How Internal Communications Teams Can Support Change Management
April 13, 2023
Everyone's heard the statistic from McKinsey & Company: Only 30% of organizational initiatives to affect transformational change succeed. A follow-up survey by McKinsey saw only 37% of organizations reporting successful implementations of lasting change, indicating the dial hasn't moved much. So, why are so many organizations still struggling with change?
New research indicates that employees' attitudes and perceptions toward change contribute to the high failure rate. In this context, the role of internal communications teams becomes crucial in supporting change management.
Traditionally, companies have used performance and profits as the leading indicators of success, building their change-implementation mechanisms around them. However, with change initiatives failing consistently, it's time to accept that the old model needs updating.
To effectively support change management, communications teams need to go beyond the Diagnose > Design > Deliver model. In the information age, things are more nuanced, and traditionally overlooked variables are proving more critical than ever.
A new approach
Senior McKinsey consultants Scott Keller and Bill Schaninger offer insights on change implementation in their book, Beyond Performance 2.0: A Proven Approach to Leading Large-Scale Change. They claim that the consistent failure of change initiatives can be linked to a missing pillar in many companies' communication strategies.
That pillar? Understanding and addressing employee mindsets before hoping to change their behavior.
That's what sticks. It's what locks in change over time.
Incorporating this ethos into a cohesive change management strategy allows internal communications teams to support ongoing organizational change initiatives effectively.
The Psychology of Change
Understanding change from a psychological perspective can significantly benefit internal communications teams.
A recent systematic literature review echoed McKinsey's findings that most change initiatives fail, with researchers discovering that employees were resistant to change because of cognitive and behavioral responses.
This raises a question: Can understanding employee response variables improve change management success rates?
How change affects people
The Kübler-Ross Change Curve helps explain how people deal with change. By recognizing the different phases, companies can tailor their internal communications to empathize with where employees might be on the curve.
Let's consider an example:
A pandemic forces a company to close its offices, cancel in-person activities, and require staff to stay home. A message addressing this might say:
Due to rising COVID-19 infections and new state regulations, our office will close immediately, and in-person activities will be canceled until further notice. Please stay home, stay safe, and follow government safety protocols.
If you have any questions, don't hesitate to email HR. Thank you for your cooperation and understanding.
While this kind of message states the facts, it neglects employees' mindsets during the transition.
Feelings of shock, denial, and frustration are all emotions employees would be going through. Considering the Kübler-Ross Change Curve, a more effective version of the above message could be:
There's no denying that the COVID-19 situation has worsened. We're in as much shock as you, and in the interest of everyone's safety, we've decided to close the office and cancel in-person activities until further notice.
We understand your frustration and are monitoring the situation closely. In the meantime, there are a few ideas in the works about shifting to virtual, so stay tuned for another update soon.
Thank you for understanding.
The differences might be subtle, but the ramifications aren't. By including a few strategic phrases, companies take employee mindsets into account, improving the efficacy of their communication.
The ethos of change management
According to a Robert Half survey, consistent, clear, and frequent communication is the leading factor in a successful transition. As part of an internal communications plan, here are four things teams can do to support and manage organizational change.
1. Understanding the Needs of Employees
People are emotional. They have traits and personalities. Their competencies are different. Their aptitudes are different, and their reactions will also be different when they enter an environment. Everybody knows this already, but not everyone factors it into their decision-making or communications schemas.
Here's how internal teams can address employee needs to support change management:
Get to know the audience
Get to know the people you'll work with as much as possible. The better acquainted a communications team is with its audience, the better it can understand the mindset and formulate effective communication plans.
When crafting internal communications, put yourself in employees' shoes. Before explaining how you want anyone to act, consider how the new changes will make them feel. For example, recognizing that being afraid or concerned about change is normal goes a long way.
Ensure employees feel safe sharing opinions, asking questions, and being genuine. Cultivating an environment of safety facilitates better workplace communication and ensures change initiatives take hold.
Acknowledge good work
Showing gratitude and acknowledging good work are well-established contributors to a healthy organization, but they still bear mentioning. If a team has been asked to make specific changes, acknowledging their initial actions (even if it's "part of their job") will encourage continued effort.
2. Distilling Change Through a Compelling Narrative
Before anyone is convinced to change, they first need to understand why it's a good idea. That's where narratives come in. Well-designed, cohesive communication strategies integrate narratives in change initiatives.
Storytelling is an art, and it makes internal communications more engaging by providing context and adding meaning to everyone's contributions.
Knowing your stakeholders
When it comes to motivation and staying on message, there is a consensus that it's much more straightforward in the C-suite and at the N-1 and N-2 levels. Executives don't have to be reminded of company objectives or reasons for implementing changes.
However, for middle management and the various stakeholders of a larger team, a compelling narrative distills proposed changes and helps get every facet of an organization on the same page.
Stories speak to people's mindsets
Everyone likes stories. They're more effective than stats and facts and are more likely to stick because people remember them.
