By Goke Ilesanmi
In our just-concluded serial on effective communication in mergers and acquisitions, we said after a merger has taken effect, strategic communication is central to the integration of the two or more organisations into a more effective single entity. We added that this therefore requires change communication. This is why I want us to examine another serial on organisational change and effective communication.
It is said that the secret of real estate is location, location and location; while that of organisational change is communication, communication and communication. This does not imply that the top-down cascade communication strategies of the past are sufficient. What is taking their place is a broader, more inclusive definition of communication. Below are some of the ways to add strategic value to your change communication.
The first thing is to avoid reciting the facts. Instead, interpret them. Facts are neutral. People make decisions based on what facts mean to them, not on the data. What people really want to know is the sense you make of the whole issue, the conclusion or what it means to them. For instance, if a company is going through financial difficulty and therefore wants to reduce staff strength to be able to cope financially, it should go beyond telling the facts but interpreting them in a very convincing way.
It can tell the employees to be laid off that the company appreciates their efforts and that they are not being laid off because of incompetence, but because the company believes it is wrong to keep them in its employment and continues to owe them salaries. But it is wrong to just casually tell the affected employees that the company is laying them off because it is trying to cut costs. To even to make the argument more convincing, the company can make the title of their termination letter be “Rightsizing” instead of using “Termination of Appointment” or other very directly-harsh words.
Power of symbolic communication
Another thing to do is to utilise the power of symbolic communication. There are various ways to communicate symbolically. There are ceremonies, awards, logos, icons, drawings and metaphors. Best of all, there are various forms of real-life leadership behaviour that speak volumes.
For instance, it was said that the governor of one of the states in Nigeria disguised as a poor patient and went to one of the state hospitals, seeking urgent medical attention but was not attended to. By the time he revealed his true identity, the medical personnel started running helter-skelter. Some of them must have lost their jobs by now. The governor’s disguise is symbolic. It is a practical way of communicating that medical attention needs a change for the better and that it is no longer business as usual for lackadaisical medical personnel.
Narrating more stories
Narrating more stories constitutes another strategy of adding strategic value to your change communication. Storytelling is an important tool to connect with audiences on an emotional level. In communication terms, storytelling is a “pull” strategy, in which listeners are invited to participate in the experience and imagine acting in the mental movie that the storyteller is presenting. Stories resonate with adults in ways that can bring them back to a childlike open-mindedness, in which they are less resistant to new and different ideas.
Transforming supervisors into respected communicators
This is another thing to do to add strategic value to your change communication. According to Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D, author of “The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work” and “This Isn’t the Company I Joined: How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down”, “There’s little doubt that one’s direct boss is a crucial link in the change-communication delivery system. Who (is) better to align employee efforts to the change goals? But most first-line supervisors are lacking a key communication element.”
Goman continues: “While consulting for a utility company in New York, I was observing several supervisors delivering a change message to their teams. As you would expect, there was a great variety of styles and expertise on display: Some managers were glib ad-libbers while others were stilted and read from a script. Some were well liked and others were barely tolerated by the people they managed. But all the supervisors had one weakness in common. Not one of them had the training or skills to turn a monologue into a dialogue.”
Harvesting the grapevine
Harvesting the grapevine is also one of the ways to do add strategic value to your change communication. Research suggests that up to 70 per cent of all organisation information circulates through the grapevine, yet only few communicators have taken advantage of the informal channels in their organisations. Gossip moves through people who gravitate into an intermediate position, making connections between individuals and factions. Those who control the gossip flow hold a lot of power.
Influencing the grapevine, then, begins with identifying “the influentials” who operate within it. Experts such as Goman say you can use a tool such as Social Network Analysis to create a visual map of the informal organisation and see who and where your connectors are. Find out about their attitudes towards the company, inform them in advance, train them to be even more skilful communicators, solicit their opinions, and seek their advice.
CEOs’ communication role in leading change
To make an organisation’s transformation succeed, the chief executive officer (CEO) needs to take several actions. Communication is a key part of these actions. The role of the CEO is unique because that person stands at the top of the organisational chart and all other members of the organisation take their cues from him or her. To maximise the chances of a change programme succeeding, the CEO of an organisation needs to play a lead role by communicating its significance; modelling the desired changes; building a strong senior management team and getting personally involved.
It is difficult to generalise about the winning formula for change, as there is no single formula for success. The CEO’s role will be affected by the size, urgency and nature of the transformation; the capabilities and failings of the organisation and personal leadership style. Experts say the CEO who successfully guides change has four major roles and there is a major communication component in all of those roles. At this juncture, let us examine these roles.
