We think that if we communicate change successfully, we achieve change successfully.
But communicating change successfully really has to begin with an acknowledgment: our organizations are made up of humans. And the organizational capacity for change relies heavily on the individual capacity for change.
Here's the reality about individual 'capacity' according to Jeffrey Kottler in his book called 'Change': 'most people in your organization are just doing their best to manage their own lives and keep things reasonably under control.'
And in the workplace, on top of what we are managing elsewhere in our lives, there are expectations to perform, to advance, to stay sharp, stay relevant and make the right internal political choices. There's a lot in play and a lot on the line. The spare capacity that people have to absorb and embrace change is sometimes fairly minimal - so change needs to be done judiciously and by taking a holistic view.
Do you think you've changed?
Do you think you've changed very much in your life? And do you think you'll change very much in the future? Do you find that you're much different than your five-year-old self? Your 15 year-old self? Your 25 year-old self?
Most of us acknowledge that in many ways we have changed quite a lot in our lives, up to now. Some change has been imposed on us, some of it is related to the season of life that we are in, and some is self-driven. But by and large, research suggests that we underestimate how much we'll change in the future.
It's called 'the End-Of-History illusion'. The history that we're referring to here is our own personal history and the (false) perception that we've reached the end of our change journey.
This is true no matter who we are or how old we are or what we've experienced. As Dan Gilbert puts it: 'humans are works in progress that always mistakenly think that they're done'.
Here's an example of how this manifests.
Think about everything you evaluated before taking your current job. The location, your line manger, opportunities for progression - you made the decision to take the job with your 'future self' in mind thinking that your future self would value exactly what your present self valued.
If you then found things different in your job than you expected them to be - it will be partly because your current self values things differently than your past self did.
Maybe not very much, but you have.
Here's where things really get complicated: we make most decisions with our future selves in mind but based on the incorrect perception that we have it all figured out, now. And employees in our organizations do this, too.
The End-of-History illusion suggest that change resistance is based on that it's easy to remember, but difficult to imagine.
When you're communicating change in your organization it's easy for people to remember the times when change went wrong, remember how difficult things were - and at the same time they find it very difficult to imagine how change might therefore be better this time, or next time, or importantly to evaluate if indeed the change is in line with what they think their future selves will value.
How do we communicate change?
Communicate Hope, Communicate Choice and Communicate Support.
When communicating change, we have the ability to amplify certain messages. We have the opportunity to activate positive emotions and just as we talked about in the End-of-History illusion, we have the ability to help employees imagine a post-change future.
There are three elements of change communications that we can activate to increase our chances of communicating change successfully.
Attitude is everything for successful change. It's a keystone, everything else depends on it.
You don't have to look far to find defeatist thinking when it comes to change - it's everywhere. And it is very effective at sabotaging our prospects for communicating change successfully.
Change in our organisations can sometimes feel imposed upon employees - and therefore it can quickly activate defeatist thinking and negative emotions because, on a primal level, they feel under threat.
When someone feels under threat - their instinct is to resist change and defend what they have. They can even become further entrenched in their views and behaviours.
It's because of this that communicating hope in a change context, is essential.
According to the End-of-History illusion, we make choices with our future selves in mind. From what we eat, to when or if we exercise, to our relationships. We, as free-willed adults, believe that choice - and therefore control - of our future is something we have a right to.
Communicating choice - especially in a change context, is essential. And communicating choice that employees would approve of for their future selves is key.
There are tangible choices people can make throughout a change journey but one that is perhaps the most helpful is the choice of mindset.
When we feel we have no choice, we give away our power. Savvy organizations include choice messages in change. Very rarely is long-lasting change achieved when there is sustained negative thinking. But the good news is - positive thinking is also contagious and negative thinking can be influenced.
What stands out here is that we can provide opportunities for employee voice throughout change and give a platform for advocates and early adopters of change. Employees can then choose, or not, to be part of those platforms and participate in the discussion and potentially become advocates themselves. If 'you can't be, what you can't see', then role models and advocates are vital in successful change.
Groups, friendships and social capital are all important in securing and maintaining commitment and motivation in change. And therefore communicating support in a change context, is essential.
Working with people and not against them. Communicating not just the deadlines and milestones of change but, importantly, providing user-led platforms for support - support from technical experts, support from peers, support from leadership - and communicating that support in a way that that has longevity long past the change project.
By communicating support, it makes it easier for people to imagine that change is sensible, successful and that it's safe to be part of.
Want to communicate change more successfully?
Communicate Hope, Communicate Choice and Communicate Support.