processes, and results together. Your ability to successfully communicate during any change will increase the effectiveness of your results while improving your culture and insuring the success of your people.

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