As they say, change is inevitable. And in business as in life, change is constant. It must be in order to stay relevant and competitive. Companies must evolve and grow to outpace themselves and the rest of the market more than ever before. This is how progress is made.
“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” – Winston Churchill
Change can be positive for the business, yet still challenging to key constituents. It can appear in the form of organizational and leadership changes, enterprise-wide system rollouts, and mergers and acquisitions. It can also stem from a crisis in the form of financial setbacks, employee layoffs, office closures, or public scandal.
For employees, clients, and key stakeholders change brings anxiety, fear, and negativity. Too much change in a short amount of time and you get resentment, anger, rebellion, and toxic behavior.
Good corporate communications organizations are front and center to all change programs. They’re brought to the table at the beginning of each initiative as part of the core task force, and become a vital role keeping in step with the vision and mission, often helping to shape the final outcome. They are critical to the successful execution of change, and partner tightly with executive leadership to ensure each phase is optimally managed.
Communications teams that are ancillary or receive minimal or late inclusion struggle to keep ahead of the change and often take the blame for failing or flailing change initiatives.
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” — John F. Kennedy
Out of the Kübler-Ross Model and the 5 stages of grief, the Change Curve emerged–depicting these stages against an individual’s performance over time as they experience significant change. If you Google the curve, there are literally hundreds of versions, like the one below, along with equal numbers and variations of commitment, acceptance, and adoption curves designed to bring individuals along as they experience change.
In this complexity of growing pains and high emotions lies communications. Communicators are central to successful change management and the people it impacts. At the core, communicators are leaders of change providing information and points of engagement to the human element.
Given this enormous responsibility, how might we rise to the occasion?
There is much to consider within the change management umbrella, both internally and externally. Below is a selection of employee communication best practices I have utilized during many change programs and initiatives I’ve been lucky to be part of during my career.
- Fully understand the initiative and the vision. Be able to articulate it, the key benefits, timetables, and plans at any point. Consider yourself the expert on the change program so you can provide proper information at any point in time.
- Know the players, their roles, and responsibilities, along with your own, and how you will work together. Assuming someone else is taking care of something is always a disaster waiting to happen. Get on the same page early and regularly check-in to be sure progress is being made. Presumably, there are regular task force meetings and calls but don’t forget to pick up the phone and call others involved so you can dive deeper.
“The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” — Charles Kettering
- Assess the organization’s readiness for change. Either lead the effort or partner and learn from those that will, but understand what the appetite for this particular type of change will be. This will help you understand necessary tactics to take and how to make the change and any transitions easier on employees. If you know ahead of time where the pain points will be, you can mitigate the risk with targeted and thoughtful communications, emotional support, and increased resources.
- Communicate early and often. Before the news is even approved for sharing, get your initial messaging complete and ready to push as soon as humanly possible. Encourage leadership to share quickly and sell them on the importance of early adoption. Don’t assume one email communication is enough, so have your communication plan cover numerous tactics for a thorough kick off.
- Position key leaders with initial messaging. In large organizations, you may be required to send email communication first announcing your news, likely under the signature of the top most senior leader. I strongly suggest you get that leader and others immediately involved in the additional communications rollout, especially where in-person, conference calls and video can be leveraged. Employees want to see and hear from the executives themselves, and they want to be able to ask questions. Be prepared.
- Use multiple channels, platforms, and tools. Launch the news with your email communication if necessary, but explore other options in addition such as portals and landing pages, town halls and conference calls, posters and video clips. Whatever it takes to get employees engaged and informed, do it. Look for unique and interesting communication channels, but be sure information is plentiful on the ones your employees will most likely be using so they can find what they need.
- Don’t assume they understand the first time. Ensure the initial communications and core messages are clear and easily understood. The why, who, what when, where, and how the initiative should be outlined and obvious. Communicate again with more clarity, and provide question and answer forums along with ongoing two-way communication channels. Don’t leave employees in the dark – give them as much information as possible up front. Transparency, openness, and honesty are immensely important to building trust. If you don’t know something yet, be up front and tell them that, and follow up as soon as you do have the answer.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin
- Seek out early adopters. Too often employees and teams think the weight of all communication falls solely on the corporate communications team. The reality is that good communication takes a village. Executives, managers, and functional leads need to play a key role in the cascade of messages, as do early adopters of the change. Find those that are on board early, that understand the importance of the change, and can support the positive messaging bringing others along with them. These people can work miracles within their own circles where you and others may struggle or fail. They can also help in identifying the high-risk individuals so leadership can step in for necessary one-on-ones.
- Capture and share progress and successes. There is nothing worse than getting the big hoopla at the beginning of a program, only to barely hear another word for months. If you can provide a timeline for when they should expect key milestones to be met, you can then share progress against those dates, and hopefully showcase some successes along the way. Don’t forget to show those—they give employees a good sense that things are working as planned. This builds confidence and ongoing support of the change.
- Say thank you. With task force members, early adopters, and anyone else who help to make the change a success, thank them by name and publicly. If you can work with leadership to recognize these folks, do so. When other employees see who supported the change, and did so with enthusiasm, professionalism, and selflessness, it sets the greatest example for a culture of positive change agents.
Are there other best practices you incorporate into your change programs? What are those and how did you make them work? Share your experiences below.
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