Cerkl Broadcast
Cerkl Broadcast

Mastering Change Management Communication: Plan for Success

Discover why effective change management communication is the cornerstone of successful organizational transitions, ensuring clarity, and engagement.
Written by: Penny Swift
change management communication
Published: October 20, 2023
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Whether you are a CEO, manager, or a team member, change is inevitable. However, managing change in the workplace – even small changes – can be enormously challenging. If the process isn’t handled with clear, concise, and consistent communication, it can be even more demanding. 

According to global leaders of change management, only 43% of employees say their organization is good at managing change – down from nearly 60% in 2019. Furthermore, for decades, 70% of change initiatives have failed. But WTW’s Craig Keller and Microsoft’s Dr. Malika Viltz-Emerson believe that 2023 will be a year marked by transformation. However, this will inevitably bring about disruptions and introduce risks that have repercussions on the employee experience (EX) and the organizations they work for. The solution is to have an effective change management plan in place to mitigate risks, increase employee engagement, and increase ROI by minimizing uncertainties.

decrease in the success of change management

This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about change management communication, including how to develop a strategy to master it. From understanding its basic principles to developing a well-defined plan and implementing an effective communication strategy, it offers a holistic approach to empowering C-level executives. 

What is Organizational Change Management?

Organizational change management is a methodological process used to guide companies through change of any sort. It may be required because of new leadership of a company, shifts in team structures, or perhaps a merger and acquisition (M&A) that needs to address many employee concerns. 

These transformational changes are generally large in scope and scale. But a change management plan may also be needed for smaller adaptive changes, for instance when new technology is implemented or when new business models are adopted. 

Either way, a good organizational change management process will ensure a smooth transition from the old to the new. Communication is a vital part of this process.

A Harvard Business School Insights blog post analyzes what organizational change management is and why it’s important. Without it, transitions with companies can be expensive and unpredictable. This can lead to low employee morale and reduced skill development and, ultimately, to the failure of an organization. 

Types of Organizational Change

It helps to know what types of organizational change you may be faced with. Typically, they may be strategic, people-centric, structural, technological, unplanned, or remedial. Sometimes there will be more than one type that challenges your organization.

  1. A strategic change will require a change to your business policies, processes, and sometimes even the structure of your business.
  2. People-centric changes are needed when you want to attract additional talent to do the job. These may be at any level, from basic workers to managers.
  3. Structural changes generally result in management, hierarchical, and responsibility shifts. They are closely related to strategic changes and often require people-centric adjustments. 
  4. When an organization introduces new software or systems, there are always changes that need to be addressed. Sometimes, new people or structure changes will also need to be implemented.
  5. We can’t predict unplanned changes, but we need to be equipped to deal with them. They are almost always unexpected.
  6. When we identify problems, it stands to reason that you’re going to have to introduce remedial change to remedy what’s wrong. 

Understanding the Basics of Change Management Communication

This type of communication combines change management and internal communication to ensure clear and transparent information sharing during organizational change. The process involves creating a change communication plan, organizing internal communication, recognizing key milestones, and designing an action plan. The objective is to minimize the negative impact of change, facilitate user adoption, and help the workforce understand the reasons behind the transformation.

The right communications plan ensures that everyone is on the same page. Broadly, it covers the change management process, an internal communications plan, a change communications plan, leadership communication, who the frontline employees are, and so on. You could think of it as a road map. But the most important factor is to take a route that will maximize change management success. 

Results of a recent Gartner survey warn that employees want to be involved in change management. An overwhelming 82% of workers surveyed said they want to be seen as a person, not just an employee. This attitude dictates that top-down change management strategies aren’t effective anymore. Instead, employees are dictating that open-source change is the route to take (see below, An Open-Source Approach is Key to Success.)

Importance of Change Management Communication

Statistics show that organizations that integrate change management are 47% more likely to achieve their goals than the other 30% who don’t. This failure to succeed shows that change-communication plans are essential. They help to manage employee expectations, guide behavior change, and ensure that the organization stays on track during the transition period. By aligning the company’s mission with its communication, organizations can achieve higher employee engagement and minimize resistance to change. 

Communication plans can vary depending on the needs of the organization and can utilize different communication channels, from internal communications tools to digital adoption platforms. A key focus should be to prepare, support, and help employees undergo changes. They are, after all, the core of any organization. It is also vital to recognize the impact change can have on them. And it’s not only big transformational changes that make an impact, small ones do too. 

