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."
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 helpeven
just acknowledging what a stressful time this is for
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
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
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
showneither 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 reactionseagerness,
enthusiasm, and excitement, as well as fear, trepidation,
anxiety, uncertainty, anger, and stressfeelings
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. . . ."
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 workthe 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 challengeand this may signify
a change for youis 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.
Adams, The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle's-Eye View
of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace
Afflictions. (New York: HarperBusiness, 1996),
Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most
of Change (Reading, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1991),
op. cit., p. 24.