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Communicating Change In a World Traveling at Break-Neck Speed


By Sherri Petro, President of VPI Strategies & California Miramar University (CMU) Professor

{#/pub/images/ChangeManagement.jpg}When was the last time you saw an employee leap for joy when an organizational change was announced?  Can’t remember?  Yea, that’s not the usual reaction we see. 


In our fast-paced global economy, change at break-neck speed is becoming the norm.   While it can create tempered excitement in those who choose to embrace change, it tends to evoke more negative than positive responses.  Fear is the often sited reaction.  Employees may believe their already meaningful work is jeopardized, skill sets are no longer valued and, in some circumstances, their livelihood threatened.   


Whatever the cause, the employee status quo is disrupted.  For those who have seen their fair share of changes, it can mean the start of yet another cycle. Ahhh, just what we need -- change fatigue!  Amazing isn’t it?  Life is about change and yet organizationally we tend not to deal well with it. What goes wrong?  Communication is vital here.  How we choose to communicate can help or hinder success.


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We need to think, see and communicate from a different perspective.   Instead of closing in on ourselves when change comes calling, we can choose to open up, use our whole and creative resources and create a more supportive system to deal and communicate change.   Whether developing a change initiative or implementing it within an organization, these eight tips will help navigate this charged subject.


1.  Recognize that even though change is handled differently by individuals, the initial reaction is more apt to be negative than positive.   M. Scott Peck's opening line in his wonderfully successful book, The Road Less Traveled, indicates, "Life is difficult."  He goes on to explain that it is only when there is recognition of that truth that we can move beyond it.  Change can be difficult to assimilate and that also must be recognized before it can be dealt with.  Organizational change can rip at the very fabric of individuals' security.  Once individual reaction to change is recognized as potentially negative, you can take the bull by the horns and deal with it.   An optimistic belief that everyone will see change as an opportunity right off the bat is nice but not very realistic.  


2.  Communicate, communicate, communicate. A major critique of any change effort is lack of communication. Commitment to communicating is essential in garnering support.  Employees want and need to know why the change is necessary.  Open up and tell them with substance -- not platitudes.  If presented logically and with credibility, employees will get it.  Set up a schedule for communications and stick to it.  In the absence of accurate information, any information will do.  Recognize that a ground swell of rumors may be taking place at the same time on a parallel track.  Keep tabs on the grapevine to understand the underlying employee concerns.


3.  Combine tips 1 and 2—Communicate that management understands change can be difficult and adversity is best weathered together.  Employees need leadership on how to deal with change.  Knowing that leaders also wrestle with change reinforces the notion that all levels of the organization are in this together.  A change leader admits they know change can be difficult -- even for the leader.  Encourage meaningful discussion about decision making.  Insure the leadership team is available to employees.   


4.  Cultivate a healthy respect for the past in your messaging.   It served its purpose.  Trashing the past can have an unintended consequence of insulting the employees who worked hard during that time.  They did the best they could with what they had.  It didn’t work out for whatever reason.  The past cannot be changed.  Recognize its place in getting you to where you are, commit to learn from it and move forward.  


5.  Identify a working vision for change with clarity and simplicity.  Engage in simple and concise statements easy for employees to understand.   In a change era, reading between the lines becomes an art and a distraction from the task at hand.  Productivity suffers during change initiatives as employees deal with confusion.  Make it easier for employees to stay on task as the change unfolds.   


6.  Identify the company's real change leaders, communicate the change and give them wide berth to execute.  In Jon Katzenbach and the RCL Team's book, Real Change Leaders, these leaders are "linchpins" that connect top leadership aspirations, workforce energy and productivity with the reality of the marketplace.   These individuals are enormously effective in improving performance through understanding, motivating and getting the best efforts from employees.  Real change leaders are committed to a better way, care about how people are treated and enabled to perform, and have courage and personal initiative -- just the right talents needed for a change effort!  


How do you identify them?  Ask these questions, "Who are the people depended upon to get the tough jobs done on time and to expectation? and “Who can harness peoples' potential to achieve results?"  You will have your answer. When they are included in the communication effort, you are widely using an excellent resource and have a better chance of successful implementation.


7.  Monitor the successes and failures, course correct as needed and let people know.  As with any great endeavor, launching is but one phase.  Leaders must keep on top of the effort—remaining visible, approachable and flexible.  If an area needs special attention, give it!  Avenues to institute the change initiatives may become blocked and require leadership Draino.   Any problems with execution should be viewed as educational.  Don’t ignore signs indicating a correction is needed.  Build the ability to course correct into your change strategy and then let your employees know.


8.  Recognize that with all change there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Understand that change can be like a "little death."  Remember Elisabeth Kubler Ross' stages of dealing with death—denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance?  Employees may go through some or all of these stages during change efforts.  Eventually, with your assistance in being an open communicator, supportive, creative and resourceful, employees will understand the need for it and accept the change effort.  When the effort ends, don’t forget to celebrate and reflect.   A long journey together deserves a salute! 



The organizational landscape is littered with unsuccessful change management initiatives.  Next time, turn the process inside out.   Instead of closing ranks during a change management initiative, be open, resourceful and supportive.   Use a workable process taking advantage of all of your personal and organizational resources.  Create a supportive system where the leaders and the followers recognize need and work together to institute a solution.  Commitment to simple and clear communication combined with execution using real change leaders, flexibility and a realistic view can provide a solid foundation for the successful implementation of your change.


{#/pub/images/SherriPetro.jpg}Written by Sherri Petro, President of VPI Strategies & California Miramar University (CMU) Professor Sherri is a professor, accomplished strategist, organizational development professional and executive coach.  She consulted for 13 years in the for-profit, non-profit, and government sectors after a 16 year corporate career.  She teaches the Strategy Capstone as well as Leadership, Change Management and Business Ethics courses in CMU’s MBA program. Her current passion is educating organizations on how to increase organizational sustainability by leveraging the talents and skills of all in multi-generational workplaces. Sherri offers remedies to misunderstandings that result from different belief structures and lack of coherent communication by creating understanding and making connections at the belief level not only at the behavioral level.


Do you have a question for Sherri?  Please visit our Workplace Communication Skills Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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