Using internal communications to support change
Organisations going through change must consider what people will need to do differently. This guide provides insight into communicating about change in the workplace.
On this page:
- About workplaces changes
- Understanding how people react to change
- Communicating the change
- Getting the communication right
About workplace changes
Whether your change involves technology, leadership or a change in practice, the most important aspect to remember when communicating about changes in the workplace is that people will very often have an emotional response to those changes.
To make sure communications has the right impact, it is vital to understand and plan for those emotional responses. This will help people move from there are today into the new desired state.
Research shows that most organisations undergo major change about once every 3 years. But, as well as the big changes, there is also a constant churn of many smaller changes taking place.
Major change can include restructuring or adopting new working processes, while minor change can mean anything from the introduction of new learning events or local parking provision. Even the minor changes, when taken cumulatively, can have a major impact on people over time.
When we communicate about change across government, it is often at an organisational level. Our change communications usually outline change that affects our department, teams and possibly individuals.
Change is not a beginning or an endpoint, but instead, is an ongoing process. A process that is sometimes clumsy. But it is also a natural part of how organisations evolve. This way of looking at change and our communications seems fitting for the fast-moving pace of government reform. It also captures the idea that for us, change is a certainty and helping our people to come to terms with it is one of the most important tasks for communicators.
Understanding how people react to change
Change can be unsettling or, in some cases exciting, but it will always generate a reaction. Here are some of how people you are communicating to might be feeling about change (as described by JM Fisher’s Process of Personal Transition):
- anxiety – can I cope?
- happiness – at last something is going to change!
- fear – what impact will the change have on me?
- threat – the problem is bigger than I thought.
- guilt – are the past failings down to me?
- disillusionment – this is not for me so I’m leaving.
- acceptance – maybe things won’t be so bad.
- excitement – I’m looking forward to the challenge.
Kubler-Ross Change Curve
The change curve, based on the model by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, shows how people move through stages when coming to terms with major change.
It is important to remember that people accept and adapt to change in their own time.
Our communications will be designed to help people on that journey but gaining their understanding and buy-in will take time. The amount of time will often depend on the scale and impact of the change. Our communications approach therefore cannot be based on a ‘once and done’ approach.
It is often the case that managers who may well have received more change communications ahead of their teams will move forward more quickly than their teams. Leaders and managers who are closer to decision-making often feel more in control. They are therefore more resilient to change.
As a communicator, you will need to know your audience and gain some insight as to where people are on this change curve.
The role of the internal communicator is to play our part in helping to move people from the end of one reality towards the successful ‘new beginning’ of another. This role is captured in William Bridge’s 4 Ps of change communications.
The 4 Ps of change communications
The 4 ps are:
- Purpose – explain why we are doing what we are doing
- Picture – tell people what the change will look and feel like when we reach our goal
- Plan – tell people how we will get from A to B
- Part – explain what people need to do to help make the change a reality and a success
Communicating the change
You need to be honest about what will change and not dodge the issues. It is also important not to minimise what has gone before. People will have invested time and energy, so respect those efforts.
Tell people about the change that has taken place, as well as what is left to do. And keep telling them even if there is no news. Otherwise, people will fill the unknown with their own stories.
Remember that people need time to process change, so don’t expect them to absorb lots of other messages. Their minds will be on the change and how it affects them.
With change being a constant in the workplace, many colleagues have adapted by applying a ‘one change a time’ rule of thumb. This means that the bigger picture, on the horizon changes, will often be put on the mental back-burner whilst more immediate changes are understood.
Making sense of change
One of the most important outcomes we are aiming for with our change communications is to help people build their resilience to change.
Our communications should keep a focus on how people can help themselves through change. In our messages we should:
- join up people with their line managers and colleagues to work through the changes
- make sure they understand the impact
The best way to navigate through change is to understand it: People need to:
- talk about it
- share any concerns
- support their colleagues
- move towards accepting the change
Communications for leaders and managers
Most communications about change will happen locally. People will turn to their leaders, managers and colleagues to make sense of change.