Nearly half (44%) of HR leaders who participated in a Gartner survey on their 2022 priorities said their employees were suffering from “change fatigue.” A numbing finding is that smaller system or process shifts, which are much more common, are 2.5 times more fatiguing to employees.  

Communication is key to successful organizational change because it helps to address resistance, foster engagement, and support the adoption of the new changes. Your employees need to understand why changes are being made, how they will be affected, and what they need to do to adapt.

change management communication

Key Elements of Effective Change Management Communication

Every effective change management-related plan includes a few key elements. Firstly, the communication strategy should be clear and concise. It should outline the key messages, as well as the change-communication and feedback channels. Any effective communication strategy must be a two-way street. It’s just as important to listen to your employees as it is to talk to them.

Traditionally, leaders would set a change strategy and then implement it from the top down. In top-down change management, leaders implement planning and organizations literally own communication campaigns. 

Rather, a change management plan should be inclusive. It needs to involve all the stakeholders, from leadership to frontline employees. Everyone, including the change agents and communications team, should contribute to forming the strategy. By humanizing your change management strategy and adopting an open-source approach, you’re much more likely to succeed. 

An Open-Source Approach is Key to Success

A 2019 Gartner paper on Changing Change Management: An open-source approach states that 80% of organizations use the top-down method to manage change. By 2022, this figure had dropped to 75% — a very minor improvement. 

Referring to the 2022 survey, a Gartner article urges organizations to make the change. “This new strategy could be your ticket to change management success.” According to Gartner’s director of research, Cian Ó Móráin, it’s got a lot to do with the fact that employees want “a more human deal.” 

The evidence is convincing since an open-source change strategy is more than 14 times more likely to be successful. Also, organizations implementing this strategy reported that the risk of change fatigue fell by 29% and employees’ intentions to stay with the company increased by about 19%. It’s a win-win situation. 

How Does an Open-Source Strategy Work?

In essence, organizations need to make three important shifts to improve their chances of change management success. 

  1. The strategy requires the involvement of employees in decision-making from the start. This is a meritocracy, not a democracy. Essentially, it doesn’t matter where the ideas come from, “the best ideas always win.” But the challenge for leaders is to choose the “right” employee voices. 
  2. Once strategic planning is complete, implementation planning shifts to employees. A suggested way of doing this is to provide employee teams with a simple template that shows the path from … to, indicating the desired outcome of the specific change. They then “map out their suggested dos and don’ts in the context of their own workflows.” 
  3. A key factor throughout the process is to engage in honest, two-way communication. By enabling employees and allowing them to discuss the change openly with the organization’s leadership, they will become part of the commitment to change. 

“Employees ‘getting it’ is a driver of change success; their ‘liking it’ isn’t.” Gartner.

The graphic below is based on Gartner’s suggested approach.  

increase change management success

Regular monitoring and review are also necessary to understand what’s working and what’s not. Using the feedback received through feedback channels, the change management plan can be improved over time.

Overcoming Challenges in Change Management Communication

There are many challenges that contribute to the high failure rate of change initiatives. Gartner’s 2016 Workforce Change Survey highlighted that 74% of employees were willing to change in support of organizational change. But much has changed since then including political tensions and wars, economic uncertainty, the pandemic, and, last but not least, digital workplace transformations. A major concern is that in 2022, Gartner found that only 35% of employees were willing to support organizational change.

On the positive side, effective internal communication can go a long way to reversing this trend. 

Resistance and Opposition

Resistance and opposition are common when facing change.

Frontline employees are often both change deliverers and receivers. Therefore, their understanding and acceptance of change are crucial. Explaining the big idea, breaking down initial change into manageable steps, and specifying how they contribute to the overall goal are some ways of managing resistance.

Leadership communication is also vital in managing resistance to change. Leaders should show commitment to the change initiative, provide regular updates, and be ready to answer questions. This helps reduce opposition and foster acceptance.

Miscommunication and Misunderstanding

Writing on the Harvard Division of Continuing Education online platform, Mary Sharp Emerson highlights ineffective communication as one of the main reasons for change management strategies failing. While leaders commonly communicate a lot at the change proposal stage, they don’t continue the conversation once the initiative has been announced. That’s when failure begins. It’s largely because day-to-day job demands take over and team enthusiasm tends to lapse.   

This can often lead to rumors and miscommunication. But a clear and consistent communication plan can help avert this challenge. Central to this is framing and delivering key messages to simultaneously address the concerns and motivate the employees. The communication plan should spell out the reasons behind the change, its benefits, and how it will be implemented.

