To paraphrase the Chinese curse, we are condemned to live in interesting times. Economic uncertainty abounds, jobs for life have disappeared, companies gobble each other at the drop of a hat. But while change is a constant in many people’s working lives, most (70% according to John Kotter and McKinsey) major change management programs fail. Why?
Failure to communicate effectively is one major reason and, according to a recent panel discussion of change communications specialists at the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, much of that failure is down to an over-emphasis on leadership communications and a lack of willingness to understand and act on employee concerns and motivations.
Rather, the real key to successful change communications is for line managers to act as the primary change agents. Research studies show that employees trust their line managers much more than they trust senior management. The CEO town hall does not cut the mustard when it comes to communicating major change.
Yet even line managers have their work cut out, for employees trust their fellow colleagues more than their immediate bosses, something that is likely to have been deepened by the availability of social media within the workplace. Far from killing office water-cooler chat, social media has put employee word of mouth on steroids.
How should organisations communicate with rank and file employees on social media during major change initiatives? According to the panelists they should:
- Not attempt to control the conversation
- Set expectations and carefully manage conversation parameters
- Create a constructive environment by encouraging employees to share concerns but also potential solutions
- Look for the underlying issues as many employees will not share their main concerns
- Make sure to listen and respond quickly, openly and thoroughly.
To square the circle, I would add that both company leaders and managers need to be actively involved in these conversations.
Disclaimer: I chair the Chamber’s Communications & Marketing Committee that helped organise the session.