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Communicating change: this time it’s personal

Managing organisational change continues to be one of the biggest challenges for any business, with ineffective communication often named as a contributing factor to change ‘failure’.

The 2018 Australian Public Service employee census revealed that only 38 percent of respondents agreed that change is managed well in their agency. Importantly however, of the staff who believed change is managed well, 80 percent agreed their organisation’s internal communication is effective, clearly highlighting the importance of effective communication during change.

So why can it go so wrong, so often?

Staff are not a single entity, they are individuals, and the success of any change process relies heavily on each person’s capacity for change. You can change systems and processes, restructure and redesign jobs, but a failure to consider the human element can make for a bumpy ride.

Building trust in the change

Resistance to change isn’t necessarily a rejection of it, individuals can be anxious about change for any number of reasons. But critical to their acceptance of change is their level of trust in both the people and processes in your organisation.

It’s essential to ensure management at all levels are equipped with the information and tools to communicate the change. Open and transparent communication can help staff to ‘make sense’ of the change and grow to trust the process that’s underway.

Building trust also requires the right people to carry your change message. Are they open and approachable? Are they respected and credible? Do they support the change? Can they talk knowledgeably and honestly about it? Are they comfortable speaking publicly? Do they genuinely display compassion and care?

Listen, observe, communicate

In times of organisational change, communication can sometimes become a one-way street. The business wants its people to know what’s happening, why it’s happening and when it’s happening so that it can…happen. But it’s also important to take time to listen and engage with individual staff members, to understand their perspectives and concerns.

For staff who are struggling with the change, this could be the first step to getting them through this difficult period. You may also uncover some valuable ideas or potential issues that you hadn’t considered.

Listening also keeps you connected to the conversations that are happening internally. The fact is people talk, and gossip picks up pace quickly through a change process. Staff are unsettled and uncertain. They want a lot of information, and they want it now.

Communicating quickly, and welcoming and responding to questions will help slow the roll of the gossips. Correcting inaccuracies is essential, but in rushing to respond, make sure you remain engaged with stakeholders and are genuinely listening to what is being said.

Staff will be, quite understandably, thinking about what’s changing in their immediate orbit. If there are questions, answer them as honestly as you can, even if that means admitting you need more time to gather information.

Timetables will differ

Businesses often want to move through change as quickly and cleanly as they can. Unfortunately, the capacity of people to absorb and embrace change varies. You can’t expect everyone to respond to significant change within a prescribed timeframe. If anything, the additional pressure can generate anger, unsettle people further, and amplify the impact of the change.

Deadlines are necessary but be prepared to be flexible with the individuals in your organisation.

There’s no perfect way to communicate change. It’s uncomfortable and it’s messy. But to give yourself the best chance, it’s important to communicate to the people, not the organisation.