Trudy Lewis: “Change and Internal Communication”

I keep hearing a statistic that as a communications professional I find alarming, that 70 per cent of change programmes fail. There are many different types of change programmes that an organisation might take on, and I believe that most can be successful if good communication is at the centre of the programme.

Trudy Lewis

Change can be scary – even the word evokes fear in some. It suggests a move away from the familiar – a shift from the norm. It can be disruptive, it might mean that people have to work differently or learn something new. It shakes things up, jobs change and people are sometimes displaced or even made redundant. When leadership have a clear vision for change with a strong clear purpose, then it is important to articulate this to those who will be impacted. It’s very common to see leadership come up with an idea for strategic change that will solve a business challenge, task a group of people (usually programme of change managers), to implement it and then step back. Is it any wonder that the change then doesn’t land well or achieve what it was set out to do?

I believe that leadership need to own and lead the change and that planned communication is key. I have seen it over and over again. I’ve been directly involved in organisational change, worked with change managers and it’s always the same – communication is included as an afterthought. The programme is launched, workstreams and change agents are in place and then further down the line you hear ‘oh yes, we haven’t explained what it is – we need to communicate’. At this point it is often too late and people within the organisation have already started to make assumptions. This then creates a setback for the change programme as it needs to play catch up and try to engage employees. By this time employees have formed opinions and probably will have difficulty trusting messages from leadership about the change.

When employees hear of changes coming, their imagination goes wild. Suspicious of leadership, they think of every scenario of how the change is just a way to introduce cuts. They mainly think it’s negative and start to worry about how it will affect them. Middle or line managers are about the same – they may not have been told what the change is all about so they struggle to support it, plus they have employees asking them questions they can’t answer.

Communication and engagement are both critical to the success of any change. Leaders and senior managers need to be open and honest and as early as possible to engage employees and take them along the process of change as much as they can.

The role of the internal communicator is really important here, in a number of ways. We fully understand the importance of communicating through the change process and get frustrated when we are not included in early discussions. At times leaders do not see the value of involving communicators and so pass on the execution of the work to programme managers who have minimal expertise in internal communication.

Aside from trying to educate leaders, managers and change consultants, there is a lot we can do to raise awareness of the value of communication to support successful change.

Here are four ways that you can do this.

  • Maintain regular dialogue with your leadership team. Ensure you are seen as a trusted adviser by giving good advice and demonstrating that you understand the strategy and challenges faced by the business.
  • Develop good working relationships with other support functions. Talk to your IT and HR leads and be curious. Find out what’s being introduced to the company. Speak up and say you’d like to hear more as you might be able to help.
  • Help change and programme managers to develop communication plans in collaboration with internal communication. You won’t always be able to take it all on, but you can influence it and help them to get it right.
  • Work with the lead of programmes both within the business and encourage them to communicate openly. Share creative ways that they can achieve this to really improve engagement. For example, get them to meet teams face to face or develop campaigns that will create opportunities for employees to present ideas to fix business challenges and support the success of the programme.

The idea is to proactively get in front of leadership to ensure they understand that you are aware and able to walk alongside with sound advice. As internal communicators we have the knowledge and experience to guide on how best to communicate and what to communicate and when, through the change.

On Tuesday 21 May we are hosting a panel discussion on change and the role of internal communication. We plan to delve into this subject in more detail, talking to experienced change and communication consultants and practitioners. We hope you will take the time to join us to learn more about this subject that we feel will be a big challenge for us as change becomes the norm.

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