Provide supporting information to leaders who will visibly lead the change, and to managers who will be the first line of support to their teams, as early as possible. This means they will:
- get on board as quickly as possible.
- absorb the messages
- be confident communicators themselves
If you are communicating in a large organisation the chances are you can build a community of early adopters for the change.
Consider creating ‘change champions’ – colleagues who can support you in communicating with colleagues.
These individuals will be your allies and help to serve as your eye and ears. They can let you know how the communications are landing with colleagues and any issues which might be coming down the road. They are a great source of local insight and can help adapt and tailor your messages to ensure they resonate.
Transparency and being open to hearing the views of colleagues is crucial to help communications about change land well.
Hook into the opportunities to understand and respond to what is going on on the ground and what people are thinking. Listening helps our communications to be relevant, credible and powerful for people.
Getting the communication right
Make sure communications are built into the planning process for the change upfront, not brought in as an afterthought.
Leaders need to own the change process. This means agreeing with the messages and being very visible and approachable right through the process so make sure your communications showcase this visibility.
Don’t communicate for the sake of it but don’t be afraid to repeat your messages. Remember people will be at different stages in coming to terms with change.
Provide the context
Your key messages are likely to be based on your corporate messages but these may feel remote for people.
Wherever possible provide the picture of the local impact on people, and the things that matter to them. Where you can support managers with the tools to help them answer the questions their teams may have. Think about Q&As sessions with staff or regular email bulletins.
Choose the channels
Find face to face opportunities in your department to talk to people. Team events and meetings are a great way to communicate but they should be part of an integrated approach, as many people will feel inhibited and prefer to ask questions on email for example. See the Channels chapter
Take regular checks on the mood of people in your organisation. If you have Yammer or other social media channels have a look at what’s trending and where you can join in the conversation.
You can gain real insight informally or organise focus groups or perhaps use other people, engagement groups. However you do it, make time to listen and make sure you feed what you hear into your communications, to stay relevant and credible.
When change communications go wrong
Being honest about change is critical if you want people to believe your communications and begin to think and feel differently. Excessive gloss will distort the issue and will begin to lose the credibility of your communication.
Be honest and truthful. Giving people false optimism in your messages will damage your reputation and your ongoing efforts to communicate with people about other issues.
Examples of what can go wrong:
- not listening to, acknowledging or responding to people’s concerns
- not involving people in our communication efforts
- not allowing people time to let go of the past, rushing our communications
- dismissing the efforts and achievements of the past in our communications
- not allowing people honest two-way engagement
- leaders do not have a clear vision in their communications
- not communicating the timetable for change
- relying on written communications and not building in enough support for communications for face to face discussions
- not telling people the rationale for change
- not getting our managers on board and equipped with good communications
- managers saying one thing but doing another
- communications moving on too quickly to the next change
Review and refine
Review how messages are being received, what people have understood and how they are reacting.
Keep your finger on the pulse and use ongoing evaluation to boost communications, or even go back to a stage and explain again if necessary.
Why people resist change
Loss of control
Too much is done to people, too little by them. As a result, they feel disenfranchised and may even be provoked into sabotaging change.
Too much uncertainty
The change isn’t explained properly and as a result, the participants are uncertain about the next steps and unwilling to make them.
Sometimes senior leaders are attracted by the big splash change makes. Decisions may feel sprung on to people without preparation or expectation management. Where this is the case it should come as no surprise that people are more likely to be dismayed than delighted.
The best practices to segmenting your audiences for internal communications strategy are:
- know what successful change will look and feel like
- be honest, tell people what you can and be honest when you can’t share the news
- communicate early and often, don’t allow the local grapevine to grow wild!
- listen; find ways of hearing how people are feeling and reacting to your communications
- know your audiences and their communication preferences and needs
- equip your leaders and managers with as much information as possible to answer questions and address concerns
- review and refine your communications- listening to and acting on feedback and evaluation as you go