Communication—the Special Sauce of Major Change
Photo credit: Dylan Gillis at Unsplash
Author: Jeff Brooke
MITRE loves data. MITRE practitioners are passionate about solving problems using scientific evidence, and this is just as true for social scientists at MITRE as it is for engineers. Here is how MITRE practitioners use data to ensure that our recommendations on strategic communication have the greatest possible impact.
MITRE helps our government sponsors design and implement many kinds of change. Since research tells us that most major change efforts fall short of their goals, we carefully examine research on the successes. Does good communication make a difference? If so, what are the ingredients of “good” communication? Here’s what the scientific research tells us.
Fact—Good communication makes a difference
- The odds of successful change go up 28% with effective internal communication. (Lewis)
- Eighty percent of companies that downsized described internal communication as a “major failure.” (Smeltzer)
- One of the top reasons for failed strategic change: poorly communicated strategy. (Mankins)
Good communication in big change efforts has four key ingredients
- Timing: early (pre-decision) and frequently
- Channel: face-to-face with managers
- Message: expected results and the journey to get there
- Strategy: communication that is planned and managed like any other project, and integrated with all other elements of the planned change
For example, during a corporate merger, researchers (Applebaum) conducted a controlled experiment inside one company. They compared two approaches to communicating decisions about downsizing and other changes during the months after the merger announcement. The channel, message, and timing were different.
- Control facility: Used the existing approach to communication. They used written announcements to describe final decisions after they were approved. Result: Productivity declined 20% during the merger.
- Experiment facility: Used a new approach to communication. They used frequent face-to-face communication between supervisors and employees to describe possible changes being considered and the reasons behind them. Result: Productivity was unchanged during the merger.
Why communicate early—before final decisions?
- Staff are engaging in conversations about the coming change anyway. When leaders wait too long to provide a forum for communication, they signal that they are either fearful of or unconcerned about participating in this ongoing dialogue. Staff lose trust in their leaders when this happens.
- Inaccurate rumors are the largest differentiator between successful and unsuccessful communication about major changes. Leaks happen. Rumors fill the blanks and ascribe motivations. Productivity declines as people are distracted by the anxiety of uncertainty.
Why face-to-face with supervisors?
When employees hear about major change from their direct supervisors, their support for the change is:
- Nine times greater than if they read about it in a newsletter
- Four times greater than meeting with top management (Marks)
Why? Major change means uncertainty. Dialogue can resolve questions and subtleties, and employees trust the supervisor they work with each day.
Formal channels and top management meetings, like town halls and newsletters, are important, but only as support for more small-group discussions between staff and their direct supervisors.
Why discuss expected results?
- With major change, people need a vision to inspire them. They also need to hear plain talk about the difficulties ahead. The commercial world often deals with layoffs; even government employees know they are not immune. If there might be a RIF or reassignments, say so. If leaders can commit that such actions will not happen, say so. But if leaders don’t bring it up, some organization members will assume the worst and feed the rumor mill.
- Explain the process for change and how input will be solicited. But remember, asking for input only builds support if those who speak up see that their ideas and concerns are genuinely considered. “Psychological safety” is essential for employees to speak up in the first place. (Edmonson)
Communication during a change effort must be managed like any project. It must have a plan, clear roles and responsibilities, and performance measures that will allow for mid-course corrections. It must be aligned with both the overall change project’s objectives and the target organization’s culture—no small feat. Projects that engage a communication professional throughout each phase of a change effort will have the best chance of benefitting from strategic communication—one of the most powerful tools in the change professional’s toolkit.
Jeff Brooke is a principal with The MITRE Corporation, where he advises government executives in organizational change management and communication. He’s also an adjunct faculty member in Northeastern University’s graduate program in corporate and organizational communication. Jeff worked within government at three agencies, including many years as a communication director, and helped found the Federal Communicators Network.
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