By James O’Brien. James is a correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Consumer Chronicle, and Boston University’s Research magazine.
In business, as in life, change tends to go down hard. Almost everyone struggles when it comes to transformation. Few take it in stride.
Unlike most of life’s arenas, however, in the world of the office—in the workplace—it falls upon certain members of a team to actually manage the change that occurs. That is, leaders not only have to experience change, they have to communicate with others about how to handle the experience themselves.
Whether it’s an adjustment to incoming or newly implemented technology; a company-wide shift in an approach to a product; or the kind of personnel and structural transformations that come with growth (and contraction) of a business, guiding a unit or department through the first precarious hours and days of change requires skill, subtlety, and plenty of good planning.
How about a few tips?
In this post, with the help of experts on change management, you’ll find some useful guidelines for communicating the “whens” and “hows” of change, all while minimizing the pain that can come with it.
Make a Map
Change can be scary. flickr/L.C.Nøttaasen
What this means is: chart your route through the most acute moments of change. Say you’re tasked with terminating two team members, promoting a third to coordinate a new set of direct reports, and informing everyone in the affected unit of the changes. Following the advice of Michael Bennett, a human resources expert at ENGAGE, having a solid communication plan on paper will help ensure that everything that needs to happens does, in an orderly and logical fashion.
For example, build a chart that shows which employees are to be spoken to by whom, on which dates, and at what times. Also summarize what they’re to be told. If something alters the intended flow of information, it’s obvious at a glance which team members need attention until the new situation is resolved.
Count on Human Resources
A skilled human resources department is worth its weight in gold. As change is happening, especially when it’s complicated by the events of the day on which it’s being communicated, having HR at your side helps. Have HR track the intended communications and the results.
They’ll remind you to leave a paper trail, not only for all the potentially thorny reasons—such as the media catching wind and wanting a statement about what’s new—but also so that the company can benefit from knowing what worked well. Institutional knowledge grows and improves when people today make contributions during change-heavy times.
Especially when change involves terminations, have the key players role-play what they’re going to say ahead of time. Tough responses can be tackled in a lower-pressure environment. The chances of a team member folding under the stress of people’s initial reactions are greatly diminished by familiarity with the possibilities. Do this until everyone’s got the script down in a fluid and controlled manner.
Don’t leave it to the future to decide how well you communicated the change: go back to the individuals involved. Ask questions, evaluate responses, and keep a careful eye on output and crosstalk. These can be important indicators of whether the changes are being absorbed successfully, or if more coaching and care-taking is needed.
Finally, as Michael Watkins touches upon over and over in his book The First 90 Days, transformation in the workplace takes time. Shaking employee confidence in leadership by poorly timed “rewrites” stands to undermine all the planning and good communication that you implemented in the first place.
Part of communicating change effectively is to give everyone the chance to adopt it. Wait before imposing new and potentially confusing or frustrating elements on employees who’ve just adapted to a new reality. Expect a period of weeks, perhaps months, before new changes begin to fully take root.
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