I’ve managed communications for a lot of changes in my nearly 20 years being a communication professional – bankruptcy, acquisition, reductions to the workforce, reduced grant funding model, leadership changes, impacts of the Great Recession and more. It makes me wonder what kinds of changes I haven’t had to communicate! (I’m sure I’ll see a new one soon!)
Communicating change is hard
It doesn’t matter if a change is planned, unplanned, positive or negative – there is a ridiculously short time frame between a message landing and a fire hose of response being aimed directly at you, the messenger.
We’ve all witnessed change announcements gone wrong, and if you’re like me, that can add some anxiety about getting the message just right. Too cocky and you alienate. Too apologetic and people question the decision maker’s intent. Too slick and you’re hiding something. Too folksy and you’re pandering. The strongest tool we have as communicators for dialing in a not too hard, not too soft messaging platform is transparency. Transparency is the regulator that lets us manage the intensity of the fire hose. Transparency can diffuse high emotion and it helps keep people listening.
Tone and expectations are other items under your direct control. Use them wisely to craft a transparent message.
What’s transparency in communications?
It’s real, authentic information that’s as clear as it can be, covering what’s happened and why without spin.
Here are guidelines I’ve adopted for myself to keep transparency as my guiding principle when crafting change messages:
- Be as clear and open as possible in the first message to set the stage for transparency.
- Keep it brief. Don’t use five sentences when you can use two. Fluff, unnecessary words, isn’t going to make change easier to digest.
- Acknowledge the sting. Even a positive change has a flip side and painting a wholly rosy picture is disingenuous. See more below about avoiding assumptions.
- If you don’t know, say you don’t know … and then get the answer. The impulse to have an answer to every question in the moment is strong, but often results in half-formed platitudes.
- Stay in the present. Share what is known now, and if a piece of information isn’t concrete, frame statements accordingly. Ex: “Based on what we know today ….”
- Commit to sharing more information as the situation evolves. If it’s already known that more details are coming that aren’t yet fully formed, share that too.
- If a change cycle is protracted, set a cadence for updates and stick to it, even if the update is to say there is no update.
Above all, I’ve learned never to presume how an audience will feel about a change. Avoid writing messages that “know” what a person’s emotional reaction will be. Phrases like, “we know you’ll be as excited as we are” or “we know it’s a shock” almost always invite comment to the contrary, and can make leadership appear out of touch with their workforce.
You can always express the leadership’s feelings about a change. In fact, employees at your organization probably want to know what he or she is thinking about the change and why. But convey their thoughts without telling employees what to feel.
Being the messenger during change will test the mettle of any communicator. But adopting transparency as the guiding principle in change communications is the best way I’ve learned to manage the pressure of a fire hose response cycle. Going into a change cycle acknowledging that you will not be able to answer every question or calm every fear immediately doesn’t mean you aren’t confident of your ability to be an effective communicator. On the contrary, it means you’re building space to temper the knee-jerk impulse and truly manage the response phase thoughtfully.
It’ll also keep your sanity.