effective change communication

5 Essential Elements of Effective Change Communication

Communication shapes and helps organisation effect change. Here’s how to craft it.

What is change communication

Strategic communication plays an irreplaceable role in actualising an organisation’s vision, advancing its mission and driving changes privately and publicly. A clear, active and measurable communication system is needed to bring leaders and followers on the same page, thus ensuring the success and sustainability of the desired changes. 

Before we delve into change communication, it is crucial to understand what change is in the corporate or organisational context. Every organisation must adapt, innovate and stand out, and to do so, change is inevitable. In a dynamic market punctuated with disruptive technology, leaders are expected to devise, implement and evaluate strategies that affect changes and drive positive improvements. These changes include adopting a different management style, modifying the internal operation structure, switching prioritisation, acquiring new business, or entering a new market. 

However without an effective communication system, it is nearly impossible to solidify changes. Change communication is essentially the process in which leaders convey their vision for the organisation going forward, explain their rationale, and appeal to stakeholders to enable constructive changes. 

What are the biggest challenges of change communication?

Change can lead to uncertainties. Leaders must prepare themselves and their followers for any potential setback and failure. What are some of the causes of those failures? 

Change has a ripple effect that can impact both the organisation’s internal dynamic and external development. Change also affects the subjective experiences of employees/ followers, who are essential in executing and sustaining changes. While the organisation has aims and expectations, stakeholders may be emotionally affected and would have to learn how to cope with the changes. The last thing leaders want is for the stakeholders to view the changes negatively, lose motivation and trust in their leaders’ decisions. 

The Change Curve, developed by Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s, mapped out the general pattern in people’s reactions to significant change or upheaval. As shown in figure 1, there are six stages of reactions – shock, denial, anger, depression, acceptance and integration. Shock would result in a decrease in and loss of productivity, while denial would cause people to overlook the impact of potential changes. Anger, a continuation of denial, creates anxieties, suspicions, and frustrations. When depression kicks in, team performance would be at its lowest. While not everyone follows this pattern of reaction, changes could potentially create these negative sentiments before followers become motivated to accept and explore. 

Socium Consultancy Change Communication Change Curve
The Change Curve, adapted from a model developed by Kubler-Ross in the 1960s.

Communication must be decisive as it could affect employees’ reactions to changes, thus impacting the outcome. On top of guidance and reassurance, the leaders must provide their followers with clear information on the changes. 

Timing, method and the personnel involved in the communication process are essential. For example, if a leader decides to announce changes during a stressful period or right after the organisation has found some stability, it would be a blow to the followers’ morale and motivation. And, if an inappropriate or ineffective medium is used for communication, followers might overlook or miss the message completely. For example, communicating transformative decisions online instead of a face-to-face meeting might trivialise matters. Also communication, depending on the importance, should be initiated by a key member of the leadership to ensure that the target group receives the message directly.

Content of the message is another important factor. Consistency is key. Sometimes, followers might receive conflicting information. For example, in big organisations, messages are transmitted top down. This method may be effective in distributing tasks and passing down commands; however, when communicating important changes, cascading communication may result in altered or lost information. One common mistake leaders make is communicating only the tasks and actionables that advance the changes, while neglecting the importance of explaining the vision and rationale behind the changes. 

How the message is delivered also contributes to shaping how the message is received and how well it is absorbed. For example, a dispassionate and overly-rational tone could be discouraging and unconstructive. It is hard to balance between encouraging, professional, sympathetic and straightforward; nevertheless, finding that balance is crucial to change communication

Here are 5 tips for effective change communication:

1. Communicate vision and expectations before distributing tasks

Instead of simply dividing the tasks, leaders must first explain their rationale behind making the changes (e.g. drivers of the change, areas of improvement in the previous strategies) and their expected outcome (e.g., extent of the change, time frame, possible impact). 

Goal setting helps to synchronise the leaders and employees’/ stakeholders’ understanding of the change and creates a bigger picture for everyone involved. With a better understanding of their tasks and the specific goal, employees/stakeholders might become more proactive as they might initiate relevant, unassigned tasks that help to advance the overall progress. Letting them play a part in owning the change is a good strategy.

2. Provide relevant and accessible support for employees in need

Encourage employees to reach out for help if necessary, whether through in-person conversations or other feedback channels. 

  • Keep everyone in the loop when discussing major issues and strategies, and give the employees time to absorb, communicate among themselves and ask questions. 
  • Include training and coaching, which are effective ways to provide targeted guidance and clearer direction. Training materials and other essential documentation should be readily accessible.
  • Avoid overloading information on employees. Clarification and accessibility of resources can make the employees feel confident and comfortable in applying the given information. 
  • Encourage, inspire and motivate employees. Empathy helps build trust and understanding. It allows leaders to craft the communication in a way that shows understanding towards employees’ concerns; it also appeals to their emotions and intrinsic motivations.

3. Bridge the gap caused by lack of communication and avoid miscommunication

  • Don’t let employees guess. Often, an absence of communication on critical issues would cause employees to look for clues and this would invariably lead to inaccurate information.
  • Avoid miscommunication. Inconsistency in information is a red flag. To avoid information being altered or lost through the communication process, centralise the distribution of messages on one person or one leadership team and one channel.
  • Feedback channel and Q&A accessibility is essential to clarify any misunderstanding.

4. Take the lead in building changes

In a study conducted by Forbes which gathered data from more than 1 million participants, ‘leading change’ was found to be one of the most important leadership competencies. Instead of being a standoffish commander, a leader builds changes with the followers; share their experience and brainstorm constructive methods to improve or maintain the change strategies. Even in small scale changes, such as a different prioritisation in a company’s daily operation, leaders should take the initiative and experience the changes with employees and stakeholders. 

5. Evaluate the progress of changes and make necessary improvements

To create sustainable change, leaders must constantly and critically evaluate the change. Change can be measured through team performance, capabilities, company capital etc. Evaluation should happen before, during and after the change. Leaders should analyse data and ask:

  • What is working well? What is not? Why?
  • What are the risk factors for a potential change strategy?
  • Is the change effective? What are the impacts of such change?
  • How could the change be improved?

Then, compare the result with the initial goal, share the information with the team, and ask for follow-ups and constructive feedback. 

Communications play a pivotal role in change-making. Successful change communication requires effort from both leaders and followers in which one provides perspective and guidance, while the other provides feedback and products. The content of change communication must be crafted in a thorough, professional and relatable way. The delivery of messages should be centralised and consistent.

Change is not easy. It is a learning process for everyone. Keep experimenting, reflecting and modifying your approach based on your goal, the progress and the employees’ feedback. Once you find a communication system that works well for your organisation, you are on your way to effecting change!