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Communicating Change

by Naomi Karten

Adapted from Communication Gaps and How to Close Them. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. See below for copyright notice.

In times of uncertainty, such as those triggered by technological or organizational change, most people have an intense need to know what is happening and how it will affect them.  Yet, so often, communication in the form of information, empathy,  reassurance, and feedback is in short supply.

Not that no one's communicating.  Griping, for example, is common.  So are venting, grousing, and gossiping.  The rumor mill runs at full speed.  But most of the communication occurs among those affected by the change.  Those who initiated it, in contrast, are silent; or so it seems to those affected.  The result is a gap between those who introduce change and those who are on the receiving end.

As always, Scott Adams tells it like it is.  In The Dilbert Principle, he notes that people hate change.  The reason, he contends, is that change makes us stupider because our relative knowledge decreases every time something changes.  "And frankly, if we're talking about a percentage of the total knowledge in the universe, most of us aren't that many basis points superior to our furniture to begin with.  I hate to wake up in the morning only to find that the intellectual gap between me and my credenza has narrowed."[1] Point well taken.

Failure to Communicate

During a recent conference at which I gave a presentation on managing change, a member of my audience asked why senior managers are so poor at communicating during times of change. Why, she wanted to know, do they tell us so little, when almost anything would help—even just acknowledging what a stressful time this is for us all?

Actually, it's not just senior managers but managers at all levels who communicate inadequately during times of change.  These managers include the many who introduce or implement change as well as those who oversee the people affected by it.  They may be project managers or team leaders or consultants.  Two factors stand out as responsible for creating this Great State of Noncommunication.  One is that, despite having experienced nearly non-stop change themselves, many managers nevertheless don't appreciate the jolting impact change can have on others and fail to recognize even the small steps they can take to help others adjust.

The second factor is that even when those in charge do understand the jarring impact of change, many prefer not to take any action.  They avoid communicating because doing so means dealing with those messy "people issues" (such as feelings, for example). As William Bridges notes in Managing Transitions,  "Managers are sometimes loathe to talk so openly, even arguing that it will 'stir up trouble' to acknowledge people's feelings."[2]  Of course, as Bridges emphasizes, it's not talking about these reactions that creates the problem.

In place of communication, management too often uses a "get" strategy: trying to get people to change.  As one vice president put it regarding the resistance of his company's sales force to use of a complex, new customer-relationship-management system, "Our biggest challenge was to get them to change their habits and use it for planning."

Alas, no one can get anyone else to do willingly something that person doesn't  want to do or doesn't know how to do.  No one can get others to adopt enthusiastically what they fear, resent, or distrust.  In a fantasy world, all those affected by a given change would welcome, endorse, and support it, openly and joyfully.  Rah, rah, the change is here! But in the real world, change is unsettling.  It always has been and it always will be.

The Get Strategy at Work

Inadequate communication was a key contributor to intense, negative employee reaction in two companies, the first of which faced technological change, and the second, organizational change.  The first company embarked on a large-scale, company-wide, desktop upgrade. The transition to the current platform a few years earlier had been easy for some employees, but a terrible trauma for others. Although the technology acted temperamentally at times, it was what everyone was accustomed to now.

Randy, the project manager of the upgrade-implementation team, repeatedly asked his CIO to set the stage for change by issuing a corporate-wide announcement.  Randy reasoned that employees would be more receptive to the upgrade if they knew why it was being undertaken, how they'd benefit from it, when it would take place, and what they could expect as it proceeded. However, the CIO did not provide information to employees. As a result, some employees didn't become aware of the upgrade until Randy's team contacted their department to explain and schedule it.   Most others learned about it through that most unreliable form of communication, the grapevine.

Employees reacted angrily when technical staff members arrived to tamper (their word) with their computers. Anger subsequently turned to outright hostility when employees experienced an unanticipated period of degraded system performance while implementation team members resolved bugs and fine-tuned the network. People fumed, "Why are you pushing this down our throats?"

Called in to meet  with several of these employees, I discovered that there had been so little communication that some employees didn't even realize that the upgrade was company-wide.  They believed it had been designed only for their particular department. The way they experienced it, the change was being done to them, not for them. They were victims of a get strategy.