Making the change meaningful
People will go to any great length for causes they believe in and a powerful transformation story will create and reinforce their commitment. The impact of the story depends on the CEO’s willingness to make the transformation personal, to engage others openly, and to highlight successes as they emerge. Change requires extra energy and employees must rethink and reshape the business while continuing to run it day to day. A great source of this energy is a powerful transformation story, which helps employees believe in the effort by answering their big questions, which can range from how the change will affect the organisation down to how it will affect them.
Personalising the story
CEOs who take time to personalise the story of the transformation can unlock significantly more energy for it than those who dutifully present the PowerPoint slides that their teams have created for them. Experts say personalising the story forces CEOs to consider and share with others the answers to such questions as “Why are we changing?”; “How will we get there?”; and “How does this relate to me?”
Research shows that the CEO of a US health care company stressed that every employee was or would be a patient in the health care system and that “this larger purpose” made a difference. As a person in charge of corporate communication, your best role would be to get some one-on-one time with the CEO to talk through with him or her about the stories that would best fit the purpose. Then you would coach the CEO on how to present the story to the best effect, preferably with the story based on values or beliefs because deep down, that is what employees best understand.
Openly engage others. When the CEO’s version of the transformation story is clear, success comes from taking it to employees, encouraging debate about it, reinforcing it and prompting people to colour it with their own personal meaning. Most CEOs work hard to visibly and vocally present the transformation story. The head of an Italian bank led the way in getting the story out to its 60,000 employees by travelling throughout Italy. He said, “It’s a long process, but you have to put your face in front of the people if you want them to follow you.”
Once the story is out, the CEO’s role becomes one of constant reinforcement. “Excruciating repetition and clarity are important – employees have so many things going on in their daily business that they don’t always take the time to stop, think and internalise,” said the Italian bank chief.
Reinforcement should emphasise the positive rather than the negative. Research shows that positive reinforcement produces twice the results compared with focus on avoiding mistakes. A powerful way to reinforce the story is to highlight the successes. For instance, high-performing teams could be invited to make presentations to the other employees.
Celebrating the successes of individuals and teams is fundamental to the success of the change effort. Communicators should focus hard on organising recognition activities for employees who are good role models.
Leading by example
Another leadership responsibility is to lead by example. Whether leaders realise it or not, they seem to be in front of the cameras when they speak or act. Every move they make, everything they say, is visible to all. Therefore the best approach is to lead by example. As a person in charge of corporate communication, your role would be to review what the CEO says and does to ensure the signals given out by his or her comments and actions are appropriate.
Strong and committed top team
A CEO leading change also needs to build a strong and committed top team. To be able to harness the transformative power of the top team, a CEO must make tough decisions about who has the ability and motivation to make the journey. Senior managers must support the chief executive officer throughout. Some of the change communication activities should be based on the senior managers.
Persistent commitment is much needed to achieve success in the time of change. There is no substitute for CEOs rolling up their sleeves and getting personally involved when significant financial and symbolic value is at stake. Experts such as Kim Harrison, a recognised authority on the public relations say the CEO and senior managers should be prepared to leave the executive suite to get personally involved in areas where the organisation may be grappling with a problem. Then they should celebrate the success in solving the problem with the employees from that area.
When your organisation is undertaking a change programme, as a communicator, it is important for you to insist on being involved in both the planning and implementation, because communication is central to the success of the programme. Be prepared to get out of your comfort zone and push to be included in those meetings. And when you are included, insist on one-on-one meetings with your CEO to shape the communication strategy in support of the transformation and guide the CEO in implementing the strategy.
Workplace research confirms that in spite of the accumulation of new technological channels, employees still want to see the CEO and senior managers face-to-face more often. When upper management members do this, they improve employee satisfaction levels more strongly than arms-length tools such as newsletters, mass emails and intranets. The responses from focus groups confirm this strategy.
Based on this development, the CEO needs to direct senior managers to allocate more time to being physically available to their staff. Though, it is often difficult to do this because hardworking senior managers may not want to give more time to their staff and so they do not want to hear your message about this.
When trying to convince senior managers to brief their staff more about their workplace performance and the direction of the organisation or division, as a CEO, you can reinforce your point by referring to the results of employee surveys within your organisation. This implies that the recommendation to meet face-to-face more often is not just your opinion, but that of employees themselves – and after all, employee engagement is a priority in most organisations. This also implies that you must organise surveys of employees about workplace communication. Research confirms that the human resource (HR) department in most large organisations normally surveys employees and ensures that communication questions are included in the surveys.
