Within any change message, there are three distinct parts: the information or data to be shared, the emotion of the conversation, and the action that needs to be taken. These parts need to be carefully balanced to successfully support a change initiative.
People need information during change–the hard, cold facts. This information might include the details of the new procedures, processes, and plans as well as who will be doing what and when. These pieces form the core of any message and are the easiest to communicate. But before actually communicating the information, consider the emotions involved in the message.
A good rule during change is to communicate seven to ten times more than you normally would. In all our years in this work, we have only seen one organization, on the border of over-communicating about change. The US Army called us to help leaders communicate around a base closing. They announced it three years in advance and had countless meetings, booklets, and publications available about the change. They recognized this was an emotional change and there was no shortage or perceived shortage of information.
Everywhere else we have observed, leaders seem to think that if they have told employees twice about a change, it is enough. But we have found that, given all the emotions involved, employees need to hear the change-related messages over and over.
Think about when you have changed jobs, either by choice or mandate. How many times did you have to go to your manager to get clarification on duties, decisions, resource, procedures, processed, contacts, and so on? Probably a lot! That is because the situation was new. When a situation is new, you are learning. While learning, people are often stressed out from such emotions as confusion and wanting to make a good impression.
There is one thing that is guaranteed during any change–emotions will be flying! The fear, frustration, and anxiety that come with any change cloud the retention of information. It is all too common that critical data get forgotten and key requirements are misunderstood. While it may feel like a conspiracy, it is not! It is the emotions of change at play.
Check on Your Team’s Emotions
As a leader, you want to do what you can to help your people through the emotions of change. At the same time it can be difficult to read their emotions. Your own emotions and about how you expect them to react will cloud your judgment.
Helping your employees move through emotions involves two steps: assessing and taking action. The problem we often see is that leaders take action before assessing how employees are doing. The solution is perception checking.
Perception checking means saying something like: “You seem a little (fill in the emotion you are observing such as stressed, scared, confused, upset, etc), is that right?” This will give your employee the chance to clarify (or not) your perception. If you are right, he or she might give you some more information as to why. If you are wrong, you will be informed as to what is really going on. Either way, you will know what your employee is feeling. From there, you can work together to support the employee’s success.
Address Emotions Directly in Discussions
One way to dissipate emotions and reduce their behind-the-scenes impact during change is to identify and discuss them. For example, if your employees are anxious about the change in a new process and the impact on their workloads, say something like, “I know many of you are anxious about the changes and the impact on our workloads. Let’s take a few minutes to discuss it.” Employees are looking for a place to discuss their feelings. This discussion will either happen with you or with their friends through instant messaging or over lunch. If you create a forum to express emotions, it will not only help employees move through them, but it will give you much needed information as to what is really going on. Otherwise, the important information about fears and issues will not be shared with you, and you will be leading with one eye closed.
Information may be available abundantly and emotions handled well, but that does not guarantee progress. In fact, information overload or too much satisfaction at work can lead to stagnation and paralysis! Include action statements in change messages. Phrases such as “the next step is” and “I expect you to” will help keep progress moving. They will also provide a means to test whether your audience has gotten the change message. People can easily hide behind nice words and trying to please you verbally. Taking action is the only way to show that the change message was received.
For example, the US Army we mentioned above that did a great job of communicating repeatedly about change, slipped up in taking action. Because there was so much time for people to decide if they were going to relocate or not, there was inaction. Employees were waiting for various reasons. Some were waiting to see if they could get better offers; some were waiting because they were indecisive; and others were waiting because they thought the leaders would change their minds and not relocate! Whatever the case, this created an extra burden of stress and lack of productivity while everyone was waiting around.
This was first published in our book Perfect Phrases for Communicating Change (McGraw-Hill)