Here is an article written by John Baldoni for BNET (February 17, 2011) , The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.
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When change initiatives fail, the culprit is often a lack of good communication from management. But that’s not always the whole story.
Communication isn’t just about what management says; it’s also about how employees listen.
This point was made to me by an executive whose organization had difficulty in getting employees to buy into changes it had proposed. He felt his employees were choosing to tune out as a form of resistance. Such resistance can often sabotage the best efforts of management to drive change throughout the organization. It even happens when managers are diligent communicators and active in the communication process. Resistance will occur for any number of reasons: perceived loss of autonomy, fear of the unknown, or a dislike for upsetting the status quo.
And then when the long-discussed change occurs — be it an organizational transformation or a move to a new facility — the disgruntled rank and file mutters about not being consulted and blames management for being heavy handed. What can you do to avoid, or at least mitigate, this kind of ugly situation? It will take efforts before, during, and after your communication push: Test the message. After a key message is developed, test it with employees. Do this informally, one on one or at selected staff meetings. Make sure to get the reactions of some employees you suspect will be among the hardest to win over.
Solicit their ideas for changing the message, or parts of the message. Allowing these employees to shape the message will accomplish two goals: first, it will improve your message, making it more likely to be successful; and second, it will make your harshest critics more likely to feel a part of the communication process and, ideally, bring them on board as messengers.
Incentivize the process. Whether you convene a series of meetings to deliver your message in person, or rely on electronic or other means of communication, there will be people who skip the meetings or delete the emails. Once you start rolling out your message, use basic incentives to induce people to listen. Make it a breakfast or lunch meeting and offer food to make people more likely to show up. If you’re sending out a new policy over email, request a read-receipt and say you’ll be giving coupons or small gift cards (say, $5 at a nearby coffeeshop) to the first X number of people who read it. You can also include a brief survey to test comprehension and award prizes for those who provide correct responses. These tactics might sound corny, but many organizations do this as a means of sweetening the message to make certain people receive it. And they’re better than watching your initiative sink.
Audit for results. After the communication cycle is complete, follow up. Were there people who skipped the briefing meetings? Set up one-on-ones with them to make sure they get the message. And check in with all your employees to ask if they have questions about the changes, or feedback on your communication efforts. If you have a large organization, this can be done with an open-ended survey. Structure it so that you can capture how your message was received emotionally as well as how well its content was understood. If audit results are not acceptable, you may want to conduct another wave of communications.
Finally, remember that these formal steps do not replace, not should they, the day to day involvement in senior and middle management continuing to deliver the change messages on a regular basis in their informal, personal communications.
Leadership is ultimately a reciprocal process. While managers are the initiators of change initiatives, employees must follow through. Not only is this implied in an employment relationship, it is how managers and employees work together. Employees who willfully tune out because they do not like something are not fulfilling their part of the bargain.
Resistance to communication is a symptom of organizational dysfunction. It is a sign that everyone is not on board, and the sooner managers address these situations the greater likelihood they will have of solving the issues and getting people on board. Alignment is essential to change. Without everyone pulling together, initiatives are doomed. While that may be what those who resist communications want, allowing such resistance to persist is an invitation to sustained failure.
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John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He is the author of nine books, including 12 Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert Your Authority to Lead and, more recently, Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up. See his archived blog posts by clicking here.