How would you communicate change with respect?

Companies are continually adapting their organizations to meet the demands of many forces in their environment. Meanwhile, resistance to change, financial constraints, time pressure, power games, etc. confronts the managers to the difficulty of being heard when proposing their change solutions at every level of the hierarchy.
The fact is that people naturally resist change – or more accurately, they resist to the pain of change – and consistently will try to find something they can grab onto, and fight against within the communication about change.
That is what happens when

  • The management strongly states its position at the outset and then pushes the idea to a close.
  • Managers see compromise as surrender,
  • They think that the secret of persuading people about the necessity of change lies into the presentation of great arguments and
  • Managers assume persuasion is a one-shot effort.

These “four ways not to persuade” where observed by Jay Conger (1) over years of studies and researches about the management by persuasion.
Conger explains that the concept of persuasion often confuses and even mystifies business people, but like power, persuasion can be a force for enormous good in an organization.
Change is the result of a strategic decision about how the company will adapt to the demands of the forces in its environment. Thus, when communicating change, managers should keep in mind that getting agreement and further on, commitment about change requires credibility, an open-minded approach, evidence based argument and an emotional connection to the audience.
The “no one’s listening” effect is the first result of a poor preparation of communicating change. Strong resistances, lack of motivation, etc. are the following results and their effects depend on how the management has prepared the communication.
So, how to avoid the mess when planning, announcing, implementing, and communicating a change initiative?
First, the manager who wants to drive change should ask himself how much he is credible on the subject that matters and how he is perceived by those that the change will affect either in terms of decision making and in terms of effects on their job.
This assessment is effective when done by self-questioning and by assessing the position with others. It gives some measure of the possible gaps that have to be filled to get the most credibility on both the technical and relationship sides.
Then comes the time for compromise. By using the “wandering change communication”, the manager will gather all kind of opinions, ideas, resistances, experiences, expertise, etc. about the subject. The major skill required here is listening and the approach is “open-minded”. If the first step of establishing the credibility did not, collecting a lot of tips about the subject will probably lead to reconsider the position from a “what are the shared benefits” perspective. Indeed, presenting the tangible benefits of the change solution might not be meaningful for all the parties. This is when the open-minded approach gives the manager the unique opportunity to gain engagement from the people who will recognize his ability to take into account their opinions. This stage is completed when the advantages of all the parties involved are highlighted.
The third step consists in presenting the arguments of change. Here is one of the key success factors of a successful change communication. Setting up great arguments does not work alone. The success of effective change communication is based on

  • Presenting the arguments based on evidence with numerical data,
  • Adding metaphors, examples, stories and analogies to the numerical data.

This will not be complete without showing the emotional commitment to the position the manger is advocating and by understanding and adapting the message to the feelings and expectations the people have about change. Though we tend to see decision as a rational, logical process coming from the brain, every decision comes from an emotional background. Trying to hide this by communicating a thoughts and opinions oriented message will alter the perception of the audience that may, in return, wonder if the manager actually believes in the position he is promoting. Effective communicators are able to connect to the feelings and expectations of their audience.
How to adapt the message to the audience?
Kahler’s (2) Process Communication Model gives a reading grid of the different forms of communication that will make every interlocutor understand quickly the meaning of the message. This model shows, accordingly to statistical validations, that about one-third of the population in the US, is perceiving the information through their emotions, 25% through a logical structure, 20% through the reactions the message provokes, 10% through what the message will make them imagine, another 10% will perceive through their opinions and 5% from the actions behind the message. Although these figures may vary from countries, company cultures, populations, etc. Managers can keep in mind that every people in the audience will not perceive the information from one unique perspective. Adapting the message to the different perceptions will speed up the understanding of the main information in the message and thus, the engagement. The great added value of Process Communication in communicating change is that the model gives also the exact expectations the different persons have about change. We call this the “psychological needs” and this topic is at the base of a great number of the most known management and communication models. For example, someone with logics as primary perception is likely to expect a lot of structure in the communication while someone with reactions as primary perception will probably be waiting for creative, funny things that make him react to the information. We can understand that those two persons assisting to the same meeting will be more affected by a communication that addresses their two different perceptual frames of reference and expectations than by a very logical, structured message that will, otherwise affects only the first one.
Communicating change with respect is at the root of effective change management. The results depend on how the manager has prepared the communication and his ability to adapt his communication. It might seem complicated and time-wasting but if we consider the costs of a failure in change implementation caused by poor preparation and communication, we can consider these suggestions, at least as interesting to investigate.

(1) Jay A. Conger, professor of organizational behavior and the author of Winning ‘Em Over: A New Model for Managing in the Age of Persuasion (Simon & Schuster, 1998).
(2) Dr Taibi Kahler Ph.D, award-winning clinical psychologist and creator of PCM.

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