How to Communicate Effectively During Change

Friday, August 7, 2015

How well do you communicate during times of complex or unpopular change? Our communication skills in explaining a change are as important as our analytical skills in planning and coordinating it. 

Indeed, the capability of leaders working in government to speak simply, clearly, and persuasively during complex or difficult change is important—but not easy. It is a key factor in guiding our organizations to a successful outcome. Communicating persuasively during change is my area of professional interest. It is a topic I have taught for many years, and it is at the heart of the consulting that I do. 

During my experience working with government leaders, I have learned that there are two major hurdles when communicating during a time of change: complexity and resistance. 

The #1 hurdle is simplifying the complexity of the change. However complex it might be, we must speak in language that is easy to understand. Here are a few tips to do that: 

  • Explain in the simplest terms possible the compelling business case for the change. Discuss three brief but sound reasons the change makes good business sense, and three ways our organization stands to benefit from the change. If we haven’t figured this out, trouble lies ahead. Without a clear understanding of the reasons for a change, even our early adopters may lose focus and energy.  

  • Break the change process into small, simple steps. Change is inherently complex, but it must be made to seem simple. If we haven’t figured out the small, simple steps people are to take, more trouble lies ahead. Complex instructions lead to stupid or misguided behavior. Simple instructions lead to straightforward and sophisticated behavior. 

The #2 hurdle is handling resistance to the change. We must soften up the resistance and open up the resisters to become participants in the change process. Here are a few tips: 

  • React positively to any resistance; be glad to hear it and listen well. Resistance from people affected by change—even seemingly small change—is normal, natural, and even healthy. They may have vital concerns or information that we may overlook. And just letting them vent shock, anger, and resistance is often necessary before they can accept change.

  • Recruit a few respected champions to speak up for the change. Have early adopters help communicate the need for the change. Ask them to explain the steps in the change process. Resisters are often persuaded more quickly by their peers than by management. 

A few negative people don’t have to be detrimental if we handle their resistance well. A lot of negative resistance may indicate a bigger problem that must be addressed—a lack of trust in the leadership for the change. 
Bottom line: Communication is the lifeblood of every organization, and especially so during times of change. Good communication can shape consensus and motivate action to make the change come to life and take hold.

For more insight managing in turbulent times, join me for my session, “Change Management in Challenging Times,” at Government Workforce: Learning Innovations.  I will discuss how to manage change while preserving your agency’s ability to get the job done.

About the Author

Rich St. Denis is president of St. Denis Training and Consulting, and serves as a trainer and consultant for the American Management Association (AMA). He has written and delivered 10 national programs for AMA, and has trained more than 20,000 professionals and consulted more than 50 companies during the past 23 years. Previously, Rich served 22 years as an army officer. In that role, he led organizations large and small through a variety of changes—structural, procedural, and technological. Rich has a BS in engineering, an MA in English, and an MBA in management.

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