If you are involved in any kind of change effort, experts will tell you “Communicate, communicate, communicate.” That's good advice because people can be seemingly oblivious to even the simplest, most carefully-crafted messages. However, it's easy to think of communication as simply broadcasting a message loudly enough and often enough that people finally get it. This isn't usually true.
When we are making any kind of change, we need to be clear about what we expect from employees. Here are three distinct expectations:
1. We expect employees to be aware of a straightforward fact.Perhaps a new learning system has a different login procedure. Employees simply need to know the new procedure. In this case, broadcasting a message a few times should be sufficient.
2. We expect employees to learn a new way of doing things.Perhaps the old Excel-based performance management system has been replaced with a much better online system. In this case, people need to be given a chance to ask questions. Keep in mind that this means two-way communication. Broadcasting alone will not be sufficient.
3. We expect employees to change something they don't want to change.Imagine that regional managers used to have a lot of discretion in how they made hiring decisions, and now they are being subjected to a much more disciplined process. Communicating the facts people need to be aware of and the things they need to learn may be far less difficult than communicating why they need to do things a new way when they were quite happy with the old way. In this case, it won't just be a matter of answering questions— there will need to be real dialogue over a period of time to shift their perceptions and behaviors.
Why we sometimes fail to use this framework
When communication needs are spelled out in this sort of framework, it seems pretty obvious. The problem is that when we are under pressure (and we are always under pressure!) it's easy to default to simple broadcast communication and hope that's enough. As soon as we move from a one-way broadcast to two-way communication, it takes a lot more time and raises the unpleasant possibility of questions that are hard to answer or comments we don't want to hear. No wonder that we hope broadcasting a message will be sufficient.
The experts say "communicate, communicate, communicate" because they know from brutal experience that if you don't do enough of the right kind of communication, it will come back to bite you. Experienced professionals have learned that investment in dialogue is required to get people who don't want to change to do so. Listen to their experience! Do you really prefer endless passive resistance from unconvinced employees?
Taking the time to admit what you really expect from employees (and facing up to how they will really react, rather than how you think they ought to react) points you towards using the most appropriate part of this three-level framework.
The key to bigger changes is dialogue and time
If you do recognize that what you are doing requires people to change something they don't want to change, then your two most important tools are dialogue and time. People are unlikely to change their mind based on broadcast messages from headquarters no matter how well-written those messages are. People need a chance to express their concerns, know they've been heard and get a message directly from someone they respect about the reasons for the change.
It's worth noting that you don't actually need to convince the person that the change is a good one. You just need to convince them that their concerns have been understood. Employees are used to doing things because of leadership decisions. As long as you can get past the entrenched resistance of people who feel they have not been consulted, then you are well on your way to a successful change.
Dialogue is one dimension, time is the other. Leaders often forget that they've been grappling with a given change for months before unleashing it on employees. Most likely, executives have had a long period to think through the pros and cons and adjust their mindset to a new way of doing things. When they finally get around to announcing the change, it can seem obvious and straightforward to them. They forget the months they spent wrangling with the options and coming to terms with the inevitable downsides. Employees need a similar time period to process the change.
It takes patience to wait while employees come to terms with a change which, to you, is obviously necessary. Just remind yourself that this patience in communicating will be less painful than dealing with a drawn-out period of foot-dragging.
Sticking to the simple basics without being simplistic
Most of what we need to do in management is pretty simple. When we are making a change, we need to communicate, communicate, communicate. That's something we will have already picked up in our business education. Be careful not to confuse the simplicity of this advice with the subtleties of implementation. It's too easy to default to a one-time, one-way broadcast communication when a longer-term dialogue is required. Tucking some frameworks like this one into your back pocket is a good way to remind yourself and others what sort of communication is needed in a particular circumstance.