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Communication to build belief & buy-in for business change

Change Management 20th June 2019

Our business change consultants interview Caroline Gosling on communication to enable change

In our first of a series of interviews with senior business leaders, we talk to Caroline Gosling, Director of Culture & Engagement to discuss how effective internal communication enables change.

Question 1: In your opinion, why are robust internal communications so important when it comes to organisational change?

I think there are three things that stand out, which are all linked:

  • Keep in touch with the employee population.  The tendency can be to see internal communications as the activity that ‘tells and informs’. But enabling change needs close connection with your people and an understanding of the organisation’s day to day workings – the current reality for every employee.

By listening and paying attention (and believing what you hear) you can get a sense of how and where change is needed, where things are likely to get stuck and the best way to execute the change. At its most simple, you need to have a grasp of what people want to hear as well as what you want to tell them.

  • Internal communication can build a depth of understanding for change. Not just explaining the usual why, what and how, which is important, but creating opportunities for people to get under the skin of a change so they can get to grips with it and make sense of it for themselves.
  • When change starts to happen, and pockets of the new organisational habits start to emerge, communication has a critical role in amplifying, accelerating and promoting positive change in action – for example, by drawing attention to new desired behaviours when they happen and telling stories about the positive impact of changes being made.

Question 2: The importance of internal communication to enable organisational change is often misunderstood or under-estimated. Why do you think that is?

It’s easy as a leadership or project team to think our job is to ‘workout the answer’ and then worry about telling people afterwards.  As a result, communication is often seen as ‘the bit you do at the end’, and is done poorly or as an after-thought.

Instead, think about how you can create shared understanding over time, build interest and ‘pull’ on the change and enlist parts of the organisation that are already responding to whatever is driving the need for change (there will be some!) is a more effective approach. I know that if someone just tells me what to do without me understanding the point of it, I tend not to do it!

A ‘tell them when we’ve worked out what to do’ approach is sometimes useful (emergencies are a good example!) but generally it underestimates the importance of collaboration and talking about things along the way. It also overestimates what a single communication will achieve. We often put all our faith in a few pieces of carefully worded comms with the hope that once we’ve sent an email and they’ve seen it, they will understand it, buy into it and change the behaviours that are often very ingrained in individuals and the organisational culture. Humans usually don’t work that way.

In reality, 90% won’t read that carefully crafted communication and many of those that do won’t find it relevant or meaningful. Sharing the rational facts about change isn’t enough for people to want to change and misses the opportunity for them to be involved and make sense of the change and associated process.

Ideally any comms around change will be multi-faceted, multi-way (not just top down but bottom up and peer to peer) and you’d have a blend of information and conversation that evolves on an ongoing basis throughout the change.

Question 3: What positive results have you witnessed by having a strong focus on internal communication when it comes to organisational change?

There are two recent moments:

  1. When it isn’t seen as internal communication at all, but rather internal collaboration. The real value is given to the conversation itself. During a massive change to ways of working in my previous organisation, the UK business realised quickly that we’d underestimated the level of disconnection from the people who mattered most. By inviting all the people who were the experts in the reality of how we currently operated (and who would be most affected by the change) in a room to talk to each other we corrected and learned a vast amount about where influence lay in the business! We found that by providing space for these teams to have conversations with one another, they made sense of the change themselves in their own context. No need for slide decks or Q&A documents, or even ‘leaders’. It also enabled a more effective dialogue, so those who were further ahead in the change curve supported others in getting up to speed. They naturally started to feel more involved, to identify and solve roadblocks and did a ton of thinking that was invaluable to then supporting the change in other parts of the organisation.
  2. In a previous role, we took a more interactive, employee-led approach to ‘set piece’ communication moments, moving away from broadcast and Q&A to a more organic, people-led style where employees drive the agenda by asking questions in a “Facebook Live” style set up. Featuring all our executive team together, conversing with each other while they answered questions coming in live. This demonstrated their thought process and gave context and justification to their answers. This worked simply because it brought employees closer to these senior leaders and demonstrated a real human element, strengthening a feeling of connectivity to the leadership, the company’s purpose and strategy and to each other.

Question 4: Have you experienced unforeseen circumstances when it comes to internal communication that threatened to throw an organisational change project off-track? How can you avoid this?

Unforeseen circumstances happen all the time! Very simply I think you need a plan – have a structure for your comms and a strong idea of the story you want to build and that you’ve created this via insight and input from the people who are going to make the change happen (including but not only the project team or leadership).

Once you have a plan, to consciously choose to stay flexible and responsive. Stuff emerges over time, things that seemed like they’d be a no brainer turn out to be potential derailers. That’s why involvement of people who are in the organisational reality is so critical and why collaboration and connection is such a determinant of success.

Question 5: What do you regard as fundamental for building robust internal communications to support any organisational change?

The most fundamental piece I think is:

  1. To adopt the mind-set that all employees are important and everyone’s contribution has equal value. That the answers are probably already in the business.
  2. That inspiration and emotional connection are just as important as facts and rational reasoning.

Involve people early and widely, know what you are trying to cause, get your story straight and be prepared to evolve it if people’s words and behaviour are telling you it’s not working.

I also think leaders (however you define them) need to be willing and able to take a hard look at themselves and find people who will hold them to account for making the same behaviour changes they are asking of others – easy to say and very hard to do in my experience!

Question 6: In your opinion are there stand out communication mechanisms (regardless of organisation or industry) that should be leveraged to support organisational change?

  1. Dialogue and conversation – this should involve digital interactions and physical conversations. As part of this, assess if you have enough touch points where people can have conversations (both physically and digitally).
  2. Recognise how you can amplify your message and get people involved with the story – digital channels e.g. social, enable this but it shouldn’t replace face to face interaction and instead should amplify the opportunity to help people feel connected.

Question 7: You are an experienced internal communications professional, but there is always room to improve. What else would you like to do/build upon in future internal communications strategies to better enable change?

So many things. In his book ‘The Open Organisation’, Jim Whitehouse talks about Red Hat’s approach of spending a lot of time upfront and in a dialogue about proposed changes. He says it can be a painful and lengthy process, but once you get to implementation of the change everything then accelerates. I’d like to continue to explore how engagement and involvement doesn’t just drive change but creates a responsive organisation. A group of colleagues that have the capability and motivation to make the necessary changes intuitively and organically but not chaotically – instead, aligned around a common purpose and understanding of the organisation’s role in the world. It’s a great time to be working in this area as organisations think hard about who they are, why they exist and how to operate in the future. Lots to learn!