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Friday, 26 July 2013 07:36

5 Essentials of Change Communication

You can never be too good at this 


During the change management process, communication is essential. Done well, it can drive a business initiative's success; done poorly, it can undermine the entire process. It's almost impossible to communicate too much, but it is possible to communicate the wrong way or to send the wrong message.

Here are the 5 essentials of great change communication:

1.  Communicate, communicate, communicate!

During a change process, communicate early, often, and with a purpose.  Have a goal for every communication:  To inform, excite or to generate feedback.  (It's best to have one goal per communication.)

Remember, not everyone is going to hear everything you say, the first time.  People will absorb one or two key messages, but not everything.  Follow up each communication with a recap in a different medium (email isn't the only channel!).  Plan to be in touch in different ways, but remember that face-to-face - or face-to-many-faces, as the case may be - is best for fresh news.

2.  Tell people more than they expect to hear

Most people expect to hear a lot of 'doubletalk' and non-information from corporate communications.  Confound these expectations by being as specific as possible, and by providing more information than they expected.  (It's also okay to tell people you have nothing new to tell them, but that you just wanted to keep them up-to-date on the progress of the business initiative.)

3.  Never tell people that things could be worse

I once sat in a room where downsizings had been announced, in which an executive stood up to say "It could be worse - we could be laying off a lot more people..."

Every person in that room already thought they were going to lose their job; they didn't care whether the layoff was going to be 300 or 3000 people.  Senior management looked callous and uncaring, and productivity plummeted.

Meanwhile, another executive sent out a voicemail congratulating her team because the business initiative that had been announced was ahead of schedule.  This would have been all right except that what that meant - and what people heard - was that the planned layoffs were ahead of schedule as well.  No damage control efforts could fix the negative business impact this single voicemail caused.

4.  Be sincere, be yourself - but know your credibility level

Don't try to be someone you aren't.  If you usually have a formal style, be formal; if you're usually casual, be casual.  A change in tone will cause confusion and mistrust.  During a change, it's the little things that can derail progress - and consistency will go a long way to reassuring employees.

Be honest with yourself about the level of credibility you have within the organization, and make decisions accordingly.  If you don't know your credibility level, it's best to find out before you start announcing any business transformation efforts.

5.  Don't lie - especially by omission

I always tell executives:  You always know when your kids are lying to you - and your employees always know when you are lying to them.  Every time you lie, your credibility takes a huge hit and it's almost impossible to ever regain that trust.

The biggest lies executives tell are lies by omission:  You know something is going to happen and you just don't mention it.  Keep in mind that you've hired intelligent people to work for you, and they'll know if you're leaving information out.  Yes, sometimes there is information that you can't share.  Find a way to share what you can, and find a way to let people know that as soon as you can share more information, you will.  And then follow through.



The other day I was having lunch with a former colleague who had recently become the VP of HR & Recruiting at a large company.  She was frustrated.

“I don’t know what the heck the problem is,” she sighed.  “I know the department was a disaster when I came on board last year, but I got rid of the two managers who were causing most of the problems, I’ve brought in new technology to replace the outdated system that had been on its last legs for years, and I even brought in an improv coach to do some fun team-building exercises.  But everyone still seems demoralized and I don’t know what more I can do at this point.”

Since this is a classic change management dilemma (“We made all the right changes - why hasn’t productivity/morale/business improved?”), I asked her a few questions.

There is such a thing as being too positive

Most of us know there’s a lot of truth in the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  Generally speaking, it’s a good motto for both our personal and professional lives:  No one wants to be friends with a Debbie Downer, and no one wants to work with (or promote) someone who spends all their time complaining.


When you’re the leader of a change initiative, and the change is happening because the pre-change state is best described as ‘a disaster’, refusing to acknowledge that disaster doesn’t make you look like a positive, Dale Carnegie type - it just makes you look like maybe you don’t actually understand the situation.

That’s what had happened with my lunch companion.  She’d been brought in specifically to transform the HR/Recruiting department, but as a new hire who prided herself on her professionalism and positive attitude, she didn’t want to alienate her new team members by being negative about what had gone on before her arrival.  So instead of announcing that the two managers had been unceremoniously fired, she let everyone think that they’d simply ‘moved on to other opportunities’; instead of acknowledging that the existing technology was a productivity-sucking blight on the organization, she talked about the increased usability of the new system; and instead of acknowledging that the bad managers had created a lot of dissention within the team, she positioned the improv coach as a fun activity to help her get to know her new staff. 

Most importantly, when her direct reports alluded to the previously disastrous situation, she pretended not to understand and instead just refocused the conversation on how great things were going to be once the changes were complete.

