Many project leaders and project managers appreciate the need for communications during change. But some mistakenly believe that change management equals effective communications. To compound the issue, project teams tend to believe that the main messages employees want to hear relate to the project itself, what is happening and when, and that employees want to hear these messages from them.

But when we examine the concept of senders and receivers in communication, we reveal how project teams undermine their own changes by communicating the wrong messages through the wrong people. We also reveal who employees really want to hear from, and how to make these communications work.

Understanding Senders and Receivers

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 getting information about the change.

Senders and receivers often don't participate in a true 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. Imagine a people manager who sits down with an employee to discuss a major organizational restructuring project. The manager shares the information in an enthusiastic and positive way. She covers all the key messages, including the business reasons for change, the risk of not changing, and the urgency around changing the structure for competitive reasons. The people manager 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 their family are often, “I may not have a job” and “The company is having trouble.” 

The people manager may spend 95% of the conversation talking about the business and 5% talking about the implications to the employee. But at home, those percentages flip. Much of the key business information communicated by the people manager to the impacted employee in this first conversation goes unheard. Why? The message is overshadowed by the employee's concerns about job security and fear of change.

Many factors influence what a person hears during change and how they interpret the information, including:

  • Other career or educational plans
  • worried-about-change-wiifm
  • Situations at home or with personal relationships
  • Past experience with other changes at work
  • What they have heard from their friends or work colleagues
  • Current job performance
  • Whether or not they trust or respect the sender

Now multiply these factors by the number of employees who receive change messages. Add to that the fact that every person could have a different change agenda at work. Given so many variables, it's easy to appreciate the challenge of communicating about change to employees.

Preferred senders

Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management research consistently shows that employees have preferences about who they want to hear from during change. You might be surprised to know that employees do not want to hear about project changes from the project team. Instead, they prefer to receive specific messages from the person in charge and their direct supervisor.

When it comes to messages about change impacts on the business or the organization, employees want to hear from the person in charge—typically a senior manager or executive. The questions employees want them to answer include: 

  • Why are we changing?
  • What is the risk of not changing?
  • How does this change align with our vision and business direction?

Employees prefer to learn about change-related impacts to their own daily work from their manager—and get answers to the following questions:

  • How does this impact me and our group?
  • How will this change affect my day-to-day responsibilities?
  • What’s in it for me or WIIFM?
  • What's in it for us (our team or workgroup)?

Although some project teams assume employees want to hear about the “what and when” from them,  the research clearly shows that employees first need awareness of why the change is happening and desire to participate and engage in the change. Only then will they express interest in the future state of a change. This means that communications from the project team about new processes, new systems, or the project schedule will fall on deaf ears until employees have heard from preferred senders on the topics they care about most.

Miscommunication and misunderstanding

The concept of senders and receivers during change communications illustrates another key lesson: What the sender says rarely matches what employees hear, especially the first time around. This is true even when the message comes from the right sender. Multiethnic group of happy business people working together in office

Experienced change practitioners know how to follow a prescribed communications plan to share information about the change and involve the right people. But people managers often don't assess what their employees actually heard or try to understand how they processed the information. They simply complete a required communication activity, check a box, and return to their busy day. But assuming that employees heard and understood the intended message is a mistake because employees only hear a fraction of what was said. And they will translate the message according to their personal situation. Some employees may even hear more than what was said or make up answers to questions they don't understand. These made-up answers are typically worse than reality. This misinformation spreads through background conversations and rumors, which prompts employees to  compare “official communications” to what they heard from colleagues.

Implications for change practitioners

Understanding the underlying phenomena of communications, including the sender/receiver concept, causes us to rethink  traditional modes of communicating. When we realize that what receivers hear and what senders say aren't always the same, we see that change management cannot be reduced to a set of activities or steps executed by a project team. Effective change management requires thoughtful guidance from the change practitioner who adjusts, customizes and scales the right activities. Change management practitioners, people managers and sponsors must deliver clear communications and listen to employees to understand how messages are being received, and then correct misinformation that naturally spreads during change.

Executives and senior leaders who serve as sponsors of change must also be willing to communicate over and over again, five to seven times. Sponsors can complain about this, feeling as though they are repeating themselves. In reality, they may have shared the same message with multiple groups, but only shared it with each employee group once. In fact, the most common error a sponsor makes when communicating about change is failing to communicate enough. Your role as a change practitioner is to coach sponsors to stay the course, be consistent, and continue communications with employees throughout the life of the project. In addition to other responsibilities, primary sponsors must communicate support for the change at the outset and continue reinforcing the change all the way through implementation. They can't be effective by kicking off the change and leaving it to the project team to make it happen. 

A final lesson centers on communication methods. Prosci's research has shown that face-to-face communications are the most powerful and effective. Even in this age of social media and always-on digital devices, we must remember that only a fraction of the message is communicated through the content itself. Much of the communication gets conveyed through tone and body language. And we convey credibility and respect through our words and intent, which people both sense and hear. As difficult as face-to-face communications can be, they stand the test of time as being the leading channel for effectively communicating about change.

Effective Change communications

Change management communication is only effective once employees have internalized the change messages and can begin the transition process. They need the opportunity to hear from their preferred senders, process the messages over time, and ultimately make a choice to move forward. After this occurs, employees are prepared to hear more from the project team 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.


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Written by
Tim Creasey
Tim Creasey

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.