Three ways to communicate change

Guest blogger:

Sarah_PlattsSarah Platts, Open University Business School MBA Alumnus, Change Consultant at FreshNetworks 

This is the final post in my little three-part series looking at change management (see part one and part two), and it uses the extremely interesting material covered by Dr Ben Hardy at the recent Open University Business School event.

changes-coming1. Make your message as good and clear as possible

Here are some easy ways to work on the messages you’re conveying in order to maximise their impact and appropriateness, and minimise the extent to which they can be interpreted in different ways:

  • Create an open culture – listen and engage with employees, and ask them how they want to be communicated with. Then build that into your communications plan.
  • Define things, if possible – e.g. create a concise, precise, and memorable definition of your company strategy, thereby reducing the potential for wildly differing interpretations.
  • Data is not information – data are raw facts, whereas information is data processed and made meaningful. So don’t try to distract or bamboozle employees with data, but convey useful information and context around the change taking place.
  • According to the language philosopher Paul Grice, effective communication should be of appropriate:
    • Quantity – not too much
    • Quality – no lies
    • Relation – be relevant
    • Manner – not ambiguous, obscure, or overly wordy (as Dr Hardy says, “eschew prolixity”!)

So at a minimum hygiene level, it’s wise to observe these “Gricean maxims”.

2. Be aware of how and why people may interpret your message in different ways

It’s obviously helpful to think carefully about your message and how to deliver it, to stand you in good stead. However, the next important thing is to then forget what your message actually says, and focus instead on how it’s received. Although you may have minimised the range of different interpretations somewhat, there will still be plenty for you to deal with. Just some ways in which people’s interpretations will be shaped include:

  • Word / sentence structure – remember that your exact choice of words, and how you combine them in a sentence, really matters and can significantly impact meaning.
  • Cognitive defaults – ways in which the brain works by default, and is naturally wired for each individual.
  • Social and cultural assumptions and defaults – e.g. each person’s own background, personal experiences, demographics, etc.
  • If there’s no communication, this means bad news – negative information has approximately 3 times the impact of positive communication, so if nothing’s communicated then people fear the worst. Apparently this is derived from our age-old human survival mechanism, and the fact that something negative (like a predator) would often kill us, whereas positive things didn’t tend to have the same effect (!).
  • Me, me, me! We tend to see things from our own perspective, so it’s important to try and see them from other people’s point of view. A handy and simple exercise to counter this is to jot down two columns, one for making notes in relation to “my perspective”, and the other for “their perspective”.
  • Confirmation bias – people tend to find information which confirms their beliefs, and discount information which doesn’t.
  • Fundamental attribution error – in a bad situation, we tend to overestimate character traits in others (e.g. the company failed because she was a terrible megalomaniac CEO), and situational pressures in relation to ourselves (e.g. the company failed because the economic situation was extremely difficult). Whereas, the truth probably lies somewhere in between character and situation.

3. Embrace and work with the (inevitable) different interpretations

So how can we deal with all these different influences, and resultant interpretations? How can we reduce the communication gap between our own perceptions, assumptions, confirmation biases, and fundamental attribution errors, and those of others?

  1. Accept that not communicating is not an option – you have to say something, so make it as effective as possible, as outlined in section one, and communicate openly and regularly (but don’t just “throw sludge at people”, as Dr Hardy warns).
  2. Accept that once your communication is out, it’s out of your control – people will be starting to interpret it, so talk to them and try and understand how it’s been received (section 2). This will enable you to:
  3. Offset some of their interpretations, and build their trust – which will help counter the fundamental attribution error issue (i.e. people will be less likely to call you a terrible megalomaniac CEO if they know from personal experience that you aren’t, or trust that it’s not in your nature).
  4. Admit fallibility and mistakes – rather than making you seem weak, it shows bravery and the ability to reflect and take on board feedback.

communicate change So those are the 3 great ways to communicate change – and arguably to  communicate in general!

 This article was originally published on FreshNetworks on 26 July.

 Photo credit: and Ecbud.

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