Many project leaders or project managers appreciate the critical need for communications during change. In fact, many project leaders believe that “change management” equals “effective communications.” To complicate matters, many project teams also believe that the primary messages employees want to hear are centered on the project (what is happening and when will it happen), and that employees want to hear these messages from them.
In this tutorial, we will examine the concept of senders and receivers, and uncover how project teams can undermine their own changes by communicating the wrong messages with the wrong people. We will reveal who employees really want to hear from, and how to make these communications work.
Every change can be viewed from the perspective of a sender and a receiver. A sender is anyone providing information about the change. A receiver is anyone being given information about the change.
Senders and Receivers are often not in a dialogue at the onset of a change. They talk right past one another. What a sender says and what a receiver hears are typically two very different messages. For example, if a supervisor sits down with an employee to discuss a major restructuring project within the company, the supervisor may be enthusiastic and positive. She may cover all the key messages including the business reasons for change, the risk of not changing and the urgency to change the organization to remain competitive. The supervisor may even emphasize that this is a challenging and exciting time. However, when the employee discusses this change at home over dinner, the key messages to his family are often:
“I may not have a job.”
“The company is having trouble.”
The supervisor may spend 95% of the conversation talking about the business and 5% talking about the implications to the employee. At home, the employee is more likely to spend 95% of the time talking about the impact on him or her personally and 5% on the issues facing the company. The consequence is that much of the key business information communicated by the supervisor to the employee in this first conversation is not heard. It is overshadowed by concerns related to job security and fear about change.
Many factors influence what an employee hears and how that information is interpreted. Examples of these factors include:
Now multiply these factors by the number of employees who are the receivers of change messages, and add even more variables as each person could have a different change agenda at work. You can begin to appreciate the challenge faced by many businesses as they communicate about change to their employees.
Based on Prosci’s change management research studies (beginning in 1998 and continuing every two years) employees have consistently preferred two primary senders of change messages. Much to the surprise of some projects, the project team is not a preferred sender. The first preferred sender of change messages is the person who the employee views as “in charge,” typically a senior manager or executive. From this person, employees want to hear:
The second preferred sender is an employee’s immediate supervisor. From this person, employees want to hear:
So while some project teams have made an assumption that employees want to hear about the “what and when,” the research data clearly shows that employees only express interest in the “future state” once they have built an awareness of why the change is happening, and have made a personal choice to engage in the change. Any communications from the project team about new processes, new systems or the project schedule fall on deaf ears until employees have heard from their preferred senders regarding the topics they care about most.
The reality of miscommunications and misunderstandings
The sender and receiver concept illustrates another very clear lesson when communicating about change, even when using the right people to communicate the right message: what the sender says rarely matches what employees hear, especially the first time around. Many experienced change management practitioners follow a prescribed communications plan to share information about the change, including involving the right people. However, many managers and supervisors do not assess what their employees actually heard, nor do they understand how that information was processed. They merely complete a required communication activity, check off a box, and return to their already busy day. A poor assumption is that “employees heard me and understood exactly what I meant.”
More likely, employees heard only a fraction of what was said, and their translation of that message will be unique to their personal situation. Some employees may have heard more than what was said, or will make up answers to questions that they do not understand. The answers they make up are typically worse than reality. This information spreads through the background conversations (or rumor mill) until employees are now comparing “official communications” against what they heard from their work colleagues or friends.
Implications for practitioners
What does this mean for change management practitioners? Realizing that “what receivers hear and what senders say” is not always the same is the first step to understanding that change management cannot be reduced to a set of activities or stepswithout the addition of thoughtful guidance on the part of the change manager who can scale, customize and adjust as necessary. Understanding the underlying phenomena of communications, including the sender/receiver concept, causes us to rethink our traditional modes of communicating. Change management practitioners, managers and executives alike must not only be clear in their communications, they must also listen to employees to understand how their messages are being received. They then must be willing to communicate over and over again, and be willing to correct misinformation that naturally spreads during change.
A common complaint from senior leaders is that they feel like they repeating themselves. In reality, they may have given the same message to multiple groups, but communicated to a specific employee group only once. The most common error an executive makes when communicating about change is not communicating enough. Your role as a change practitioner is to coach executive sponsors to stay the course, be consistent, and continue communications with employees from inception to implementation. They play a critical role in building awareness at the onset of a change, and reinforcing that change all the way through implementation. Gone are the days of simply “kicking off the change” and leaving it up to the project team to make it happen. Change practitioners should plan on key messages being repeated up to five to seven times before they are truly heard by employees.
A final lesson that can be learned from the sender/receiver concept revolves around the mode or method of communicating with employees. For more than 10 years, the research data clearly points to face-to-face communications as the most powerful and most effective. Even in this age of social media and electronic devices that never leave our side, the basic elements of communication remain: only a fraction of the message is carried by the content of the message. A primary component of communications is carried in the tone and body language of the sender. Credibility and respect are conveyed not simply through words, but intent, and intent is sensed, not simply heard. As difficult as face-to-face communications can be, they have stood the test of time as being the leading channel for communicating about change effectively.
Change management communication is only effective when employees have internalized the change messages and can begin the transition process. They need the opportunity to hear from their preferred senders, to process that information over time, and ultimately to make a choice to move forward. Once this occurs, employees are prepared to hear more from the project or change team about the “what” and “when.” Then they are ready for training, ready for the details, and ready to make a positive contribution to the success of the change.
Tim Creasey is Prosci’s Chief Innovation Officer and a globally recognized leader in change management. His work forms the foundation of the largest body of knowledge in the world on managing the people side of change to deliver organizational results.