Communicating Change Effectively

By Rusty Bozman

I was recently asked by a client to hold some focus group sessions with a small company they had just acquired, in order to determine what emotional and process roadblocks may have been interfering with a smooth integration.

Unfortunately, what I found is very common. Confusion, misinformation, anxiety and some bad behavior were collectively creating a lot of noise in the system.

In these situations my counsel is always the same: Change is inevitable in business.

In fact, there is a graveyard of companies that refused to change or changed in the wrong ways. Those tombstones include Blockbuster, Montgomery Ward, Circuit City and The Sharper Image.

Once we accept that change is necessary for the health of a business, it becomes possible for us to reduce some of the anxiety that change ultimately produces in our employees. This is only possible, however, if we pay attention to what we communicate, how we communicate and when we communicate with those many people who drive our business every day.

What we communicate.

Most people don’t realize it, but as we go about our daily lives we are constantly thinking about and interpreting the situations we find ourselves in. It’s as though we have an internal voice inside our head that determines how we perceive every situation.

Psychologists call this inner voice “self-talk,” and it includes our conscious thoughts as well as our unconscious assumptions or beliefs.

Much of our self-talk is reasonable—“I’d better do some preparation for that exam,” or, ‘I’m really looking forward to that match.”

However, some of our self-talk is negative, unrealistic or self-defeating—“I’m going to fail for sure,” or, “I didn’t play well! I’m hopeless.”

Self-talk is often skewed towards the negative, and sometimes it’s just plain wrong.

If someone is experiencing depression or feeling anxious, it is particularly likely that they interpret things negatively. That’s why it’s useful to keep an eye on what employees tell themselves, and challenge some of the negative aspects of their thinking.

Imagine yourself in a situation where everything in your work could be changed—your job duties, whether or not you or your friends will remain employed, whether your job will remain in this location, etc.

Now multiply that fear-induced self-talk across all of the individuals working in a given place where uncertainty is growing and communication is missing. Pretty soon not only will each person’s self-talk construct wild ideas of worst case scenarios, but each person will find validation for these wild ideas among their co-workers who are doing the same thing.

It’s a form of hysteria that can lead to a lot of trouble for an organization, its customers and employees. And the sad truth is, it’s often unnecessary. The trick is to communicate honestly and to acknowledge the uncertainty.

communicatingTell employees what you can, even if that means telling them you are not in a position to tell them much. In many cases, employees experience reduced anxiety and suspicion of management if you provide them greater perspective into the difficulty of making major change decisions.

As a member of the senior management for many companies, I learned very quickly how difficult communication could be. In almost every case, while plans were being formed and decisions were being made, there were multiple stakeholders to consider in how communications should be crafted, sometimes with competing interests.

For example, an organization’s future depends on lowering costs through layoffs, the owners may view this difficult decision as the right move, and aside from the impacted employees, as a positive decision.

For the employees, however, this is only negative—both for employees departing and for those remaining. In addition to mourning the loss of friends, remaining employees usually have to absorb more work and they now worry about their own futures with the company.

It’s always helpful if we can challenge this negative self-talk to quell some of the drama and anxiety. When addressing employees in this situation, ask these simple questions:

1. Reality testing

  • What is my evidence for and against my thinking?
  • Are my thoughts factual, or are they just my interpretations?
  • Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
  • How can I find out if my thoughts are actually true?

2. Look for alternative explanations

  • Are there any other ways that I could look at this situation?
  • What else could this mean?
  • If I were being positive, how would I perceive this situation?

3. Putting it in perspective

  • Is this situation as bad as I am making out to be?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it?
  • What is the best thing that could happen?
  • What is most likely to happen?
  • Is there anything good about this situation?
  • Will this matter in five years?

How we communicate.

There is no substitute for being authentic and honest with people. Remember EVERYONE is watching how their leaders behave during these times—especially those employees you will count on to carry the business forward after the change.

We can see situations like these everywhere. For example, we’ve seen collegiate and/or professional sports coaches give false information to players and fans who know their intentions are to do something else.

You may recall back in 2000 when the coach of the University of Miami, Butch Davis, told the media “If I leave now, that makes me a deadbeat dad, because this is my family; I want to finish my career right here at Miami.” However, following the 2000 season, Davis told his players he was leaving for the Cleveland Browns.

Over my career, I’ve seen many leaders make this same mistake. Consumed with the desire to quell growing anxiety or uncertainty, they succumb to misleading people.

During periods of uncertainty and change, employees look more to their leaders for assurance. Disingenuous communication can quickly erode a leader’s credibility and damage the trust between employees and management.

In addition, many organizations make the mistake of relying on emails, written materials or intranet postings to carry most of the load for communication. Communication is more than just conveying information; it should also connote calm, assurance and that there is an organized plan in place to handle the uncertainties of the situation.

Remember that 90 percent of good communication is non-verbal; voice inflections, posture, appearing calm or nervous has a tremendous impact on what the audience concludes from the interaction.

When we Communicate.

Almost as important as what we communicate and how we go about it, when to communicate is often overlooked.

One of my clients was forced to layoff employees a few years ago and was handling the communications poorly. Those impacted employees who were losing their jobs were all working through transitions for several weeks or months until their positions were eliminated.

It was during this time the organization announced promotions and new benefits programs for those remaining with the company. The departing employees concluded the savings from their salaries provided the money necessary to enrich those remaining.

While this was the furthest thing from the truth, the poor timing and insensitivity to those employees in transition created an unnecessarily bad feeling and discomfort among the remaining employees. What was intended as a positive move for employees turned negative fast.

Communicating change does not have to feel so daunting and confusing. If we can remember that we have relationships with our employees, we can feel our way through by considering their feelings and needs during these stressful times.

We have relied on them to run our business thus far, so we should trust and respect them enough to be as open, honest and sensitive as we can. The best way to get respect from others is to respect them first.

rustyBy Rusty Bozman

Rusty Bozman is the founder of Workplace Synergistics, Inc., a human resources consulting firm based in St. Augustine, FL.  Prior to founding Workplace Synergistics in 2011, Rusty served as the Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Corporate Development for The St. Joe Company for eleven years.  In his earlier career, he held top HR positions for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland, Computer Associates International, and a startup contractor for the Department of Defense.  Rusty is a Certified Compensation Professional and holds a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Florida, and a M.S. in Industrial / Organizational Psychology from the University of Baltimore, MD.  

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