Communicating change: 6 steps to success

Your change management communication sets the tone for your entire organization. Follow these steps for greater success.

By Sarah Olson, Senior Associate, Content Marketing, @seolson5

Published April 29, 2020
Last updated July 24, 2020

As businesses respond and adapt to life after the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever that organizations get their internal communications right. To do that, senior leaders should focus on the audience of their change management communication: their employees.

Read on to find out how a focus on effective communication and employee engagement can help you carry out an organizational change for your business.

Why communication is so important in change management

In a survey of senior managers, 65 percent said communication was the most important part when leading a team through change. People are naturally resistant to change, but clear and specific communication can help your team feel included, aware and prepared. If done well, your change management communication can result in a smoother change and happier employees.

6 steps for successful change management communication

Clear and specific communication is one of the key principles of change management. Here are a few tips that can help make your change management communication more effective:

  1. Help employees understand the why

    People will be more agreeable to change if they understand that there’s a specific reason why it’s happening. Your internal communications should explain why the change initiative is happening, why it matters to the business and how they can help have a positive impact on bringing about the change. In his 2018 book, Next Is Now: 5 Steps for Embracing Change, change management consultant Lior Arussy advises connecting to your core cause—the reason you got into the work you are doing—to help motivate employees to get on board with a change, even if it’s a little uncomfortable for them. Your employees will be your change agents, so getting their buy-in is an important step in the process.

  2. Prepare them with specific instructions and resources

    Each stakeholder or stakeholder group should have their own communication plan. Different stakeholders will experience change differently and will need to respond differently. Your communication should outline the specific details of the change management initiative, such as what’s changing, why it’s changing and when it’s changing. You also need to set them up for success based on their roles and responsibilities as they relate to the change. For example, your sales representative might have different questions than your support agents, and you want to provide the appropriate resources to each group.

  3. Sequence your communication deliberately

    Otto notes that while it might seem diplomatic for your leadership team to send everyone the same message at the same time, this is not a good change management strategy. For example, if managers are hearing the news at the same time as their direct reports, they likely won’t be able to answer their employees’ questions about the change. This results in a worse change experience for everyone, both the managers and the employees. There should be a deliberate sequencing of communication, Otto says, and it often makes sense for information to be delivered to directors and managers first before being distributed widely.

  4. Be direct

    Some changes are tough. People have a hard time giving bad news, Otto says, so they have a tendency to sugarcoat it. Instead, she says, “I think we need to be much more brave and be very direct with our communications.” Internal communicators should be direct when communicating change, even if the news is hard to hear. Additionally, when communicating a difficult change, it’s important to discuss the issue in person (or via a video call if necessary). Communicating face to face shows respect to those impacted and gives the issue the importance it deserves.

  5. Repeat the message

    The work doesn’t stop once a change has been announced. To ensure employees are both aware and prepared for the change, as Otto recommends, you should check in regularly and repeat your key messaging across multiple communication channels. Beyond your initial communication, you could also update your internal knowledge base with important information and updates. You may also consider activating an internal help desk, so your employees can escalate questions or issues as they arise. Take advantage of your company’s messaging channels, like Slack or Microsoft Teams, as well. Providing a clear, consistent message across multiple channels can give your employees peace of mind during times of change.

  6. Ask for feedback

    Talk to your employees and consider conducting internal surveys. When measuring the success of your change communication, consider two key indicators of success: awareness and preparedness. Ideally, following your change communication, employees should understand what the change is and why it's happening, and they should also feel prepared to execute their role in making the change happen. In addition to surveys, make leadership available for Q&A sessions, and encourage open dialogue about the change management process. Change is inevitable, and each change is an opportunity to learn and improve.

Change is constant

It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said, “The only constant in life is change.” Individuals and organizations alike are coming face to face with this reality in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In these times of uncertainty, it’s especially important that we understand how to communicate effectively and with empathy. By investing in your communication tools, your team can be better prepared for the changes yet to come.