Communicating During Change Initiatives

We often observe leaders struggling with how to be transparent with their team during times of change.  They often feel anxious about how answering questions about change management initiatives.  While it might not always be possible to explain “what” is going on, we believe that explaining “why” is usually far more important; and often easier.

For example, assume there’s a reorganization in your department and there will be a new Director position added.  About half of your team members will now report to this new leader.  Naturally, team members may have some anxiety about the change and will want to know when the person will be hired, whether it will be an internal or external hire, and numerous other questions you may not be able to answer.

Employees will often ask “what” types of questions in these situations:  detail oriented questions about the specifics of what’s going on.  However, you simply may not know the answers to many of these questions and responding often leads to a longer list of even more detailed inquiries.  We frequently see well intended leaders trying to fill in these details ultimately provide inaccurate information because they are trying to anticipate details that simply aren’t yet clear.  Rather than creating a sense of trust, this can have the opposite effect:  employees may think you deliberately provided false information.

Instead of starting with the details, we find that it’s far more important to help employees understand the “why” behind decisions:  Providing them the rationale behind a change can help give them a framework for sorting through what happens next.  Our client experience shows there are a few steps that can really help you level set.  First, get what you need from your leader to understand what the change is all about.  This will prepare you for your conversation with your team and give you more confidence to support your team. Consider asking the following:

  • Why are we making this change?  
  • How does the change fit within our overall vision and strategy?
  • Why do we think the change will make us better at what we do?
  • What do we know now about how and when the change will occur?
  • Are there any confidential aspects of the change that I shouldn’t share?

Next, take time to think about what the change means for you and how that may impact your ability to share it with your team in a positive way.  When discussing the change with your team, consider the following approach to framing the conversation:  

Connect the Change to the Bigger Picture

Explain how it is part of the larger plan and what outcomes it will help to achieve.

Tell the Truth

Share what you know and what you don’t know.  If you don’t know something, don’t make it up or guess what may happen.  Tell the team that when you know, and can share it, you will.

Be Prepared for Questions about Confidential Information

Be upfront with your team when they ask about confidential information.  Know what you will say and how you will say it.

Emphasize that information will probably change

Plans will undoubtedly change along the way.  Share this with your team and your commitment to share what you know as soon as you know it.

Acknowledge Feelings and Concerns

Show that you are human and share your uncertainty with the unknown.  This is often very helpful for the team to see that you don’t know everything and you are working through the change with them.

Managing communications about change requires a thoughtful approach.  Take the time to understand a change well before you share it with your team. Get clarity from your leader so that you are well informed.  When framing the conversation with your team, focus on the ‘why’ first so that it is clear the overall intent for the change.  Share what you know and what you don’t know about the ‘what’ or the details of the change, being careful not to feel obliged to answer something you don’t know. And finally, acknowledge the emotion in the room and the challenges associated with the change.  

Share with your team