Leadership, Communication & Change
Leadership has as its corner stone, the ability to communicate. When we use the word communicate, we are referring not only to the words one uses to transfer factual information to others, but also to other "messages" that are sent and received.
What might these other messages be? Related to change the leader sends a good number of messages. These are listed below.
The leader communicates:
A) a sense of confidence and control (or lack thereof) to employees.
B) his or her own feelings about the change.
C) the degree to which he/she trusts the abilities of the employees to get through the change.
D) a sense of purpose and commitment (or lack thereof).
E) the degree to which he/she accepts the reactions and feelings of employees.
F) expectations regarding behaviour that is seen as appropriate or inappropriate (ie. rumour mongering, back-room meetings).
G) the degree to which he/she is "connected to" employees situations and feelings or is "in-touch" with them.
It is clear that if the leader communicates effectively, he or she will be sending messages that decrease resistance, and encourage moving through the change more effectively and positively. The bottom line with all of this is if you screw up communicating with employees, even the smallest changes can result in ugly problems.
What Is Communication?
There are all kinds of models of communication, some basic and some complex. For our purposes communication can be described as CREATING UNDERSTANDING.
Through words, actions, body language, voice tone, and other processes you send many messages about yourself, the changes, and your organisation. This constitutes precisely one-half of the communication process. The second half consists of verifying that the message you intended to send was actually received and interpreted the way you intended. The only way that you can be sure you have created understanding is to listen to the people you are communicating with, and make special effort to encourage them to reflect back to you what they have heard (and what they make of it).
A) Although you communicate in a way that seems clear to you, the receiver of the communication, filters the information through a very complicated set of pre- conceptions, that can function to distort the message received.
B) Receivers listen selectively. They hear and process some things and block out other things. That means that while you may have explained the "whole picture", is it likely that the whole thing wasn't received.
C) The ONLY way you can ensure that you have created common understanding is by asking the other people what they have heard, and what their reactions are to it.
Important Messages Regarding Changes
Since we have indicated that communication involves sending a variety of
important messages, it is important that when you communicate about change you know what kind of messages you wish to send, and the what you want people to take away from your communication.
Whenever you communicate to employees about change, you should be striving to convey the following position:
A) that you are personally committed to the change, and seeing it through, even if it has negative consequences.
B) that you recognise that the change negatively impacts upon some people.
C) that you are open to discussion of the feelings of employees regarding the change.
D) that you are confident that the "team" can make it through the changes.
E) that you want and need input to make the changes work. Communication and Change -- Who, What, When, How?
Sometimes you won't be committed to the change, or you won't be very confident that you and your staff can pull it off, particularly when the change is imposed from above. While some may disagree, it is important that you still convey an image of strength and commitment despite your own misgivings. The change leader has a role to play, and if you have misgivings or strong negative emotional reactions of your own it may be more effective if you underplay them. If you show anger about a change, you may legitimise the same kind of negative behaviour in your staff.
While you shouldn't hide your own negative reactions completely, it is probably wise to keep them in the background by stating them in a matter of fact way and moving on.
As a change leader you need to make decisions about who you must communicate with, what needs to be communicated, when you will communicate and how you will do it. We will take a look at each of these in turn.
Managers sometimes have a tendency to communicate about change on a "need to know basis". However, effective change leaders recognise that almost any change will have effects on most people in an organisation, no matter how removed they are from the change.
The basic rule of thumb is that communication should take place directly between the manager and employees when employees NEED TO KNOW OR WANT TO KNOW.
Except for situations that involve confidentiality, even those who are indirectly affected will likely want to know what is going on, and how it may affect them. This applies to your own staff, and those organisations that are related to you (ie. other branches within a division or department, client organisations, etc).
You are better off over-including people in your communication, than leaving people out.
If you need to determine what to communicate, keep in mind what you are trying to accomplish through your communication about change. When you communicate you are trying to:
A) give information that will reduce uncertainty and ambiguity regarding the
B) pre-empt the hidden information system of the grapevine, so you can ensure that incorrect anxiety provoking information is not spreading.
C) provide forums for employees to communicate their reactions and concerns to you.
If you would like another rule of thumb, when deciding what should be
communicated, communicate as much information about the change as is available to you. Obviously, you need to exercise judgement where there is confidential and/or sensitive information involved, or where your information may be unreliable.
Be aware that if you only have a small amount of information about a negative change, communicating it may increase anxiety levels and rampant speculation. You should also be aware that if you have preliminary information about a change, that others do also, and that it is likely that your employees will hear rumours regardless of what you disclose.
Finally, keep in mind that you are communicating messages about the facts of the change, and also about your own reactions to it. As a change leader, you must be aware that your staff will watch you carefully to guess how you are feeling about the change, and they will draw their own conclusions based on your behaviour. Sometimes these conclusions will be wrong and destructive.
