Communicating about change in ways that work
Our brains are wired to dislike change, which often puts comms pros in a tough spot. Here are four science-backed tactics to streamline messaging amid turbulence and shifting winds.
As a communications professional you’re often on the front line of letting people know about changes your company is making.
And far too often those messages may not be well-received. In fact, most of us have had the experience of doing our best to craft a clear compelling message about a change–only to have it land badly.
Our anti-change wiring
The simple truth is that communicating about change well, in a way that doesn’t upset people, is difficult. For most people, most of the time – change is hard.
Blame our experience as a species. Until quite recently in human history, change has generally been dangerous; the safest course of action was to return to the known. If there was a famine – you wanted to get back to eating regularly. If there was an invading army – you wanted to get back to peace and prosperity. You get the idea. Most of the time, returning to a previous set of stable conditions was the way to go.
But today, to be successful, we often have to make changes – in how we work, who we work with, and how we deal with customers. And you are often the person who has to tell people about those changes. Here are four ways to make messages about change easier to hear:
1. Don’t oversell.
Messages about change are sometimes way too hearty and optimistic.
“We’re creating an entirely new process for responding to customer complaints, and it’s going to be GREAT!”
This almost always backfires. People are (as noted above) already nervous about change, and to get a message that ignores their fears will generally only make them dig in their heels and fear the worst (“It must be really bad if they’re being so cheery about it.”)
Instead, be realistic.
“We’re creating an entirely new process for responding to customer complaints. We know it will take a good deal of time and effort to make this change, and we’ll provide the support you need during the transition.”
2. Explain why it’s happening.
Because most of us are wired to think the status quo is the best option, we need good reasons before we’ll consider changing.
This is true of clients, employees, shareholders – everyone, really. So, if your leadership is asking you to communicate a change, ask them why they’re making the change, and really dig for reasons that are relevant to the group to whom you’re communicating.
For instance, if the message is to shareholders, they’ll want to know how the change will support the company’s financial health or long-term growth. If it’s to employees, they’ll want to know how the change will make their work easier or more effective, or how it will improve the customer experience. Customers will want to know how it will improve your product or service in ways that are important to them.
3. Sketch the future.
One of the main reasons that change is scary for people is they can’t imagine what the post-change future will be like–and most of us have a pretty significant fear of the unknown.
If you can use your skills as a communications person to build a picture of the post-change future for them, it will go a long way toward reducing their fear and help them start to imagine that the change might be beneficial.
“When we have this new customer complaint process up and running, it will be much easier for customers to tell us what’s not working, and we’ll have ways to respond to them more quickly – and to more often make the changes they request.”
4. Make it two-way.
Finally, because of our biological change-as-danger wiring, when people first hear about a change, they most often assume that it will be difficult, costly, and weird. This doesn’t mean they’re change-resistant – it means they’re normal human beings. And having someone listen to them as they work their way toward understanding that the change could be easy, rewarding and normal is enormously helpful.
As you’re building your communications plans around change, be sure to create lots of opportunities at the beginning for people to share their initial disquiet. Then, once you (and the company’s leaders) have listened to them thoroughly, they’ll be more willing to hear about how the company will support them to learn how to do the new thing (easy), the benefits you believe the change will bring (rewarding), and how people they like and admire – including, one hopes, the leaders of the company – are using this new approach and liking it (normal).
Every indication is that the pace of change in our lives and in the world is going to continue to increase. If you, as a communications professional, can improve your ability to help others accept and respond well to necessary change – that will support your success, theirs and the company’s. It’s the best path to a successful, satisfying personal and professional life in this era of nonstop change.
Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus International, a coaching, consulting, and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. Her newest book is “Change from the Inside Out: Making You, Your Team, and Your Organization Change-Capable.” Learn more at erikaandersen.com, or follow her on Twitter and Linkedin.
“We don’t like change” – I’m not sure if that’s wholly true. Otherwise why is there a fashion industry and how does our thirst for novelty square with that?
Perhaps more helpful for communicators is that we don’t like ambiguity and uncertainty. As communicators our job in change is help people see where we’re going and the process and make sure that people feel valued and supported.