Distilling organizational changes into compelling narratives is an excellent way to support and sustain change management. Whether the proposed change is procedural or transformational, communicating it through a compelling narrative helps employees internalize and react to the news more positively.
Let's look at a hypothetical example: letting your staff know that parking is no longer free.
After a herculean-but-unsuccessful effort that involved seven emails and a phone call, I regret to inform you that starting Monday, staff parking will no longer be free, and you'll be required to pay a flat $3 fee for the day.
Before you start a riot, here's what happened:
+ A different entity owns the parking lot than our building.
+ Ownership has recently changed hands.
+ The new proprietors don't think we deserve free parking.
I'm as annoyed about it as you, but we've lost this one.
Please enjoy the last week of free parking and accept my apologies for the inconvenience.
This is a simple example of how a narrative can help assuage feelings of shock or confusion over a sudden change and increase the likelihood that stakeholders will understand and go along with new changes.
3. Delivering the Message Effectively
What a message is and for whom it's intended are factors to consider, but there are still principles internal communications teams can deploy in support of change management:
Practicing informational justice
Organizational justice refers to employees' perception of how fairly (or unfairly) they're treated and is generally divided into three subcategories of distributive, procedural, and informational justice. Research shows that as a company practices more organizational justice, it correlates to the level of employees' psychological resistance to change.
While the traditional way of looking at it might have been to share information on a "need to know" basis, the new model encourages internal communications to let the whole team in on what the company's up to.
By keeping employees looped in on what's happening, everyone feels valued and is more likely to understand and commit to proposed changes.
Continuity and consistency
Effective communication is ongoing. Even when there aren't any substantive updates, consistent internal communications create a sense of cohesion during periods of change. They also increase employee trust in an organization. Even a short note on the company intranet could be a difference-maker:
Hey team! It's been a few weeks since our last update, and you might be wondering what's going on. Things are looking good, and we're still working on getting the new system ready for the roll-out. We applaud your curiosity and thank you for your patience!
Multichannel communications and integration
Whether companies like it or not, there's no longer a "standard" way to communicate with members of an organization, and internal communications teams have to adapt.
When it comes to change management, using every available channel ensures communications reach everyone. Several team communication tools exist, including some of the most popular:
- Microsoft Teams
- Google Workspace
4. Committing to Omnidirectional Communication
The old model focused on the idea that "communication goes both ways." But in the new ethos, internal communications go all ways.
Committing to omnidirectional communication is precisely that: a commitment. It can be tempting for an organization to talk the talk without having to walk the walk, but to alter employee mindsets and help changes stick, teams need to create, foster, and model omnidirectional communication.
Strengthening the feedback loop
Talking and listening is how to discover what people are thinking.
The only way to understand people's mindsets is by asking. Communications teams need to inquire, dig deeper, perform structured interviews, and deploy laddering techniques to glean as much insight as possible from each level of an organization.
Feedback, or the lack thereof, is a common communication challenge that can lead to much bigger problems. And while the proverbial "suggestion box" and performance reviews have been formal feedback mechanisms for decades, they're in desperate need of updating.
Communications teams can make it easier for employees to provide feedback through formal and informal avenues, across different platforms, and on various issues.
Similarly, employees will feel empowered as active participants in a company's success if they are listened to and receive regular assessments from their superiors, including informal and constructive feedback.
Listening to everyone at every level
Transformational change will always be holistic, and communications strategies must take a similar approach. From top to bottom, communication channels need to be open and omnidirectional, ensuring that the company is listening to each member of an organization every step of the way.
It's tempting for leaders to demand a particular set of beliefs, behaviors, or standards from team members without modeling the behavior because role modeling is challenging. However, missing this element can create gaps in trust and communication, even causing team members to question a leader's genuineness.
Role modeling is also effective in demonstrating the mindset a company hopes to foster in its employees, and seeing company leaders walking the walk sends a strong and direct message during different phases of change management. Senior McKinsey consultant Nick Waugh has a great way of saying it:
"Don't tell them you're funny. Tell them a joke."
The work paradigm has changed.
"Remote," "hybrid," and "virtual" are no longer buzzwords but very real transformations. The convergence of artificial intelligence, cloud computing, Big Data, and increased digitization is poised to deliver an onslaught of changes to how people work. In this juggernaut, clear and compelling communication is paramount if companies hope to adapt to the changing times.
Change management is about communicating a clear message, with the appropriate frequency, in a way that relates to the correct internal audience, using the most effective channels.
Successfully facilitating and navigating transformational change requires humility, courage, and applying equal rigor to the hard and soft elements of a company's success.
Internal communications teams are crucial in driving lasting organizational change by addressing the psychological aspects and adjusting their communication strategies. Focusing on employee mindsets and a transparent and collaborative approach can move the needle of change management initiatives beyond the 30% success rate they're stuck on.