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Fresh News: What I've Learned About Communicating Change

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What I've Learned About Communicating Change

by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

 

A quarter of a century ago I was a therapist in private practice who had just agreed to speak to the communications department of a major bank on the "human" side of organizational change. It was my first talk to a corporate group, but from that program on, I was hooked. I became a huge fan of communicators everywhere and a passionate advocate for helping individuals and organizations thrive on change.

Twenty-five years later, here are some of the lessons I have learned about communicating change . . .

It isn't about strategy. It's about people. Communicators may develop well-crafted strategies that emphasize the urgency for change. They may enlist eloquent leaders to deliver those strategic messages.

But . . . organizational change efforts (still) fail more often than they succeed. And rarely because of poor strategies. Rather, it's almost always a "people" issue. If the individuals in an organization don't agree with the stated rational, if they haven't been involved in developing the strategic plan, and if they don't trust the messages they hear from leadership, there will be no successful change.

Emotion is more powerful than logic. Which is not to say that logic isn't important. Employees need to understand the marketplace realities that are the driving forces of change. They need to know the consequences of not changing. And they need to hear the answers to questions about how changes will impact them personally: What specifically is changing -- and what isn't? What's in it for me? How does this affect my job and my security? What new skills will I need to learn?

But . . . what matters more than the facts alone is the ability to place those facts into a meaningful context and to deliver them with emotional impact. That is why stories are such a powerful communication tool. Stories create the context and speak to the emotions. Rolf Jensen, in his wonderful book, "The Dream Society," says that we need to learn the language of emotion - a language which is embodied in myth, symbols, rituals and stories.

What they see is more powerful than what you say. As a therapist, and later as a consultant, I've seen how words have the power to inspire, enlighten, and transform people.

But . . . nothing is more depressing than watching corporate communicators struggle to convince an audience with words that run contrary to organizational symbols and leadership behaviors. If an organization is filled with signs of executive privilege (corporate dining room, over-the-top executive compensation, reserved parking spaces, etc.) and the change message is: "We're all in this together!" -- that message will be derailed by the far more convincing corporate symbols. Likewise, if the stated message is "Let's all collaborate!" and employees sense that senior leadership does not work well together, the collaboration message hasn't a chance.

Informal communication is more powerful than formal communication. We will always need and value authentic speeches from senior leaders, well-written and well-researched articles in newsletters, and first-line supervisors who are first-rate communicators.

But . . . organizations are a mixture of hierarchical structure and informal networks, and the approaches listed above - executive speeches, articles and first-line communication -- utilize only formal channels. None of them deals with the complex web of social interactions and informal networks that are the conduit for up to 70% of all organization information. Grapevine communication is more pervasive, faster, and more influential than formal communication.

I think this response from a participant in my research on the topic sums it up perfectly: "Formal communication focuses on messages the company wants to deliver, with a scope management feels is appropriate, and at a time management feels is right. The reason the grapevine plays such an important role is that it delivers the information employees care about, provides the details employees think they should know, and is delivered at the time employees are interested."

Nonverbal communication is more powerful than verbal communication. Traditional explanations of human behavior in the business world presume that employees are influenced most by meaning and reasoning.

But . . . recent studies from the Human Dynamics Group at MIT's Technology Media Lab, Xerox and Intel's research centers (and a growing volume of other evidence), suggest that this view is seriously flawed. The key to successful change communication may be found in understanding the kinds of signals ordinarily overlooked, especially tone of voice and body language.

All of us express enthusiasm, warmth, and confidence -- as well as arrogance, indifference, and displeasure through our facial expressions, gestures, touch, and use of space. If leaders at any level of an organization want to be perceived as credible and forthright, they have to think "outside the speech." That's where they'll recognize the importance of what isn't being said, but is being communicated.


Carol Kinsey Goman Ph.D. is a leadership communications coach and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She offers informative, interactive, entertaining and custom-tailored programs.


• Expert contributor for The Washington Post's "On Leadership" column.
• Leadership blogger on Forbes.com
• Author of "The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work (Bk Business)" and "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help--or Hurt--How You Lead."

To contact Carol about speaking or coaching, call +1 510 526 1727 or email CGoman@CKG.com. For more information or to view videos, visit Carol’s websites: www.SilentLanguageOfLeaders.com and www.CKG.com.

You can also follow Carol on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CGoman, on FORBES http://blogs.forbes.com/people/carolgoman/, or “Like” her Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carol-Kinsey-Goman-PhD/105398069543578

Reports I have written:

Measuring the impact and ROI of social media
Measuring the impact and ROI of social media - for Ark Group
Making social media work for your business
Making Social Media work for your business - for Ark Group
Social Media: the new business communication landscape
Social Media: The New Business Communication Landscape - for Ark Group
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation - for Melcrum Publishing
How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues
Contributing author to How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues - for Melcrum Publishing

How to use social media to engage employees
Contributing author to How to use social media to engage employees - for Melcrum Publishing

Contributing author to How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees - for Melcrum Publishing

 

 

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