In the company coping with organizational change, inadequate communication also contributed significantly to employee anger and distress.  Describing this experience, Dave, a director, bemoaned the dismal morale and escalating staff turnover that followed his company's merger with a corporate giant. Although a reorganization of his division was certain, and rumors were rampant, months had passed without the release of details by company executives.

Hoping to stop the exodus from his division, Dave urged senior management either to talk directly to employees about the upcoming reorganization or, at the least, to acknowledge their concerns and let them know when information would be forthcoming. Management ignored his recommendation.

Believing that employees would benefit from an understanding of the psychological nature of how people react to change, Dave tried another approach.  He offered to give a presentation to his division on the implications of change.  Management rejected his offer.

Dave was determined not to give up.  Trying one last approach, he inserted a succinct slide depicting the experience of change into another presentation he was preparing to give to his staff. When he previewed the presentation for senior managers, they directed him to remove the offending slide before giving the presentation to the troops.

Many months later , senior management rammed a comprehensive reorganization into place without informing, involving, or preparing employees.  Morale worsened.  The company, which was once a leader in its field, with a sterling reputation as "the place to work," now became a liability.  Turnover led to more turnover, and the company's severely damaged reputation made staff vacancies difficult to fill.

Why Change Packs a Wallop

In both Randy's and Dave's companies, management's view seemed to be, in effect, "If we don't tell them this is a big change, maybe they won't notice that their guts are knotting up in response."   Yet these are hardly isolated cases.  Perhaps management's hope, with each such wrenching change, is that this time will be different.  Maybe, this time, employees will go along meekly and passively, and won't make a fuss. Maybe, for once, management can just drop the changes into place and tiptoe away.  Maybe, people won't notice that no respect has been shown—either for them or for the fact that big changes always create turmoil.

However, people always notice.

The reason people notice is that significant change is a felt experience.  How people respond to change is much more an emotional, gut-level experience than a logical, rational experience.  Change efforts trigger a panoply of reactions—eagerness, enthusiasm, and excitement, as well as fear, trepidation, anxiety, uncertainty, anger, and stress—feelings that are both positive and negative.

Change, after all, signifies an end to something.  As Bridges notes in Managing Transitions, "When endings take place, people get angry, sad, frightened, depressed, confused. These emotional states can be mistaken for bad morale, but they aren't. They are the signs of grieving. . . ."[3]

The importance of the grieving process is acknowledged rarely enough in personal circumstances, but it is given recognition even less frequently in the workplace.  Yet, grieving is a response not just to death, but also to other kinds of loss: the loss of a job, a role, a team, a location, a specialty, a valued skill, a way of doing work—the loss, in other words, of a familiar way of life and its attendant safety, certainty, and predictability.  People grieve when they have lost something that matters to them.  Failure to acknowledge the need to come to terms with change doesn't eliminate that need; in fact, it places a greater burden on those who are trying to cope.

What is to be learned is that if you are in a position to introduce change or manage its impact, then what, when, and how you communicate during the course of that change can dramatically influence the success of the effort. Your challenge—and this may signify a change for you—is to communicate with the affected people in a way that acknowledges and respects their reactions, while helping them to accept the change and adjust to it as expeditiously as possible.

Works Cited

[1] Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle's-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace Afflictions. (New York: HarperBusiness, 1996), p. 198.

[2] William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (Reading, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1991), p. 23.

[3] Bridges, op. cit., p. 24.

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This excerpt from Communication Gaps and How to Close Them [0-932633-53-6] appears by permission of Dorset House Publishing. Copyright © 2002 by Naomi Karten . All rights reserved. See http://www.dorsethouse.com/books/cgaps.html. The material contained in this file may be shared for noncommercial purposes only, nonexclusively, provided that this Copyright Notice always appears with it. This material may not be combined with advertisements, online or in print, without explicit permission from Dorset House Publishing. For copies of the printed book or for permissions, contact Dorset House Publishing, 1-800-342-6657, 212-620-4053, http://www.dorsethouse.com, info@dorsethouse.com, New: 3143 Broadway, Suite 2B, New York, NY 10027 USA. Additional rights limitations apply, as presented in the Legal Disclaimer posted at http://www.dorsethouse.com/legal.html.



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