April 7, 2020

How to reduce resistance to change with communication

by Wendy Ryan in Blog Roll, Change Management

Change is happening in every facet of business today, whether we’re prepared for it or not. And, let’s be honest—99% of us weren’t. As a result, employees might be scared, resisting change because they don’t know what it means or how it will impact their own futures. It’s up to you to help reduce resistance to change.

Fear is not a good passenger for any movement, but often leaders forget that the single best tool to combat fear and resistance is communication.

One study found that the single biggest reason for organizational failure to successfully implement any kind of change is “clear and frequent communication.” When combined with your team’s natural resistance to change, this barrier makes sense. In fact, every reason for individual change resistance can be at least partially mitigated through intentional and proactive communication.

Communication needs to take center stage in both the planning and implementation phases of change management.

Who is Communicating

We know from research that who does the communicating matters. An organization in transition needs to hear about “the why” or strategic reasoning behind the change from the person at the top. That communication should start with the CEO or the person leading the change. This ensures no miscommunication and that everyone in the organization receives the exact same message.

When it comes to how a functional or project team will implement the change, this information is best delivered by the direct manager or team lead. The team lead is better able to take “the why” behind the change at the strategic level and translate it into tactics. For example, how it will impact team members on a day to day basis and how they will work together to accomplish the change.

How Communication Happens

There’s no such thing as too much communication, so it’s important for leaders to repeat their message multiple times. Just because you’ve said something once doesn’t mean that team members have processed the information. Unfortunately, because it feels repetitive or even like they’re treating their employees like children, the idea of reminding team members each week about the change turns many leaders off. But repeating the message at regular intervals over a combination of media—in person, email, Slack, etc. is exactly what needs to happen. Think of it as an internal marketing campaign similar to what you would implement with external customers around a new product launch. You promote your message in different ways and on different channels to make it feel less repetitive, but ultimately you are delivering a consistent and cohesive message.

Communication usually isn’t our top priority during change because a) we assume we’ll get to it later and it will magically happen, and b) taking action feels more urgent. Many leaders are generally wired to want to take action first and discuss things later, but this is a context where self-awareness and self-discipline to fight that instinct and do the opposite is vital.

When leaders don’t stop and attend to communication first, the change actually moves more slowly because you haven’t given people the context they need to buy in and execute efficiency. Communicating thoughtfully, early and often is arguably the most important leverage you have before, during and after a change process.

What Change Should Look Like

Communication should take center stage in both the planning and implementation phases of change management if you want to reduce resistance to that change. Whenever you’re planning a project or new direction, communication should begin before its actual implementation or execution. Set clear expectations, communicate potential timelines, and report organizational progress to plan at regular intervals. During unplanned or crisis-driven change, keeping everyone on the same page is just as critical. In a recent article, the Harvard Business Review outlined additional strategies to communicate effectively during times of intense organizational change.

Some people feel energized by change, even when they have little information to go on and the probability of success is unknown. For them, crisis and change is a welcome break from the routine and they thrive on the adrenaline rush. To the extent they are influencers in the organization, their enthusiasm can positively catalyze willingness to change in others.

Most people experience change as stressful and upsetting rather than exciting because they see it tends to make other people around them feel stressed or uncomfortable. And they notice how change tends to wreak temporary havoc on many tried and true processes that are already in place.

As leaders, we need to be careful how we surface, welcome and negotiate these differences in people’s perception and experience around change. If you want to reduce resistance to change, give people time to process the change and keep the conversation going so team members feel comfortable asking questions and expressing their concerns. Though it may seem as though it takes more of your time and energy than it should, the benefits you will receive in exchange for that investment are huge—engagement, productivity and commitment to see the change through.