In the fourth article in a series on change Gary Wyles explores communicating change to the head, heart and hand
The head seems to rule in business. We talk facts and figures. We talk about the ‘what’ we need to change. Rarely do we talk about the ‘why’. And answering the ‘why’ question is how we appeal to individuals on an emotive level. To engage your people, you need to engage them in the ‘why’. Why the business needs to change. Why they are important to making it work. Then you need to give them a hand.
The success of any type of change relies on your employees being on-board. They’re the ones that will be working to deliver success. That’s why change management is crucial. Core to successful, proactive change management is communication.
When working through a change project, of course you will need the rational facts and figures. A leader will have to prepare projections and schedules. They’ll need to be able to understand how the change is going to be executed. However, if this is the only thing that is presented to employees, whether in a fancy presentation or not, there’s no reason for them to be engaged. It is no way to communicate change. In fact, it can be a high-risk strategy.
If change is communicated by information only, it’s likely that employees will avoid being engaged in the project. They might see it as ‘just another HQ initiative.’ Looking at levels of engagement in the UK workforce1, the 26 per cent of employees who are actively disengaged and the majority of the workforce who sit in the middle as not engaged (57 per cent), will be the hardest to convince. And not having the full commitment of your employees sets any change project up to fail. Not the best starting point.
Communicating to the heart could be seen by some as ‘soft’. But it’s imperative. When undertaking change, people need to know where they’re headed. They require leaders to paint a detailed picture of the future that they will want to be part of. It’s about creating a culture that people desire. It’s about engaging people on more than a rational or remunerative level. Reaching people on an emotional level helps to contain the flood of emotional responses that people can have when faced with change.
In recent research that we’ve conducted at Festo2 we found that 60.4 per cent of employees respond to negatively to change out of surprise and fear of the unknown. Forty-four per cent of employers who answered believed negative reactions were due to there being no personal reward for their employees to change.
Without addressing the underlying emotions your employees are feeling, a change project can derail. What is interesting is that when leaders implement change projects they might know where they want to get to. Often, the exact route is not always fully mapped out. This can make us uncomfortable. And because of our own reticence to admit that we don’t have all the answers, we might not feel communicating openly with our employees is the right approach.
What this response doesn’t address is the fact that your employees will likely have foreseen some of the issues. They might not know the extent, but they’ll certainly not trust the current leadership if there is not a full and frank disclosure about the challenges being faced that necessitate the change. And their emotional response? Do you think they’ll trust you to manage the change? Do you think they’ll support it? Or, do you think that their first response would be to tidy-up their CV and start looking for another role?
However, if leaders communicated to the heart, as well as the head, the outcome could, and should, be different. Reaching people at an emotional level is about demonstrating three key principles – honesty, integrity and authenticity. They have to trust what you’re saying, otherwise they’ll see through any form of communication as a crass attempt at manipulation.
Communicating to and from the heart is certainly not a soft option. It’s certainly not touchy-feely. It is perhaps one of the greatest fears of leaders. For many people, owning up to what went wrong shows vulnerability and fallibility. That’s fine. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all learn from our mistakes. In Google Books, there are 12,300,000 books on failure. It’s a common human experience.
The final step in communicating change is about the hand. I visualise this as helping someone to their feet or to climb up a steep learning curve. As leaders and managers, we have to have our hand outstretched at all times. We need to be there to guide our people through change. We have to give them a lift up when they’re down. And yes, we might have to put gentle pressure on their back (not a shove) to move them towards the right path.
A humbling point for a leader is when you’re down and your people stretch out their hand to you. That’s when you know you’ll have success – because then you really are all in it together.
- State of the Global Workforce Report 2013, Gallup, 2013
- Festo & Works Management, People & Productivity 2015
About the author
Gary Wyles is managing director of Festo Training & Consulting