Communicating Change: Start with the “What”

Start with the What

Fear.  It’s the number one change emotion, according to most leading change management gurus.  In fact, experts like John Kotter have based a plenitude of books and countless articles on this premise.  And anyone who’s been through major change (personally or professionally) can attest to its truth.  It’s paralyzing.  It evokes nasty reactions in many of us.  And few of us can either predict or fully explain the emotion at the time it hits.

Fear of change is borne out of many causes:

  • What will the “new world” look like?
  • What does the change mean to me personally?
  • Do I have the right skill set to survive the change?
  • Do I understand the need for change? Is there an obvious burning platform?
  • How much will I have to sacrifice to make this change succeed?

The problem isn’t so much that fear exists.  Rather, the real issue, and the reason change fails in more than 70% of cases, is how fear is handled.  It’s the reaction to fear, not the existence of it that spells either success or failure in times of change.

Leaders are typically responsible for maneuvering their followers through the unknown swampy area of change.  Yet, too often, it is their desire to soft-sell the change and protect the “fragile” emotions of employees where they do more damage than good.  They tap dance around the issues.  They soothe rather than explain.  Then they harden and bristle at the mere approach of resistance.  In the end, relationships are ruined.  Trust is broken.  The status quo sinks any chance of successful change.  And it typically all comes down to communication….not whether or not changes are communicated, but how those messages are crafted and delivered.

Start with the “What”

When you have a tough message to deliver, never start off by “setting the stage” or telling the “why.”  As a leader, first thing out of your mouth should be a short and sweet explanation of what the change will be.  Be explicit.  Don’t pussyfoot around the issue.  Just say it.

One of the most natural tendency of any leader is to be that of protector.  When it comes to communicating change, however, respect your employees enough to give it to them straight.  Nine times out of ten, the announcement isn’t unexpected.  Employees see far more than many leaders would like to believe.  Not only do they expect your message, but a surprising number of individuals already understand the “why.”

Save the “Why”

Only after you’ve announced what the change will be, including the impacts to groups and individuals in the organization, should you move on to explaining the “why.”  In fact, allowing the reasons for the changes to come out of a question and answer period can be one of the most effective communication (and trust building) methods.  Whatever you do, however, do NOT rely on leader talking points to explain major changes.

Talking Points = Corporate Spin

Corporate Spin = Distrust

Distrust = Disengagement

Disengagement = Failed Change Efforts

When communicating change, leaders must be able to talk from the hip.  If you have leaders unable to provide answers without scripts, address this enormous leadership issue before embarking on your change effort.

But that’s a topic for another article altogether……

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