Why communication matters in change management
Why communication matters in change management

By on in Agency Life & Leadership, Strategy

Why communication matters in change management

Undertaking organizational change is one of the greatest challenges a leader can – and will – face. Today’s world has a level of complexity we have not seen before. Anticipating change, and proactively managing it, have become requirements for success. Forces from inside and outside your business will pressure you to stick to the status quo; it takes courage and fortitude to push back and drive change, rather than letting it drive you.

It also takes a village. The forces of organizational inertia are strong, and it’s impossible to tackle them alone. Your entire team must be engaged in the process of organizational change. And the only way to get everyone working toward that same change goal is to communicate it clearly – not just the “what,” but also the “why” and the “how.”

At the heart of any successful organizational change initiative is a compelling, comprehensive strategic narrative that is cascaded through the organization. But so often, leaders leap past the communication piece to get to the “real work.” They do so at their own peril – not bringing the organization along to embrace your vision is one of the reasons that so many change initiatives are unsuccessful.

Throughout my career, including my time at McKinsey, I saw firsthand the importance of implementing a model for change management with communication at its core. I continue to emphasize communication in my consulting work today.


Why start with communication?

Remember, organizational change can’t happen without everyone’s participation. And your team can’t get involved if they don’t know what’s going on.

Unfortunately, most of us overestimate a group’s shared understanding of things. It’s human nature to assume that because something is obvious to me, it will be obvious to you. Elizabeth Newton demonstrated this phenomenon, sometimes called the “curse of knowledge,” in her research.

Newton asked participants to tap out the rhythm of a popular song, like “Happy Birthday.” The tappers were asked to predict what percentage of listeners would be able to identify their song based on their tapping. With the familiar melody in their mind, they assumed it would be obvious to the listeners, too – they guessed that about 50% of all listeners would know what the song was.

In reality, only 2.5% of listeners correctly identified the songs.

You understand the rhythm of the organizational change you wish to implement, but you can’t assume your entire team knows it intuitively. They don’t share your vantage point, and they need you to communicate what you know clearly and effectively to all levels of the organization.


The why, the what, and the how

Organizational change is about more than handing down orders for the new way of doing things. People buy into an idea of change when they see the why behind it.

Communicating your why is a major piece of effective change management.

If you have children, you know the power of “why.” A dictum like, “You need to clean your room,” is often countered with, “But why?” Parents also know that “Because I said so” is a response that’s usually met with eye rolls.

People – whether they’re your teens at home or your team at work – want to feel bought into the why behind the actions they’re asked to take. Without the why the task may feel like onerous busy-work. With the why, there’s a greater sense of purpose and direction. The “why” is the foundation of employee motivation. Next comes the “what” and the “how” to get everyone rowing in the same rhythm and direction.

Start by articulating your vision. It should be compelling and ambitious, and it should include the “why.” Change is hard work; you need to paint a picture that makes all the effort feel worthwhile. The future will be brighter when we come together to build it.

After setting an inspiring vision, you need to give clear direction on how the organization will get there. An ambitious goal can become scary without a roadmap to achieve it. SMART goals – those that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound – are the ones that evoke support and enthusiasm.

Don’t just say, “We’re going to grow our business.” Say, “We’re going to triple our revenue in five years.” Then outline how you plan to do it.


Change takes time, and you must continually update your team throughout the process if you wish to maintain trust and momentum.


Share, then listen

The other essential element of your change communication plan is space for questions and discussion.

No one enjoys feeling like their future is being decided for them. True support for a change narrative comes when your team feels like they play a meaningful role in it, and they can only feel that full buy-in if they have space to ask questions and develop a deep understanding of the change narrative.

Allow your team to ask you anything. No question is too small or too silly. And ensure that all leaders embrace an open-door policy so every individual, no matter where they land in the organization, has someone they can speak to openly about the change.


Set a cadence of communication

Communicating change is an ongoing effort. Some organizations do a big, splashy rollout of their transformation, and that’s great, but it can’t be the end. Change takes time, and you must continually update your team throughout the process if you wish to maintain trust and momentum. Highlighting wins, even small ones, over time, keeps motivation and productivity high.

Establish a clear cadence of communication from the start. Will you give updates in your quarterly newsletter? Post monthly on your intranet? Host regular town hall meetings? No matter how you choose to share with your team, state your plans and then stick to them.

Change is hard, but talking about it makes it easier. The more transparent you can be about your transformation, the more goodwill and buy-in you can generate with your team. And the more individuals you have working with you toward your ambitious goals, the more likely you are to achieve them.

Do you need help thinking through your change-related communications? We’re here to help.