The result 

Her employees - already on edge as a result of an extended period of bad management - concluded that she was just another dingbat brought in to make their lives difficult, and that the changes she was making wouldn’t actually fix anything because she hadn’t understood the problems in the first place.  So they didn’t bond with the new managers she hired, they resisted using the new technology system, and half of them mysteriously had urgent appointments on the days the improv coach was scheduled to come in.

The lesson

As a change leader, being relentlessly positive isn’t always the best approach.  Of course you don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about how terrible things were before you arrived, and it’s never a good idea to speak badly about former employees, even if they were idiots.  But it’s crucial that you let people know that you are, in fact, well aware of the pre-change problems, and that you understand how those problems affected your team’s ability to work effectively.   You can acknowledge the problems without being negative:  Instead of ignoring an employee’s snarky comment about how cumbersome the previous technology was, you can say “I know - it was brutal!  That’s why I’m so excited about the new system.  Let me tell you about it…”

When people realize that you understand their frustration, they’re more inclined to see you as someone they can work with rather than just another adversary they have to work around - which will make them much more enthusiastic and responsive to the changes you’re trying to implement.


Monday, 15 July 2013 13:40

Don't Be Fooled By the $25,000 Diagram


It's time to become model-agnostic.

I'm a big believer in the value of theoretical rigor - I guess that comes from my graduate work.  In fact, I tend to think that anyone who works in a professional services field should have a solid grounding in the theories that underpin their specialty.  Change management, in particular, is a field that can so often get mistaken for a touchy-feely offshoot of HR, I'd like to see more practitioners with advanced degrees in the field.

meaningless diagram

(An example of a diagram which looks nice, but means almost nothing when you think about it.)

However - and it's a big 'however - it's important to remember that if all the change management models we learn in degree programs were as true as 2+2=4, we wouldn't call them 'theories'.  We'd call them 'universal truths'.

And therein we have the basis of one of the biggest problems in change management: The $25,000 diagram.

What do I mean?

All too often I see change management professionals who try to use the theory approach to solve every change-related challenge.  They dust off their favorite change management model from a textbook, plug in some numbers and arrows, add some bullet points about the marvelous results this model will magically achieve - and voila!  The client gets a nice-looking PowerPoint presentation, the heart of which is an attractive diagram that appears to demonstrate a few simple actions that will transform the organization.  And a bill for $25,000 for this insight.

There's a big difference between theory and implementation

Theory is great as far as it goes, but it's only part of the solution - in my experience, implementation, execution and results are more than 75% of the change process.

What's more, every organization is different, and so far I've never encountered one that fit neatly into a single change model or approach. There's always an angle that isn't accounted for in the theory, a business function which isn't accommodated in the handy 4-square diagram, and a learning curve which isn't reflected in the results grid.

So my recommendation, when you're planning your change process, is to take a model-agnostic approach.  Instead of relying on a particular theory, look for a plan which spends more time on how the implementation will roll out - and how it will affect your people - than on how it should roll out, based on the theoretical diagram.

Reading this article about organizational culture in the Harvard Business Review the other day, I was reminded of my long-standing belief that the term 'organizational culture' shouldn't just be a noun that describes a 'thing', but also a verb which describes an action - the action of creating and maintaining a culture.

The notion that organizational culture exists has been around for a long time, though the term itself wasn't yet popular - I can remember having conversations in the 1990s about whether so-and-so was a 'good fit' for this or that organziation.  We might have used terms like 'corporate environment' or even 'company vibe' to describe the way a particular organization operated, but what we really meant was 'culture'.

Then the dot-com era arrived, along with Herman Miller furniture, free snacks in the lunchroom and super-cool offices in converted downtown warehouses, and suddenly 'culture' was a big selling point for fast-growing companies who were competing for top talent.

The problem is that you can't just give people Aeron chairs and unlimited free diet Coke and assume that will create a culture.  'Culture' may be a noun, but creating and sustaining organizational culture is an ongoing activity which isn't top-down or bottom-up - it's more like a scatter graph with arrows and squiggles and dotted lines connecting everyone in the organization, and even lots of people outside the organization, to each other.

Culture isn't a static thing; it's constantly in flux.  And it's not just imposed on an organization on a Monday at 9am via a memo entitled "Our New Culture".  It's created through individual activities over an extended period of time.  That's why when I was writing my doctoral thesis, back in 2000, I coined the term 'culturing' - using a verb rather than a noun is a good way to remember that it's a process, not an event or a finite state.

Organizational culture is really all about relationships:  The relationship the organization has to its employees, the relationships those employees have to the organization and to each other, and the relationships the organization - and its individual employees - have with outside stakeholders like clients and suppliers.  Relationships are the product of a series of interactions over time:  When the interactions are positive, the relationship deepens and is lasting; when the interactions are negative, the relationship deteriorates and finally ends.

