“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” –Machiavelli
An important prerequisite for modern organizations to grow and succeed in the dynamic and competitive global market is to scan and monitor the environment constantly, make necessary adjustments and embrace change. In today’s business world, technological advancement, increasingly keen market competition, and growing customer demands require organizations to seek various solutions to manage unstable and unpredictable situations rapidly and efficiently. However, research suggests that many organizational change initiatives fail, ranging from 30% to as high as 80% of attempted change projects (Appelbaum, Habashy, Malo, & Shafiq, 2012). One of the major reasons identified for the failure of change efforts, according to research, is the lack of effective communication. Recently, I’ve started a project to examine the role of leadership communication in successful change management. The study is still ongoing, the findings of which will be discussed in my future blog posts, but I hope to start the conversation now by sharing with you what I read from the literature regarding how communication can help in an organization’s strategic change process.
When change occurs, employees often ask the question “why”: “Why did this happen to me?” “Why is this happening at this time?” The feeling of uncertainty is typically about the aim, process, and expected outcomes of change and its implications for individual employees. Research has shown that added and accurate information will reduce peoples’ perception of uncertainty and proactively establish and maintain trust. Systematic communication could lessen employee uncertainty and increase employees’ sense of control and job satisfaction during changes (Bordia et al., 2004). Often, gaps in expected communication and silence from the management side leave a hole that employees will try to fill with their own fantasies and interpretations. Rumors, opinions, speculations, and moods could spin out of control. Based on three empirical studies of internal communication during mergers and acquisitions, Gerps and Trinczek (2008) concluded that formal or informal communication could help diminish employees’ anxiety even if the communicated messages contain bad news. Withholding information during the phases of radical change could easily be one of the worst mistakes in managing changes.
Overcoming Resistance to Change
Employee resistance to change is among the most challenging barriers to overcome for changing organizations. During the change process, the normal reproduction of the organizational structures, routines, and rules is interrupted. Meaningful communication should help inform and educate employees regarding the rationale, necessity, or urgency for change and motivate them to support the change. Open and transparent communication nurtures the trust and positive attitudes of employees to change. Effective communication on the change itself and its associated outcomes, particularly the benefits, could help employees understand and appreciate the proposed change and mitigate employee concerns. It also helps employees cope with negative emotions, such as fear, stress, anxiety, and frustration, which facilitates change. For instance, a caring two-way communication approach that allows employees to voice their concerns and express their feelings would work better than simply cascading information to or ignoring the emotional reaction of employees (Clampitt, 2001).
Facilitating Employee Participation
Frahm and Brown (2007) examined how communication during organizational change is linked to employees’ receptivity to change and found that including employees in the process through frequent face-to-face meetings creates a trusting and open atmosphere. Often, employees feel frustrated with organizational change because of a lack of involvement in the change process. Conversely, if employees are involved in the change process from the beginning, they will feel more in control of the results. Giving employees a small empowering opportunity could significantly affect their attitudes because it can provide them with some sense of control over the change process and help move the change effort along. In this sense, effective upward communication not only provides management an opportunity to listen to employees but also instills a sense of empowerment and involvement in employees, thereby leading to better employee participation and support for the change.
Building Shared Understanding and Mutual Interpretation
When a change initiative is implemented, it creates a new reality through communication. Employees facing the change initiative immediately try to make sense of it and understand its potential effects on them. This sense making accompanied by adequate information and communication from an organization could resolve uncertainties and ambiguities. However, people in an organization often have various backgrounds, interests, experiences, positions, education, and so on. They may make sense of the same situation in various ways. Research suggested that individual reaction and responses to change mutually interact and influence each other over time (Stensaker & Falkenberg, 2007). Therefore, effective storytelling and communication are essential to building shared understanding and interpretation between management and employees and employees and employees. For instance, organizations can create a vision of what the change is about, why it is needed, and how it will be achieved. Visionary communication that is carried out in a repeated and timely manner is a critical tool to inform, create understanding, and change the attitudes and behavior of employees in the re-orientation process.
Indeed, in many cases, successful change communication requires joint efforts from leaders, supervisors, communication managers, and sometimes legal, HR, technology, and financial departments depending on the nature of change (e.g., downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, disaster, and adoption of new technology). This leads to a related emerging topic—CCO’s new role as “integrator” to foster cross-functional collaboration, as discussed in Arthur Page Society’s 2016 Research Report. Not only communication leaders, all the leaders across levels in the organization should be part of the game—utilizing strategic communication to successfully implement change. This may entail multiple aspects, such as the timing of communication, messaging, channels of communication, and source of communication, etc. For instance, with the wide adoption of new technology, how can leaders capitalize on the benefits of digital tools to communicate change and maximize the success of strategic change? Do the digital tools work better than traditional face-to-face communication? Who should be the mouthpiece of the change initiatives, CEOs, the communication department, or supervisors? These topics are critical but under-researched. While I am eager to find out the answers through my upcoming empirical studies, I would love to hear your views, thoughts, and insights on these change communication topics. If you are interested in joining the discussion or collaborating on a research study on strategic communication and change management, please leave your comment below or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Appelbaum, S. H., Habashy, S., Malo, J. C., & Shafiq, H. (2012). Back to the future: revisiting Kotter’s 1996 change model. Journal of Management Development, 31(8), 764 – 782.
Bordia, P., Hunt, E., Paulsen, N., Tourish, D. & DiFonzo, N. (2004). Uncertainty during organizational change: is it all about control? European Journal of Work & Organizational Psychology, 13, 345-366.
Clampitt, P. G. (2001). Communicating for managerial effectiveness, 2nd ed. Sage Publications, Inc. Thousand Oaks, California.
Frahm, J., & Brown, K. (2007). First steps: linking change communication to change receptivity. Journal of Organizational Change, 20(3), 370-387.
Gergs, H. H., & Trinczek, R. (2008). Communication as the key factors to change management: A sociological perspective. In Holger Sievert and Daniela Bell (Eds.) Communication and Leadership in the 21st Century (pp. 141-156). Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung, Gutersloh.
Stensaker, I., & Falkenberg, J. (2007). Making sense of different responses to corporate change. Human Relations, 60, 137-177.
Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., APR, is an assistant professor of public relations at the University of Florida and the research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow her on Twitter @RitaMen_UF