Communicating Change: Don't Let Them Hear it on the Grapevine
by Kevin Dwyer
When do you tell employees about bad news? When do you tell them about good news?
Many organisations have difficulty determining the answers to the former question and do not enough thinking about the latter question and few ask the question, "What do our employees consider to be bad or good news and what news are they interested in hearing?" at all.
Further still, not enough thought is given to how the communication of news can shape the culture of an organisation.
Bad news or even extremely good news is difficult to keep completely secret. Good or bad, pending major news announcements generally require discussions between senior executives, the human resources function, the finance function and significant groups of line management. Sometimes it requires the pulling together of a project team.
Employees are not stupid. They notice when HR, finance and line management are having long meetings locked away in a room. They notice when people are pulled off their normal jobs to conduct a study. They notice when people they regard as friends stop talking about what they are doing.
At some time, even though the most draconian confidentiality clauses have been signed, a snippet of information will leak out. Even if it is that, "I have signed a confidentiality agreement about this and therefore I can't talk to you about the project".
The recipient of this information knows three things from this sentence; the impact of the "project" is BIG, the initiative being worked on is complex enough to make it into a project, and whatever line of business their friend is in is involved.
What they don't know is what areas of the organisation will be impacted. Will it be people? Will it be the financial status of the organisation? Will it be marketing or sales or operations? Will it involve an expansion or contraction of activities?
Rest assured that the individuals who do not know will speculate, piecing together what they do know and what they perceive they know. They will begin to interpret words said by the leadership group and others they perceive to be "in the know", based on their particular view of what might be happening.
Fairly soon, conspiracy theories emerge which need to be denied by the leadership group. The denial is listened to and interpreted by some with a high level of scepticism, not so much in the context of what is said, but in the context of what is not said.
Uncertainty and rumours feed off each other in a situation where employees know something is going on and they know they are not being told about it. Perceptions become un-shakeable truths in days.
Through all of my major change experiences whether the news was good or bad, I have found an adage that works for me. "Tell them early and tell them often" is my mantra for communicating change. It is better to tell employees early on that change is coming, that it will be significant and to spell out the process by which they will be engaged and by which decisions will be taken and communicated than it is to wait until all the factors are known.
Waiting until all factors are known invites the risk of people filling in the communication gaps they observe with speculation fuelled by rumour and counter rumour, denial and further speculation.
Telling people early does not eliminate speculation. What it does do is concentrate the speculation on what is truly unknown. If organisations take the time to think through the process before making announcements, then the discussion may even be able to centre on the adequacy of the process rather than the potential range of outcomes.
In managing change, discussions on the process for change are always welcome as the inevitability of change by then has been generally accepted.
Other benefits accrue from telling employees early about change even if all that can be told is the rationale for change and the process for change. When employees know about the rationale and process they form opinions on what else they want to know. They form opinions on what to each of them and as groups, is considered bad news and good news.
Setting in place a feedback mechanism for employees to tell the leadership group about their reactions and thoughts is an important tool to use in any change programme. It stops senior executives and line managers speculating themselves about what is important to employees.
Developing a communication strategy for what an organisation wants their employees to feel, think and do, distinct from what they currently feel, think and do, is important. It does not matter whether the news is good or bad.
Organisations that fail to think through their communication strategy are leaving their future at the mercy of the grapevine.
Kevin Dwyer may be contacted at http://www.changefactory.com.au firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin is the founder of Change Factory, a company which helps organisations who do not like their business outomes get better outcomes through changing people's behaviour. To find out more about Change Factory and see more articles visit http://www.changefactory.com.au