But it's more than that.  The nature of individual relationships is a product of the nature of the interactions, too:  When your interactions with person A consist mainly of weekly golf games, and your interactions with person B consist mainly of romantic dates, you naturally end up having a different relationship with person A than you do with person B.

With that in mind, 'culturing' is the term I use to describe actively creating specific interactions designed to build the organizational culture you want.  It's not enough to hand people a list of "Our Core Values" and then hope for the best.  Culturing is about helping the individuals within an organization - from the senior leadership team right down to the junior interns - to apply those values to their day-to-day activities.  It could be as simple as reminding people that since one of the organization's core values is 'responsiveness', on a day-to-day basis they should be making an effort to respond to phone calls and emails as promptly as possible, or it could be as complex as ensuring that 'responsiveness' is reflected in a commitment to a nimble supply chain functino.

And here's the thing:  When you start thinking about culturing rather than culture, you'll end up getting the culture you want, faster - and more effectively.

In our previous posts on Positive Psychology, we've talked about what positive psychology really is, about how neuroplasticity affects the way we learn, about the essential factors in creating the motivation to change, and about the implications of all this for organizations.

Now we're going to look at the ABCs of positive psychology:  Affect, Behavior and Cognition.

All 3 of these - affect, behavior, cognition - are necessary for change to occur.  They are important individually, but their real power is in the way they intersect and align.

Today, we're going to talk about Cognition.


Cognitive therapists will tell you that you never simply experience an event - you interpret it.  You have a thought about the event, and then you have a feeling about it.  Their premise is that we can change our feelings about an event simply by changing our interpretation of it.  Now, I'm not totally convinced that this works every time, but I do believe that the way we interpret events leads us to conclusions that may or may not be productive for us.

For example, let’s say I’m in a meeting and present an idea.  My boss cuts me off and tells me the idea has no merit.  I’ve got three choices:  I can either interpret his reaction as an indication that I, as a worker, have no merit and shut down for the rest of the meeting (or, in fact, for many subsequent meetings).  Or I can interpret his reaction with curiosity:  “Why do you think that?” or “Which part of my idea has no merit?”  Or I can interpret his reaction as a misunderstanding:  “Maybe I haven’t explained my idea fully - let me try again.”

Option 1 isn’t productive for me - or for my organization, who now has a disengaged (even if only temporarily) employee.  Options 2 or 3, however, reframe the incident in a more positive way for me as an individual, and for the organization, because I remain engaged.  The option I choose is dependent upon the way I’ve interpreted the situation.

How we interpret an incident or situation affects the way that incident is established as a neural pathway.  If we want to change the way we interpret events - if we want to make it less automatic, especially if we’re in the habit of interpreting events in a negative light - we need to create new neural pathways.  I call it ‘getting curious’.  Instead of assuming, for example, that my boss’ comment indicated that I had no merit and consequently retreating into a disengaged state, I can ask questions:  “Let me clarify:  Do you mean that my whole idea has no merit, or that there is a specific aspect of it that won’t work in the context we’re discussing?”


The Three Ms

As individuals and as organizations, we’re often guilty of the Three Ms:  Magnifying, Minimizing, and Making Up.  Magnifying is when we overgeneralize or engage in ‘all or nothing’ thinking.  Minimizing is when we underplay and dismiss the positive (and sometimes the negative) elements of a situation or idea.  Making Up is when we use faulty emotional reasoning or assign blame incorrectly.

When organizations magnify, or overgeneralize around a change (“This is a fantastic change!  It will be so great for everyone!  This will be the miracle we’ve all been waiting for!”) they can end up losing the engagement of their stakeholders.  The truth is that change is rarely universally positive, and when organizations don’t acknowledge this, they lose trust, which can be fatal to a change (and even to the business as a whole).

Companies which minimize the truth of a change in favor of a sanitized, “don’t pay attention to the man behind the green curtain” version of their change strategy will also lose trust and the engagement of stakeholders. 

And organizations which spend more time assigning blame than in fixing mistakes end up creating a blame culture in which CYA memos become more important than actually getting stuff done - which will derail a change initiative faster than you can say “It wasn’t my fault.”

Cognition is all about encouraging individuals - and the organization - to respond more positively when faced with a potentially negative situation, by consciously creating more positive neural pathways, whether in the individuals involved in a change or in the processes which are the organizational equivalent to neural pathways.  It is these conscious changes - combined with Affect and Behavior [insert appropriate links] which will allow the organization to implement and sustain meaningful change over the long term.


Part 2 of 2:  It's all about balance

Last time, we talked about the importance of balancing culture and strategy, and what happens when they get out of balance.


