Communicating Change

by Rus Slater

Worst change practices

From the survey in 2002 by Mercer Human Resource Consulting (see Best change practices)

What makes for a ‘bad’ change programme? Below are the five worst change practices:

  1. Failing to communicate to all employees about change
  2. Not clearly expressing the change vision/objectives/rationale
  3. Being dishonest about change processes and implications
  4. Not giving employees a voice in the change process
  5. Failing to plan for change.

If we look at the worst practices, we can clearly see that 1, 2, 3, and 4 are clearly related to communication.

Failing to communicate

Failing to communicate to all employees about change is important because of the tendency of rumours to step in and fill any gaps. In the absence of information, people will not only speculate but they will also generally see the absence as significant.

There is a model, called the Johari Window, which relates to this subject. Below is a ‘development’ of the original Johari Window (or a ‘corruption’, if you are a purist!).

In short, in this instance; the model categorises information by relating it to the level of conscious awareness of two different parties – ‘me’ and ‘them’.

Looking at the diagram above, I tend to assume that ‘they’ (as in ‘they really ought to do something about that’) know more than they are letting on. This encourages me to assume that ‘they’ are keeping this knowledge to themselves because letting it out would be detrimental to them. The conclusion is that this hidden knowledge disadvantages me. This I resent.

I tend to react to this perceived injustice by keeping things to myself as a form of tit-for-tat revenge. I therefore keep things in ‘My Hidden Agenda’. I don’t share my opinions and I silently undermine the actions of the people I feel are hiding things from me.

In fact, I will share my opinions and feelings only with people I feel are in the same boat, thus fomenting revolution and fuelling the rumours!

Remember here that managers are people too... What does this imply about managers’ roles in the rumour machine?

Not explaining the rationale

If the rationale isn’t clearly explained, the assumption may be made that this is ‘change for the sake of change’, which is often the primary cause of change fatigue.

‘Change fatigue’ is a form of ‘initiative fatigue’. It is that feeling of ennui and cynicism that is so well summed up by the quotation that is often attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter. (It is debated whether this is genuinely from him, but the reality is that, even if he didn’t say it, several hundred million people would agree with it!)

We tend to meet any new situation by reorganising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.

Gaius Petronius Arbiter (died 66 AD)

When people understand the rationale, it becomes easier for them to embrace or support the change.


When Robert Oppenheimer took over the Manhattan Project to develop the A-bomb, he found that the technicians responsible for the mathematical calculations were making enormous numbers of basic errors. So much was this so that the Department of Defence had had to replicate the teams several times in order to cross-reference the same outputs against each other to get reliable results.

Oppenheimer asked, ‘Do these people not realise the importance of this work? We could shorten the war by years with this bomb.’

The reply was that, for reasons of security, these people had been pulled from their other jobs and put to pure maths without any explanation of what they were working on or why! It was clear that many resented the change from what they saw as valuable war-work to pointless number crunching.

Oppenheimer insisted that the rationale was explained, regardless of the secrecy argument.

The error rate dropped overnight as people understood the value of the change.

Being dishonest about change

Apparent dishonesty about change processes and implications is often not a result of a deliberate malicious lie, but a tendency to ‘spin’ the situation to be overly positive. Painting too positive a story is very risky, since a positive story, if believed, raises employee expectations. If these raised expectations are not subsequently met, morale crashes and the change implementation is badly damaged.

Professor Hubbard from the University of Oxford reviewed 40 years of research on ‘expectation theory’. She found that telling a positive story that is later not realised resulted in

  • Less commitment to the organisation
  • Lower employee productivity
  • More employees deciding to leave the organisation unhappily
  • Worse implementation.

It is better to manage expectations by communicating a range of possible/probable outcomes, from positive to negative. Then, as long as what’s delivered during the implementation falls somewhat near that range, a morale collapse is avoided.

The problem with employees leaving unhappily is that, while you may see these departures as a positive result if your change requires downsizing, it is worth remembering that these people will probably ‘badmouth’ your organisation and have a potentially negative effect upon their friends – your ‘surviving’ employees.

Not giving employees a voice in the change process

To paraphrase Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night...

Some drive change; some accept change, and some have change thrust upon them.

(Sorry, Shakespeare!)

This relates to the listening aspect of communication.

If people don’t have a voice in the change process, or the results of that process, this tends to create a ‘done to’ perception. Generally speaking, people don’t like to have things ‘done to’ them. Their first reaction in such circumstances will be ‘concern, worry, uncertainty, insecurity, introspection and fear’.

To counter the above problems, we need a good Communications strategy, sound Channels of communication and appropriate Language for our message.