Emerson suggests that communication should be “clear, consistent, and constant.” 

Regular updates through various communication channels like blog hubs, digital adoption platforms, and internal communication tools can also help overcome this problem. Features like case selections, related content, and user-friendly formats can facilitate understanding and engagement.

Communication strategies to handle misunderstanding include actively seeking feedback from employees, providing safe and anonymous feedback channels, and regularly evaluating the communication’s effectiveness.

“Even if you think you have communicated enough, you probably haven’t.”

Mary Sharp Emerson.

Lack of Leadership Support

Lack of support from leadership is another common challenge in change management. As the influencer of change, leaders need to actively support and participate in the change. This is achieved through clear communication of the vision and direction. Leaders should provide regular updates, address employee concerns, and highlight the benefits of the change. 

Gartner’s Changing Change Management paper indicated that only 42% of employees feel included, despite 74% of executives claiming to have incorporated them in the development of a change plan.

leaders participation in organizational change

Leadership’s support is crucial in fostering a culture of openness and continuous learning. Leaders need to show commitment and dedication to ensure successful change management. However, if the leadership does not support the change, the resistance is likely to flow down through the ranks.

McKinsey research, showcased in The State of Organizations 2023, indicates that adaptable employees are at an advantage when it comes to managing “change and adversity.” But, it’s critical for leaders to encourage this adaptability. It’s also important that leaders don’t react in crisis situations or when faced with change. Additionally, it is vital for change to start at the top, with strong leadership, and for employees to be involved at all levels.

Cultural Differences and Diversity

In multicultural organizations, cultural differences among employees pose challenges to effective communication regarding change management. Local languages, customs, and work styles must be considered when creating the communication strategy. Tailoring the communication to meet the needs and preferences of diverse employee segments can make the change announcement more effective. It can also reduce resistance.

Incorporating cultural sensitivity into communication strategies is critical for effective and inclusive communication. It helps to ensure that employees understand the change, perceive it positively, and participate actively in the process.

Employee Fear and Anxiety

There is no doubt that change can be enormously stressful. It is constant, and staff feel the pressure, with 73% of change-affected employees reporting moderate to high levels of stress. When they suffer from change-related stress, employees perform 5% worse than others.  

Employees often fear change because they are afraid they will lose their jobs, be given added responsibilities, or will be forced to learn new ways of doing things. To overcome these fears, change management communication plans must reassure employees and involve them in the process. 

Acknowledging employees’ fears, providing clear information about the change, and offering support where necessary can help mitigate anxieties.The key step in preventing fear and anxiety is keeping communication channels open and ensuring that employees are informed at every step. This includes involving employees in the planning stages, maintaining transparency, allowing feedback, and providing support.

Lack of Adequate Communication Technology

Another challenge for change management communication is the lack of adequate communication technology. In the era of digital workplace transformation, relying solely on traditional modes of communication like emails or intranet might not be sufficient. Digital adoption platforms can help simplify and streamline the process.

It’s important to upgrade to new internal communication tools that allow for communication in real-time, offer interactive features, and enable feedback collection. Examples include collaboration tools such as Slack, Trello, or Microsoft Teams. Employing such tools can greatly enhance your organization’s communication plans.

Why Does Change Management Fail? 

You can learn from both the success and failures of change management endeavors. But here are a couple of examples of epic fails. They show that even top companies don’t always get it right. 

Love it or leave it, Coca Cola is a brand that just keeps going. But in 1985, when they announced they were going to change the formula of one of the world’s most popular drinks, they made what the company admits was “the most memorable marketing blunder ever.” 

After nearly a century in business, Coca Cola decided to “re-energize” its brand in its largest market, the U.S. They thought they knew how to communicate their change in formulation in a positive way, but it didn’t work. And so “classic” Coca Cola was reborn. Even the best possible change management plan wasn’t going to persuade consumers to switch their established taste. 

Another completely different example lies in General Motors’s (GM’s) attempt to recover its U.S. Market share in the 1960s. Two decades later, GM formed a partnership with Toyota and they opened a factory in California to manufacture cars — NUMMI. At first it kind of worked, but it didn’t. Ultimately, the problems were widely identified as a lack of teamwork, feedback, and most importantly internal communication.  

It’s no secret that GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009. It’s also no secret that the federal government wrote off billions to try and save the company. Maybe GM was already too far gone to rely on change management. But if it had harnessed the power of positive communication in the early stage of their failure, who knows what would have happened?   