After Shawn Parr wrote his (somewhat polarizing) piece, 'Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch', he followed it up with 'Don't Let Culture Vultures Scuttle Your Strategy', in which he clarified that he did, in fact, believe in the marriage of culture + strategy.

One of the most salient lines in the second piece was this:

"Strategy is rational and culture is emotional."

And here we have the essence of great change management.  In order to properly balance culture and strategy, you must recognize that while plans on paper may be entirely rational, they are ultimately carried out by people - who tend to operate emotionally.

Example:  Company B

Company B is just emerging from some very hard years - or at least they thought they were.  Only a few months ago, they were talking about how rosy their future looked, but now they're back to trying to figure out how to make their numbers.  Their 'engagement survey' results have never looked better, but somehow that hasn't translated into increased sales.

What does this really mean for Company B?

Well, it means that the people working within the organization are probably feeling like they've been on a roller-coaster ride for the past couple of years.  One day they think they're 'safe'; the next, they're getting the message that they're in jeopardy.  They're unclear what the strategy should be, and their not confident that the decisions they're making are the right ones.  In other words, they're caught between behaving rationally and behaving emotionally.

How the right change management approach can help

Balancing the rational and emotional elements of change management involves 3 key factors:

  • Establishing a core business strategy
  • Acknowledging the emotional implications or the existing situation and for the imminent change process - for the individual and the organizational culture
  • Ensuring consistency over time, even as change is happening

Establishing a core business strategy addresses the need for a 'rational' goal that everyone can get behind; acknowledging the emotional implications addresses the culture growing pains that will occur; and ensuring consistency alleviates the uncertainty engendered by the previous 'roller-coaster ride' that was preventing forward movement.

In our previous posts on Positive Psychology, we've talked about what positive psychology really is, about how neuroplasticity affects the way we learn, about the essential factors in creating the motivation to change, and about the implications of all this for organizations.

Now we're going to look at the ABCs of positive psychology:  Affect, Behavior and Cognition.

All 3 of these - affect, behavior, cognition - are necessary for change to occur.  They are important individually, but their real power is in the way they intersect and align.

Today, we're going to talk about Behavior.


Sometimes, we go to a class or a workshop and we leave all fired up:  We've learned a new way to approach problem solving, or gained a new skill in handling conflict, or we've just been inspired by someone who is doing great things in their field.

We go back to work, full of ideas about how we're going to Change the World or even just our own corner of it...and then, after a few days or weeks, the changes we had resolved to make either fail to launch or fall by the wayside.

Why?  Because any real, lasting change requires real, consistent behavior change.  

Whenever I work with a group, the last thing I ask at the end of the day is "What will you do differently tomorrow (or on Monday morning)?"  It's a critical question, because in order for our situation to become different, we have to behave differently.

Work smart - and then smarter

In 1993, Anders Ericsson studied elite musicians.  He found that they work hard, but more importantly, they work smart - and then challenge themselves to work even smarter.  Elite musicians practiced:  they worked at their craft consistently, day in and day out.  They worked smart:  they had teachers to coach them and provide feedback all along the way.  And they worked smarter:  they didn't practice too much - 4-6 hours a day, no more.

Edward Taub, a leading neuroplasticity researcher who works with stroke victims, found a similar trend with his clients.  After 4 hours of therapy a day, stroke victims made no more positive gains when they spent additional hours on speech or mobility therapy.  At that point, they simply reached a point of diminishing returns.

Ericsson found that elite performers needed to avoid exhaustion to maximize gains from long-term practice - the same could probably be said of Taub's stroke victims.  This flies in the face of what we learn in the business world:  We're told and taught - and most of us think - that the more hours we work, the better we'll be.  We don't take vacations, or even a day off without our iPhone or Blackberry.

However, most of us would find that we'd think better and be more productive if we actually took more time off.  Disconnecting for 48 straight hours on a weekend doesn't mean you're not committed to your career - it means you return to the fray rested, recharged and able to tackle challenges more effectively than you do when you're chronically exhausted and drained.

Behavior, action and lasting change

In positive psychology, 'coping' is a term used in relation to self-esteem.  The idea is that we learn when we take action - when we put ourselves at risk in some way and then cope with the consequences.  It's acting outside of our comfort zone which builds our self-esteem.  It doesn't matter if you succeed or fail - simply taking action drives the new neural pathways which lead to greater positivity and success.

People who enjoy lasting change have a bias for action - and for working smarter.  The same can be said for organizations.  When organizations try to change but then fail to implement behavioral changes which will reinforce the change, the change won't stick.  Similarly, if change isn't accompanied by sufficient downtime for individuals to process, adapt and build positive new neural pathways, the change won't deliver the desired results.


Next time we'll talk about the C in the ABCs of change:  Cognition.

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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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