If employees are not surveyed at least annually by the HR department, you the CEO should initiate your own communication surveys. You can get your guide on this from Internet searches or specialist consultancies. Invariably employees will say communication from their bosses and senior management is inadequate, and therefore this gives you clue to persuade senior managers to change their behaviour. As a substitute, you can conduct a couple of focus groups with a representative sample of employees. They will give you a lot of information.
Harrison educates that another way to achieve this change is to get top management to agree to build this type of communication into the job description of all senior executives. These findings also apply to change communication, which is important because one of the fundamental characteristics of our society is the increasing pace of change at every level.
Research by Australian employee communication specialist, Rodney Gray, found the key forces behind successful change management. He worked back from the responses to the survey statement, “Major changes appear well planned and implementation of changes well handled” and found that there were (and are) three key areas driving change: The strongest component of successful change management is good communication (high correlation of 0.72); the second strongest correlation is organisational satisfaction and culture (correlation of 0.65); the other factor, upward communication, rated a 0.54 correlation.
If you are the head of public relations department in your organisation, definitely the senior management members would be relying upon you to generate an effective change communication framework. You may be new to this position and want to develop a great strategy that shows you are on top of all the key change issues. This taxes (not “tasks”) you to work hard and acquire more knowledge probably through reading.
You may also be a member of the PR team responsible for coming up with new and persuasive change communication ideas. Every organisation is going through change. In the past few years, the one constant thing in the workplace has been the constant need for change. Most workers do not like being pushed into behavioural change because it takes them out of their comfort zone.
What is more, most people do not like workplace change because it usually signals that their employer is trying to cut costs. They know from personal experience in their own families or within their circle of contacts that change usually means unpleasant change. They also know people who have lost their jobs as a result of change. As a result, change is one of the hardest things to steer an organisation through, and worse still, most organisations do it badly. The most important things in a change programme are the ‘soft’ issues relating to employee culture and communication. Yet research shows that the most important people affected by a change strategy – employees – often are the most neglected!
Lessons from downsizing programmes
Research into organisational downsizing programmes indicates the types of communication that employees prefer during these troubled times. The research is valuable because few studies have investigated the perspective of those affected while they are in the midst of turmoil. Downsizing is the planned, intended reduction in personnel in an organisation. Retrenchment takes place, the organisation shrinks and is restructured. The purpose is to change processes and decrease size to improve efficiency and therefore reduce costs.
A study shows the reactions of people who survived retrenchment in a downsizing organisation, in this case a large US multinational employing 50,000 people. The downsizing operation eliminated the jobs of more than 5,000 employees. Rumours were rife. When employees went on break, it was not unusual to find over 30 in the staff area people talking about the downsizing. According to the company, “We wasted more than 100 years of salary in all the time that was spent talking about what was going to happen. No one could do any work.” Survivors expressed the need for communication that would help them work through the many ambiguities that suddenly confronted them in doing their work.
Focus groups with a sample of surviving employees indicated that effective communication during downsizing would provide a relatively complete description of the changes and the potential effects on survivors, especially the effect on job security. Completeness was then more likely to be achieved in face-to-face interaction. For communication to be complete, the content had to be specific in order to clarify meaning. For example, complete descriptions of changes such as organisational revenue, sales plans and local changes of staff. Openness was important as well in the company and managers had to be accessible, willing to engage in dialogue and willing to disclose potentially sensitive information.
Communication had to be credible. Survivors tended to believe communication when it came from sources considered legitimate and honest (e.g. their immediate supervisors) and when the information conveyed was consistent with other events they saw happening around them. A significant influence of credibility was the perceived honesty of the information source. Consistency was another attribute that was important to them in the company. In a time of change, supportive communication is naturally considered to be helpful. This typically involves face-to-face interaction with other people, particularly with immediate supervisors, informal and personal, considered to understand employees’ individual needs and concerns.
The opportunity for participation is important. This may be interactive or two-way communication in order to give people an involvement beyond simple understanding by their supervisors. Effective communication in the company was coherent, logical and consistent with the organisation’s stated values and traditions. Management actions need to be consistent with what they say every time. These lessons would be helpful to deal with the pressures of the financial crisis confronting many organisations.
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GOKE ILESANMI, Editor-in-Chief/CEO of https://www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng and Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is a Certified Public Speaker/Emcee, (Business) Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker, Career Management Coach, Renowned Book Reviewer, Corporate Leadership Expert and Editorial Consultant.
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