By taking time to plan, prepare, and practise the change communication, you can more effectively lead your organisation through difficult times, maintain morale and productivity, and help keep employees engaged.
The use of clear, consistent, and credible communications to engage employees within organisations has never been more important especially in today’s tough economic environment. Continuous changes, budget cuts, and hiring freezes can make people nervous or uncertain about their future. In the absence of regular information, people tend to fill the void with F.U.D. (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). Without action, a negative climate that erodes trust and affects productivity and morale can grow. Time invested on proactively planning communications upfront can have a significant benefit on the ultimate speed with which the change is implemented, and leaders can have a significant impact on employee engagement by following 10 practical communications steps:
1) Prepare your Communication
Take time to prepare your key messages. Use the PACK model—Purpose (what you want to achieve and why?), Audience (who are they, what do you want them to think, feel, and do?), Channels (which will you lead with and which support your message?), and Key Messages (what are your three key points, supported with facts or examples to make them credible and engaging). Focus on the Head (Information), Heart (Inspiration) and Hands (Involvement) to deliver maximum impact. Link your messages to your overall business objectives and to the bigger organisational context, while reflecting the company’s vision, mission, and values. Use stories/narratives (where possible) to illustrate the message. Relevant stories can be powerful tools to stimulate empathy, memory, and engagement.
2) Give People Time to Adjust to Bad News
Share decisions that affect employees quickly and respectfully. People can deal with good and bad news, but what they find most difficult is uncertainty. It is the ‘not knowing’ that causes major stress. Our brains find uncertainty extremely destabilising and protracted periods of ‘not knowing’ can make people feel physically and psychologically unwell. Communicate the reasons for the actions. Accept that the initial reaction may be shock, anger, and denial. Give people time and space to adjust to the news. Create a space where people can express how they feel about the change, without judgement or rushing them to find solutions. Recognise and address people’s feelings about any change. Create opportunities to repeat the details, future focus, and ‘bigger picture’ message—repetition is essential as they may not hear it the first or second time.
3) Balance Optimism and Realism
It is important that leaders maintain optimism during a change. Communicate the positive effects and convey hope for the future. However, it is also important not to be blindly optimistic. A leader must balance optimism and realism to maintain the trust and confidence of employees. Deliver both the good and the bad news, draw attention to challenges and opportunities, and avoid sugar-coating the facts. Be confident, clear, and comfortable in delivering tough messages in a caring way. Communicate with a cool head and a warm heart. Leaders can be secure bases for their teams when they balance the caring (the support and interest) with the daring (the stretch and the challenge).
4) Refocus People’s Minds on Opportunity
What we focus on becomes our reality. Refocus people’s minds on a new challenge or opportunity and avoid having them dwell too long on the negatives. It is important to first recognise and acknowledge the pain, sell the benefits of the pain, and then rally people behind a common goal or cause that stimulates productive work. In times of layoffs, be aware of survivor syndrome— the feelings of guilt and shock of those who stay after a colleague has been released. Give people time to work through the grief associated with the loss of colleagues, status, or what was. Re-engage and refocus employees onto a positive aspect of the business by sharing and discussing openly the ‘what’s in it for me?’
5) Communicate Consistently and Clearly
Deliver a message of confidence and hope. Follow the mantra: Pride in the Past, Passion for the Present, Focus on the Future. A major mistake leaders often make is to criticise the past. This approach may make people defensive as they were a part of that past. Be clear that the reason the organisation has existed as long as it has is because of the efforts and commitment of the people who work there. Put any changes into perspective and link them to the external context. Use clear and simple language, with strong visual imagery to stimulate an emotional connection. The brain thinks in pictures/images so presenting messages in ways people can connect with will help them stick. As mentioned earlier, repetition is important—it gives time for a message to sink in and makes it more credible.
6) Be Visible and Available
Be sure to get out of your office and be seen. Make a point of talking to people at all levels of the organisation and creating opportunities for dialogue. Even when you do not have all the answers, especially when you do not have the answers, make yourself available to connect, listen, and empathise. Make a conscious effort to provide support and guidance when needed. Encourage questions and expressions of concern. Provide ways in which employees can communicate anonymously as well as openly. When employees are sharing worries or venting, it is a sign that they are looking for solutions. Ensure that the management team is seen as a team—united behind a common goal and supporting each other. People model the behaviour they see from above.
7) Be Conscious of the Links between Words, Tone, and Body Language
Research shows that when an inconsistent message is conveyed, the words used account for seven per cent of the communications, the tone 38 per cent, and the body language 55 per cent. If you do not believe in what you are saying, it is unlikely that your employees will be convinced either. Be sure to match the words, tone, and body language so that your communication is credible. Think carefully about the use of words and sentence construction, i.e.: use the positive form of a phrase rather than the negative (for example, ‘think carefully before booking travel’ rather than ‘don’t book unnecessarily travel’).
8) Use Multiple Channels
Mix and match communication channels to maximise the available opportunities for a message to be received and understood. Use a mix of one-to-one dialogues, and small and large group meetings. Use notice boards situated next to coffee machines, microsites, video-blogs, the Intranet, memos and E-mails. Create Q&A documents that cover more detail and answer the questions that employees are likely to ask. Openly ask for feedback. Make handouts available. Plan out a calendar of activities by audience to ensure frequent, consistent coverage and ample opportunities for dialogue, questions, and clarifications.
9) Practise Delivery
Spend at least an equal amount of time rehearsing the delivery as working on the content. In a crisis, people look to the leader to guide them through the storm. A calm, caring demeanour speaks volumes. The leader’s confidence and belief in the way ahead can positively impact employees’ confidence and belief in the future path. Think about the physical layout as well as where and how to stand, the voice tone, and the projection. People remember what they hear first and last, what they hear frequently, and what touches them. Sportspeople and artists use the power of visualisation to prepare themselves for a major event. Business people are increasingly using visualisation techniques to prepare themselves for the delivery of important messages. Many leaders spend the majority of their preparation time working on the content. It is far better to focus as much, if not more time on the way the content is delivered as it can dramatically affect the way the message is received.
10) Check and Adjust Where Necessary
When implementing any change, build a clear communications plan and then be sure to assess the impact of the implementation. Adjust the messaging, vehicles, and timings where necessary. Keep a pulse on the organisation. Talk to colleagues who are also communicating similar messages and share learning points: what has worked well and what has not worked so well. Reassess during and after major communication activities and be prepared to adapt as and when required. Involve the people who are affected in the change; listen to feedback, and adjust accordingly. Often, the best ideas come from the people most affected by a change. Ensure that all voices are heard and include inputs from the organisation (where possible).
Plan, Prepare, and Practice
By taking time upfront to plan, prepare, and practise the change communication, you can more effectively lead your organisation through difficult times, maintain morale and productivity, and help to keep employees engaged.
Copyright © 2017 Singapore Institute of Management