Why leaders don’t communicate about change (or other things)

Change is a sensitive subject for any organization. Here’s why leaders sometimes don’t want to talk about it—and how you can change their minds.

At some point in your career you’ve probably moaned to your colleagues, “How do I get my leaders to talk to employees? We’re going through lots of changes, they need to be visible and I can’t get them out of their offices.”

Despite all your well-planned leadership communication strategies, leaders sometimes balk at getting face to face with employees to discuss changes, listen to questions and address concerns.

Why does it matter? Simply put, effective leadership communication drives performance. According to a study by Towers Watson, organizations that are highly effective at change management, engagement and communications are also:

  • Five times more likely to outperform industry peers
  • Twenty percent more likely to report lower turnover rates
  • Five times more likely to have managers who actively support the organization’s vision

At Gagen MacDonald, we’ve found five reasons leaders don’t communicate—and helped our clients develop strategies to address them:

1. The business strategy is complex.

Your strategy may consist of five pages of single-spaced, approved talking points, but that doesn’t mean it’s a clear and compelling story. We once worked with a CEO who said, “A story isn’t a story until more than one person can tell it.” He knew his leaders needed to engage actively with the strategy to understand it fully and adopt it. They had to roll around in it a bit, personalize it and be clear on what they wanted employees to do about it. They had to be able to address such questions as, “How does this change my job?” and, “How should I behave to execute the strategy?”

Your strategy should be clear and compelling. Leaders should be aligned on how to tell it. Once that’s complete, we have to help them get comfortable telling it.

2. Leaders are uncomfortable with messiness.

This gets to the heart of what differentiates managers from leaders. Managers are rewarded for protecting stability and fostering execution. Leaders, by contrast, are accountable for achieving a vision and taking people to a new place—and getting there is often messy. Managers focus on avoiding or stabilizing messiness, whereas leaders have to be prepared to step into it and create clarity and context where there is none. These are completely different behaviors with different outcomes.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • Has the organization defined the leadership behaviors required for the strategy to succeed?
  • What does success look like?
  • Do we have tools and resources to support leaders as they model the new behaviors?
  • Do we have the right rewards in place to recognize desired behaviors?

These questions aren’t just the purview of communications—these are leadership development questions. We should partner with HR colleagues to ensure strategic alignment of behavior for success.

3. Someone might ask a question they don’t know the answer to.

We’ve all worked through a major announcement and created materials to support leadership communications, frequently including a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs). Who hasn’t experienced an FAQs on “steroids”—a list of the top 100+ questions that leaders may be asked? You can imagine a leader’s first thoughts are probably: “I better not screw this up! Certainly this answers every possible question employees will have. Can I master it?”

The truth is no one can master the answers to 100+ FAQs, and we shouldn’t set the expectation that anyone has the answer to every question out there. Change entails uncertainty, and not all answers are immediately apparent. We need to help leaders get comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” The best way to bridge through that conversation with confidence is to be transparent about what we do know today and be comfortable navigating back to the strategy story as a solution.

4. They view their role as delivering information, not hosting a conversation.

Research by the Institute of Public Relations finds strong evidence that responsive leaders are more effective than traditional assertive leaders.

Leaders must see communication as a dialogue. When employees feel they’re being relentlessly sold a message, they tend to resist. Who wouldn’t? But dialogue is different; being listened to is powerful and long lasting. It builds influence over time, driving adoption and alignment.

Remember the question, “Are leaders born or made?” The good news is that many behaviors required for effective leadership—including becoming a good listener—are teachable skills.

5. They don’t want to deliver bad news.

Change often brings bad news. It’s important to recognize that long-term success often comes only with short-term pain. Leaders have to be able to express both the good and the bad aspects of change. This can be difficult because, underneath it all, we want to be liked. Leaders must commit to being transparent and then accept the implications of transparency—both positive and negative.

One of the best perspectives I’ve heard comes from our CEO Maril MacDonald, who shared her perspective in a post titled When in Doubt, Do the Loving Thing. It’s worth quoting at length:

“How could firing someone ever qualify as ‘doing the loving thing’? It’s a great question that deserves an honest answer. For the employee whose job has disappeared in a layoff, a loving approach means being clear and helpful to that person at every step of their transition. … When the situation demands action, a loving approach means sitting down promptly with the employee, being very honest, and helping him or her to move on.”

Overwhelmingly we hear from our clients’ employees that they prefer not to be shielded from the truth. If bad news may be coming, they want to know. Transparency means sharing what you know, when you know it, regardless of whether it’s good news or bad. People greatly appreciate being able to plan the next phase of their lives.

At Gagen MacDonald, we’ve identified “Three things that change everything” for clients navigating complex organizational change. These three things also apply to anyone working to equip leaders to lead change. They are:

  • A clear and compelling story. Articulating the rationale for change and connecting the dots to the organization’s history, mission and values are important, but creating the story is only the first step. Activating the story within your organization is where many leaders fall short. Effective strategy execution calls for bringing your corporate story to life with immersive experiences and multisensory evidence of change.
  • Committed leadership. Equip your leaders to tell the change story, confidently and authentically, in their own words. More importantly, make sure they understand their mandate to employees as leaders: to create context and clarity around change where neither exists yet.
  • An intentional road map. Advance planning is crucial. Leaders often focus their communications energies on announcing change, then fail to communicate at the subsequent phases when things get harder. Our Change Momentum Curve articulates the importance of communications planning that extends beyond the initial phase. In fact, success depends on a long-term view.

What have you found that works in engaging leaders to lead change? I’d love to learn more about your experience.

Sherry Scott is president of Gagen McDonald. A version of this article first appeared on the Institute for Public Relations blog, and was written for the Institute for Public Relations Organizational Communication Research Center.

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