Piia Puska: Good change communication does not happen by accident

Communication usually fails, except by accident. You must have heard this sentence. I disagree with the statement – especially when it comes to change leadership. But I am wondering why it is repeated so often. Communications is an integral part of successful change execution and good change communication does not happen by accident.

How could we make sure that the employees impacted by changes do not feel that communication has failed?

Who is responsible for the communication during a change?

If you asked me, I would say everyone involved in a change.

A change manager and a communications professional often make plans, support, and communicate to a wider audience, but most important dialogue is between a team leader and their team. In a successful change, also the top management communicates actively on the implications of the change.

The McKinsey’s survey on transformation (2015) suggest that leaders should focus on continuous communications. The results suggest that continually telling an engaging, tailored story about the changes that are under way—and being transparent about the transformation’s implications—has substantially more impact on an effort’s outcome than more programmatic elements, such as performance management or capability building. But the communication doesn’t end once the change story has been told. Leaders must continually highlight progress and success to make sure the transformation is top of mind across the organization—and to reduce the gap between what employees believe is happening and what they see.

Lack of communications leads to speculation

In a complex change, you may not have all the answers, or you cannot communicate everything until the information is released. This does not change the fact that you need to communicate and be present. If you do not communicate at all people start guessing and speculating, which can lead to distrust and misunderstandings. So, be honest, consistent, and proactive. 

Know your audience: One size does not fit all

What’s in it for me? This is the question you need to answer. Each employee must understand what they have to do in a change. People in different roles may need a different approach but they all appreciate if you deliver the information using simple language. Jargon does not make you look smarter. If you wish to read more about this topic, check out the blog written by my colleague Kati Laine-Kokki.  

I would also like to point out that individuals learn in different ways. One likes to read, another one learns by listening and the third person appreciates videos. Good pictures help many of us to remember something that was presented once. But as we all know; one time is not enough. When communicating during a change, you need to repeat your message in different channels many times. In my opinion it is better to sound like a broken record than miss out someone in the audience.

People are not mind-readers

In Gofore Recording podcast (available in Finnish), Lotta Vuoristo from KONE and Auli Packalén from CCEA talk about change leadership. Lotta Vuoristo highlights the importance of listening. She says that people have a need to be heard.

Listening may be more important than speaking when you involve your employees in a change. It is the only way to understand how they feel and what they need in order to implement the change together with you. With good communication built on active listening, you can provide a psychologically safe environment.

Don’t be afraid of failing

You can do it! When you start focusing on people and not on the project, communication becomes one of the key elements in your change leadership toolbox. Well-working change communication is based on the understanding of us people. Ultimately, we just want to be heard.