If you choose to state your own reactions to the change, state them quickly
(particularly if they are negative).
The longer you wait to communicate details of change, the more likely you are to extend the period of adjustment. This is because it is very difficult to "keep a lid" on anything in government, and even if you are silent, your staff will likely hear vague things through the grapevine. Grapevine information tends to be sketchy enough that it creates a high degree of anxiety, and also a high degree of mistrust of management.
So, the earlier you communicate the less likely erroneous or upsetting information will come through the grapevine. Communicate as early as possible about change, but do not assume that once you have done this the job is over.
Communication should occur in anticipation of change, during the
implementation, and after the change has been stabilised.
Issue 1: Group or Single Meetings
Another decision you need to address is what needs to be communicated in group settings, and what needs to be addressed in one-on-one meetings with employees.
What are the advantages of each approach?
Communicating in groups ensures that each person present is hearing the same information at the same time. Group communication also allows people to interact with each other about the changes and can help people develop a sense of team, particularly in a climate of adversity.
Communicating in groups also has some disadvantages. In many organisations there will be people who will not feel comfortable talking in a group context. The more "personal" the effects of the change, the more likely people will withdraw from the group process.
A second danger of group communication is that one or two particularly vocal and negative people can set the tone for the group, and foster unproductive negative
discussion. While expressions of concerns about change are healthy, the "doom- sayer" can cause this process to become destructive. For this reason, group communication needs to be managed with skill and expertise. Sometimes an external facilitator is necessary.
Finally, there are some issues that cannot be discussed within a group. For
example, in downsizing situations, it is inappropriate to announce to a group that John and Mary are losing their jobs. When changes are likely to create a high degree of upset to individuals, they must be dealt with in private.
Communicating on a one-to-one basis has the advantage of privacy. When bad news is communicated, the person receiving the news is less pressured to withhold their reactions. One-to-one communication also allows more in-depth exploration of the person's feelings, ideas and reactions to the change.
A disadvantage to using one-to-one communication is that it may fragment your team. There is also a possibility that you will send slightly different messages to different staff members.
Most situations require both group communication and one-to-one communication. They compliment each other. Using only one or the other will create problems.
Below are some guidelines.
Use group communications if:
A) You need to ensure everybody hears the news at the same time.
B) You want to encourage group discussion to generate ideas and the problem solving process.
C) You want to increase the sense of team.
D) You wish to set the stage for individual meetings. For example, in a lay-off
situation, you can call a short group meeting to announce the lay-offs generally, then immediately meet individually with each staff member to inform them of their status.
Use individual meetings if:
A) The changes are likely to cause a high degree of emotionalism that is better dealt with in private.
B) You want to ensure that shyer people have a chance to express themselves.
C) The changes involve elements that should remain confidential (pay or
classification changes, employment status, etc).
D) You need to have detailed discussion about the change with specific people.
Issue 2: Written Or Oral Concluding Comments
There is a tendency for people to avoid unpleasant interactions, and sometimes managers will use written communication to avoid the discomfort of dealing face to face with staff. While written communication can play an important role in communicating about change, it should not be used for this reason alone. Below are some guidelines regarding the use of written versus oral communication.
Oral communication is more appropriate when:
A) Receiver is not very interested in getting the message. Oral communication provides more opportunities for getting and keeping interest and attention.
B) Emotions are high. Oral communication provides chances for both you and the other person to let off steam, cool down, and create a climate for understanding.
C) You need feedback. It's easier to get feedback by observing body language and asking questions.
D) The other person is too busy or preoccupied to read. Oral communication
provides better opportunities to gain attention.
E) You need to convince or persuade. Oral communication provides more
flexibility, opportunity for emphasis, chances to listen to and remove resistance, and is more likely to affect people's attitudes.
F) The details and issues are complicated, and cannot be well expressed on paper.
Written communication is appropriate if:
A) You require a record of the communication for future reference.
B) Your staff will be referring to details of the change later.
C) You are communicating something with multiple parts or steps and where it is important that employees understand them.
Generally, it is wise to use both written and oral communication. The more
emotional the issues, the more important it is to stress oral communication first. Written communication can be used as backup.
As a change leader, communication is your primary and most important tool. We have attempted to outline some of the important parts of the communication
process, but short of writing an entire book on the subject, it is difficult to discuss all the subtleties and issues about human communication.
There is no substitute for good judgement, and change leaders need to be
reflective and thoughtful about the ways they communicate. There is also no substitute for LISTENING, and receiving feedback from your staff and colleagues about how you communicate. You may make communication mistakes, but the mark of an effective change leader is that these mistakes are quickly identified through feedback and discussion, and corrective action is taken.
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