How to Communicate Organizational Change Effectively & Keep Employees Engaged
Companies go through change almost non-stop. And that is a good thing. If you are going through change, it likely means that your company is growing. But that doesn’t mean that change can’t be hard. Ralph Stayer, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Johnsonville Sausage LLC, argues that “[C]hange is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have — and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.” This phenomenon is increasingly common and can challenge your company’s ability to grow.
If you or your company is trying to make an organizational change like a merger and acquisition or restructuring, you will need to adjust both your own habits as well as those of the company at large. This kind of unilateral change requires strong leadership and skills that you may not yet have. You’re not alone; only 34% of change initiatives in businesses lead to success. Furthermore, another 16% have mixed results. That means that 50% fail in total.
To help you land in the 50% that succeeds, we reached out to business leaders across industries to learn how they communicate organizational change effectively and keep employees engaged when doing so.
“Every member of your organization needs to be shown respect,” says Russell Lieberman, Founder & CEO of Altan Insights. “That means you need to be honest with them from the start and not hide your plans.” Every employee should understand why the changes are happening and what they mean for them. “Nobody should be going home and telling people that they have no idea why the change is happening. They can disagree, but they should at least understand the why of it.”
Be straightforward so it’s clear that you aren’t trying to hide anything. Answer any questions that employees have honestly and if you don’t have an answer, let them know. The goal is to make sure everyone understands the why even if the how is still coming into focus.
People want to know how a change will affect them and their job. “When people hear change, they immediately wonder how it is going to affect their day-to-day life,” says Sara Adam Slywka, Co-Founder and CMO at Nestig.
Let your employees know if the proposed changes are going to change the way their performance is measured, their title, their role, their team; anything and everything that they might be curious about.
“Show your appreciation for their understanding to help settle their emotions,” Slywka added. “There will certainly be good news and bad news for them and their roles, so be sure to thank them for their understanding and patience as the company goes through these changes.”
“A good change initiative should start at the very top and work its way through the company’s ranks,” says Liz Donahey, Marketing Manager at Red Pocket. “It should be a cascading strategy that starts with the CEO and flows through directors and managers who go into more detail with their teams.”
The initial announcement should always be from the company’s leader and should be communicated in person if that is an option. Managers should be briefed on how they are meant to communicate the changes to their teams so that they can answer any questions that might arise. The managers should be able to bring any unanswered questions back to top management. “It should be a two-way, ongoing discussion,” Donahey added. “A town hall or dedicated email to answer questions about the changes will go a long way toward helping everyone feel like they are in it together.”
When everyone feels as though they have been well informed, you have successfully communicated the changes to all members of the organization.
“We got there in stages because, while you can force anything down the throat of an organization, if people don’t buy into the logic, the change won’t stick,” says Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the Executive who led the historic changes at IBM in the ’90s.
“Rolling out everything all at once is a good way to make sure everyone gets whiplash,” says Trey Ferro, CEO of Spot Pet Insurance. “You need to allow employees the time to digest the information you are throwing at them. This will keep them engaged as you go because they will have time to process and ask questions. Once everyone is on the same page, you can roll out the next stages and so on.”
To gauge people’s understanding, consider a survey or face-to-face meetings. The more you understand where everyone is at, the better.
If you have committed your organization to a major change, the chances are that you arrived at the decision because you had a clear vision. You saw how the company could benefit from the changes and now it is time you let your employees in on what it was you saw.
“How will your company operate when the change happens, what will it mean for the employees, what are the results you are hoping for? These are just a few of the questions you should be answering in order to help everyone see your vision,” says Patricio Paucar, Co-founder and Chief Customer Officer at Navi.
When you clarify the reasons behind a decision, it helps those affected better understand the shared vision and how they are helping the company achieve it.
“When we moved to a hybrid model in response to the pandemic, we had to communicate the rapid change initiative to our whole company. The only way we were able to do it was by being transparent and letting everyone know why it was happening. We communicated our clear vision for the future of our office at every step and our employees rallied around it.”
“Try to energize and engage your team by giving them the tools they need to navigate the changes,” says John Berry, CEO and Managing Partner at Berry Law. “Your role as the leader of your company is to chart the path and show everyone how to get to the end.”
Change is a difficult process. Even if the end goal is better for all involved, it is easy to get discouraged along the way. “Additional communication through the journey helps employees to navigate the path you have set. Let them know that they are not making the changes alone. Put actions behind your words.”
Be sure to include resources for employees to use once you have communicated the change. “If there isn’t a clear picture and resources to help, everyone is going to feel overwhelmed and maybe even paralyzed into inaction,” added Akhilesh Srivastava, Founder & CEO of Fenix Commerce. “A map will help keep them focused on the ultimate goal.”
Communication shouldn’t only apply to the initial plan for your company’s changes. It should extend long after the initial announcement.
“You should be prepared to communicate with your team every step of the way,” says Stephen Skeel, Co-founder and Executive Producer at 7 Wonders Cinema. “Check in with everyone and restate your vision, remind them why the change is happening, communicate any changes that might be happening to the initial plan… anything and everything that will help keep them motivated and well equipped to navigate this period of change.”
Remember that changes are a normal and healthy part of any organization. How you handle changes, however, can make or break your company, so be sure to handle them with care and communicate along the way.