Communication, you can’t change without it

The challenge – for Improved Business Performance in the Training Environment

Communication is the life-blood that circulates in all areas of the business. It needs constant attention and improvement. This is a universal truth which we all accept but our actions do not always comply. We are too busy; there is a crisis to deal with; we will tell people later. Communicating really must be a priority for everyone. With ever-changing business environments, it is critical to commitment and performance.

The strongest and most consistent message from our recent research into IT Related Change was the need for more, effective communication. One manager commented:

“We put a lot of effort into communication – regular face-to-face meetings in the department, monthly presentations, a monthly magazine and user representation on the task force. In spite of all this, with hindsight, there was insufficient communication.”

On a more general note, research among CEO’s in the US asked

If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?”

The most frequent reply…

“The way I communicate with my colleagues”.

Good communication is a powerful and essential facilitator of change. It can do much to further the aims of the business, but only if enough thought, energy, and resources are invested in it.

Communication speaks to the bottom line… so tell it how it is…!

Why communicate? – the payoff

Communication is not just an end in itself. It is vital to achieving business results and effective change will not happen without it. It is necessary for:

  • Shared direction. People need to know how their efforts fit into the whole – when things are moving fast, a shared view of the target holds the change effort together.
  • Commitment. Every bit of research about what gets people committed has emphasised that involving them in the decisions makes the difference.
  • Informed decision making. Effective decisions for High Performance at every level depend on smooth and speedy information flows up, down, and across the organisation.
  • Morale. People need opportunities to discuss their personal concerns about change so that they continue to feel good about the organisation and the thrust of the development. They also need encouragement by acknowledging and publishing successful progress.
  • Learning in individuals and teams and between people across the organisation. There is a need to share experiences from previous change initiatives and to help others to learn from each one as it evolves. There’s no point in learning alone; profit lies in learning from each other for continuous improvement.
  • Business integration across the organisation and to ‘focus on the customer’. Most change depends on communication across organisational borders and the customer ideally only wants one interface. Multiple change initiatives across the organisation also need to be integrated to avoid duplication and to maximise their impact.

Communication is hard, and also soft… so enrol the top team.

How to Communicate Effectively – four answers

(1) Actions speak louder than words – behaviour is the key

From the beginning of any change, senior executives need to present a consistent view of the future as they see it. Their behaviour will be watched more closely and have more creditability than the latest corporate video.

So, for example, if the new corporate vision is ‘The customer is king’, front line employees will soon become cynical about managers who:

  • Push old stock when it doesn’t match customers’ needs
  • Promote those who demonstrate such behaviour
  • Indulge in parochial, ‘stove pipe’ thinking

The vision will wither on the vine. Customers will react to the way they are actually treated. Employees will follow the example set from the top.

Rather than rely on sterile corporate statements, senior executives need to communicate the kind of organisation they want to create by:

  • Describing how the organisation will be recognised and talked about in the market place.
  • Demonstrating the behaviours they want employees to follow – ‘the way we do things around here’.
  • Keeping day to day decision making – and reactions when things go wrong – consistent with the culture.
  • Talking about these things consistently and with passion on every possible occasion.

Practice what you preach – do what you say and say what you do.

(2) Face to Face is Best

Communication during change immediately conjures up visions of corporate videos and newsletters. But research suggests:

  • 75% of companies using such media believed them ineffective and 70% of communication managers referred to their publications as ‘attempts at the truth’, which does not mean that this was deliberate!
  • Less than 15% said that the publications reflected the entire truth. Only 20% of one major manufacturer’s employees thought that a company publication was ‘valuable and believable’.

Of course there is a need for some corporate communication. And the source of information which employees really trust is their immediate supervisor or manager.

Managers and supervisors need to be primary targets for clear communication and support, at a time when they too may feel vulnerable. To enable them to manage discussions with their staff credibly and with confidence, they need training to develop their own skills in briefing, listening and facilitating planning discussions.

In order to own and add value to the change message, they need the flexibility to tailor it to their own departments. Consistency needs to be maintained by a regular supply of professionally produced material to support them.

Don’t shoot the pianists – help them play new tunes.

(3) Real listening as well as talking

Communication is a two-way process. Open channels upwards are just as important as open channels downwards and across the organisation during a period of change.

Groups and individuals need opportunities to give managers their reactions to what’s going on; to know they will be listened to without defensiveness or fear; to feel their contribution is valued and respected; to believe that they are encouraged to ‘think outside the box’.

Senior managers need to appreciate and take advantage of the reality that those closest to the customer – and the day-to-day work – may know how best to implement a change. They need to understand the practicalities of change, by listening to those views and obtaining feedback.

People whose jobs are changing need individual time with their managers (and in some circumstances counsellors) to discuss their personal agendas and the implications for them – and to explore their opportunities.

Open, honest, two-way communication needs to be a regular feature of the change process from the beginning. Having started as the organisation intends to go on, effective communication becomes a habit throughout implementation of the change.

The meaning of communication is the response which it elicits.

(4) Plan it, manage it, keep it flexible and evolving

The best examples of major and radical transformation in the past 10 years had significant plans for communication and involvement. The plans covered the total workforce and a significant investment was made in them.

Our own research and experience suggests that not many organisations are making the same kind of investment. Few effective IT projects would be started without a project plan and yet organisations regularly embark on major change programmes without any similar plan for managing change or communication.

So communication is not just about expensive and flashy launches or even the activities for the first 100 days. To be effective, it requires a sustained programme which keeps the message constantly in front of people – on the agenda of routine meetings; formal briefings; videos; newsletters; email; noticeboards; senior executives walking about talking to people etc.

Effective programmes of change are supported by a rigorous Communications Plan which:

  • Identifies and addresses everyone internally and externally who has a stake in the change.
  • Includes milestones and plans for bite-sized chunks of activity and early wins so that early successes and individuals who lead the way can be given maximum publicity.
  • Emphasises methods of achieving reliable feedback from information, ideas and reactions, offering involvement in decision making as well as direction.
  • Concentrates on face-to-face communication and on training line facilitators to do it well, supported by a variety of media and the professional skills necessary to design it well.
  • Models the new culture – that new way of doing things.
  • Takes account of different national cultures – and cultures within the countries too, recognising that different employees might hear a different message. Inevitably, people will make mistakes so talk about them openly rather than pretending that they do not exist.
  • Is flexible enough to change as events unfold.

Originally published in Training & Learning Volume 4 Issue 4.