Developing a Well-Defined Change Management Communication Plan

Change is an inevitable part of every organization’s growth. The challenge often lies in successful change management. A change management communication plan is integral to this process, and creating one involves understanding the change, identifying stakeholders, setting clear objectives, crafting key messages, choosing the right communication channels, and encouraging two-way communication.

Understand the Change

The initial change management process begins with understanding the nature and impact of the change on operating companies. Whether it’s a digital transformation or an organizational change, you need to comprehend its scope, timeline, and implications before drafting your communication plan. Remember to consider both the benefits and the potential challenges that employees may face.

Identify Stakeholders

An important aspect of any change management plan is to identify the stakeholders. These include the company’s leadership, middle management, frontline employees, and other internal and external parties who will be affected by the change. Each has a unique role in driving the desired behavior change.

Set Clear Objectives and Strategy

The communication strategy should align with the change initiative’s objectives. Define what you want to achieve, state the key milestones, and outline the action plan. Your strategy should not only inform but also help employees understand and adapt to the change.

Craft Key Messages

It’s important to craft clear and consistent key messages that echo the purpose of your change effort. The language should be simple and concise. Your core messages should help eliminate fear, foster trust, and promote employee engagement. They serve as a compass guiding all communication.

Choose Channels

Choose the right communication channels to ensure your messages reach your audience effectively. Channels can include emails, team meetings, intranet updates, or even a digital adoption platform. Think about how to leverage multiple channels for maximum impact. Consider the preference of your audience while deciding the best communication channels.

Encourage Two-Way Communication

Encourage feedback channels that provide room for two-way conversation. This empowers employees to voice their concerns, propose solutions, and feel engaged in the change process. As Elsbeth Johnson from Harvard Business School says, “The best change agents are those who build bridges, not those who dictate terms.”

Evaluate and Adapt

An effective change management communication plan should be flexible enough to evolve based on feedback and real-world results. Regular assessments help you to fine-tune your strategy, hone your messages, and improve overall communication efficiency.

steps in change communication plan

Implementing an Effective Communication Strategy

Once your plan is in place, it’s vital to execute it effectively. This requires leveraging digital transformation tools, constantly gathering feedback for continuous improvement, and ensuring ongoing communication. 

Using Digital Transformation Tools

Digital transformation tools like internal communication platforms and digital adoption systems help make communication more efficient. For example, companies like Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) leveraged a digital adoption platform to educate their employees about their digital transformation and made the transition smoother. The SAS story is inspirational. 

After more than six decades in business, they faced an enormous threat when the pandemic hit in 2020. So they launched a total digital transformation. This involved developing a deeper engagement with customers and collaborating with all parts of the company. And it worked. 

Gathering Feedback and Ongoing Communication

Stakeholders’ feedback is a valuable resource for refining your communication strategy. Be open to adjusting your strategy based on feedback, new data, or unexpected challenges. Remember that communication is a continuous and iterative process. Develop an editorial calendar to ensure regular and consistent communication.

Another great approach is town halls. These can be a common feature of change communications. For example, you can use a question submission or voting option that allows employees to engage with executive leaders during the Q&A segment of a town hall. This can ensure that the discussion is a two-way stream and focused on the topics employees care most about. 

Cerkl Broadcast Is designed to maximize communication efforts and is ideal for M&As and other changes an organization needs to manage. A key feature is that it enables you to target the right people using the channels of communication they want to use. You can personalize messages to show they are meant for them and not the entire organization. The platform offers full analytics so you know when people respond. 

What’s Next?

Is your organization facing change? Do you have a solid change management communication plan in place? Do you have an efficient internal communication platform? Cerkl Broadcast ensures you reach the right people at the right time, delivering the content needed to mitigate the risks of change. 

FAQ

What is change management communication?

Whether you are managing or communicating with employees, this combines change management with internal communications.

What should be included in change management communication?

Communications need to address resistance, foster engagement, and support the engagement of changes that are being adopted.

What is a change management communication plan?

A successful change management plan needs to incorporate a communication strategy that involves employees. Rather than a top-down approach, it needs to be an open-source change that empowers employees.

What is an effective communication strategy for change?

An effective communication strategy for change involves clearly articulating the reasons for the change, its benefits, and the expected impact on individuals and the organization. It should also provide ongoing updates, engage with employees or stakeholders, and address concerns and questions proactively to build understanding and support for the change.

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