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5 Questions to Communicate about Change

Ongoing change is a new reality. In the last two years, employees worldwide have experienced, on average, 3.5 major changes (enlarge graphic to the left). That means that most communicators have spent a lot of time planning for and talking about change. To help you craft a change communication plan that works, I suggest that you ask yourself the following 5 questions:

  1. What is the desired stakeholder behavior change?
  2. How will this behavior change impact the stakeholder?
  3. What information should we share with stakeholders about the change?
  4. How do we help leaders and managers to drive stakeholder behavior change?
  5. How do we sustain change over time?

These questions will help you craft a change communication plan that builds your employee’s agility—their ability to adapt to any change—because as you plan to communicate about one change you are really:

  • Creating communication systems that connect employees to people and information
  • Equipping leaders and managers with the skills to help employees make their own decisions
  • Enabling employees to lean in to change (rather than simply process and accept that change is happening to them)

Let’s take each question in a bit more detail.

1. What is the desired stakeholder behavior change?

This isn’t the typical first question a communicator asks when a business partner seeks help in “communicating a change”. Usually, communicators respond with, “OK. We can help. What’s the main thing you want to say about the change?” Business partners immediately default to telling communicators about why, from their perspective, the change is justified and beneficial.

Your responsibility as a communicator is to make sure that you understand, from the stakeholder’s perspective, what behavior change is being asked. There are two sub-questions you should discuss with business partners to identify the business problem that the behavior change is intended to solve for:

  • What are the current behaviors of stakeholders?
  • What is the desired set of stakeholder behaviors after the change?

Embed Toyota’s consultative process into your change communication conversations.

2. How will this behavior change impact the stakeholder?

Remember, not all audiences will be equally affected by the change. In order to maximize your chances of driving this behavior change you need to really understand your audience—what they currently think and feel about the change, and who and what is most likely to influence them.

Some sub-questions to consider:

  • What is the stakeholder being asked to do differently as a result of the change to support the business?
  • Which people and functions will the stakeholder need to work with to support the business after the change?
  • How does the change impact the expertise and capabilities the stakeholder needs to get the job done?
  • How might the change impact stakeholder’s attitudes and beliefs about their individual purpose and future at the company?

Use these tools to assess your stakeholders’ change-readiness.

3. What information should we share with stakeholders about the change?

Here’s the part where you finally think about the message. But, instead of explaining to stakeholders why the change is necessary and good, your messages need to contain information that helps stakeholders to make decisions in line with the change. For example, ConAgra Foods asks business partners a series of specific questions to surface what information employees need in order to adopt change behaviors in support of company goals.

A related challenge this question poses is which channels, exactly, should we share this information with stakeholders. Remember to think about who influences your end stakeholder. Who are their trusted sources? Where do they reach out instinctively for information and social cues? You can use CEC’s channel selection guide to reach stakeholders via their preferred information channels.

Equip employees with the information, people, and resources to lean into change.

4. How do we help leaders and managers to drive stakeholder behavior change?

Stakeholders often turn to company leaders and managers not only for information, but also for behavioral examples of how to act in line with a corporate change.

Help Leaders: You can help leaders share the “big picture”. During a time of change, leaders should help employees see not only what is happening at the company, but within their industry and the world at large. That’s because the key to helping employees embrace change is to broaden their perspective. See, employees are conditioned to think only about what matters in their current job and scope. This becomes especially problematic as companies roll out new strategies across the organization—staff with a narrow day-to-day perspective don’t see how changes apply to them, or why they should take part.

Help Managers: As the primary source of communication for employees, line managers have the greatest influence over employee behavior during change initiatives. However, they don’t often have the skill (or desire) to contextualize change initiatives in a relatable way for employees. We suggest following Nordea’s lead by capitalizing on a change-specific moment to change-specific event to host dialogue prep session with managers to help them dialogue with employees about the change.

5. How do we sustain change over time?

Too often companies believe that once a change has been communicated, the desired employee behavior change will occur. You’ll want to measure and monitor to change through an integrated listening approach to determine, in real-time, where change is stalled and how to adjust your tactics.

Good top-down communication isn’t the key to sustained behavior changes. Social norms, otherwise known as “peer pressure,” do help to sustain desired change behaviors. Employees who see the desired change behavior in their peers and those that they look up to within the organization are more likely to adopt the change behavior themselves. Your efforts should connect employees to one another and create “safe spaces” for them to share ideas and learn from one another well beyond the official “change period.” For example, TD Bank uses a web-based platform that provides an easy and appealing way for peers to support colleagues by recognizing good, goal aligned performance.

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Comments from the Network (3)

  1. Miri McDonald
    on October 31, 2011

    Good questions!

    What about the question, “What do stakeholders want to know about the change?” I feel like leaders and even communicators are guilty of getting into the mode of “what should we tell them” versus “what do they really want to know about this?” Those might be two different things and if you want to be transparent, the latter is in order.

  2. Kayleigh O’Keefe
    on November 6, 2011

    Hi Miri,

    Always great to hear from you! I think your point is a critical one. If I were to re-write the post, I’d probably change question # 3 to be something like “What will stakeholders need to know (and what will they want to know) to be able to alter their behaviors?”

  3. Change Management
    on November 7, 2011

    Take personal responsibility for communication –

    “Faster-better-cheaper” uses information exchange as its motor. It requires tight coordination. Effective linkages. A free flow of ideas. Information hoarding is a cardinal sin and openness a key virtue.

    That’s because communication problems never remain just communication problems. They weaken everything else. If you let communications get balled up, performance goes down. If people fall into the habit of hiding problems, sitting on good ideas, or withholding information, you soon end up with “slower-worse-more expensive.”

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