Not Much Has Changed About Change

With all the attention communicators give social media these days, some of our long-time antagonists get pushed to the side. Measurement? No time for it. Good grammar and writing skills? Out the door. Strategic planning? Yeah, well, never did that anyway.

One issue seems to have reared its ugly head again, though. It’s big, it’s bad and it’s back with a vengeance. It’s change and it’s coming to an organization near you.

Just in the last week, I attended two professional development programs about change, both with emphases on communication. I’ve also seen an increase in articles, blog posts and even Tweets about it. Seems reasonable, since the only constant is change — at least that’s what every business leader and their mother says when forced to talk to employees about it.

There’s just one problem. There’s nothing new about change, which seems a bit ironic. Executives act like they’re the first to ever lead a business through change. HR consultants like to pretend they have new, foolproof “systems” for navigating it. Employees feel as if it’s never happened to anyone but them. But let’s face it: change hasn’t changed.

There are, however, some truisms that bear repeating since we humans have remarkably short memories about how to manage change. Here are some of them I’ve heard in the last few weeks, some of them wrapped in new terminology:

  • Change sucks. People hate it. We are creatures of habit. Even those of us who profess to live adventurously like certain things to remain the same. When was the last time you changed brands of toilet paper or toothpaste? We resist change because when it comes right down to it, we need a certain amount of stability and predictability in our lives.
  • We respond emotionally to change. Author/columnist Dan Heath, speaking to our local chapter of the American Marketing Association, said there’s a pattern people follow when dealing with change. We see it. We feel it. Then we might change. He wisely pointed out that many business leaders focus on the seeing and not so much the feeling part. People might see and understand the logical reasons why change must happen, but unless we emotionally invest ourselves in it, we’re unlikely to change.
  • Telling stories is a great way to get people to feel change. My friend and fellow blogger Susan Cellura Williams led me to this excellent Harvard Business blog by Peter Bregman in which he advocates for storytelling as a change agent. The gist of the idea is that organizations get stuck in their ways because the stories they tell each other — or, perhaps, that management tells them — reinforce the current culture. Changing a culture requires telling new stories, recognizing people when they do things differently, giving people a clear vision of where you want to go and helping them feel it. The implications for communicators is huge.
  • Change doesn’t happen overnight. At a PRSA panel discussion on change, the vice president of public affairs for a large organization talked about a major change that took five years to complete. It’s easy to get impatient, especially leading people who are resistant. We live in a world of 24-hour news, instant communication and immediate gratification. Don’t expect organizations, especially large ones, to change that quickly. Have a plan, allow for some flexibility and stay on course. Keep talking about it and keep that vision out in front of people. Help them see what it will feel like when things change.
  • When people learn how to change, those skills are transferable. At the same PRSA panel talk, the leader of a large government organization told how her employees sprang into action to deal with a crisis efficiently and with minimal disruption to business. Their experience in dealing with changes to the organization prepared them for the crisis.
  • People don’t have to like change in order to deal with it. I’ve seen business leaders make two big mistakes of opposite extremes: forcing change to happen with the attitude that people “will just have to get over it” or trying to make sure everybody likes the changes taking place. Sometimes people will hate change, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be willing to go along with it. In the early ’90s I worked in a manufacturing facility that changed from a five-day to a seven-day work week. Management did a great job of explaining why the change was necessary and they engaged employees in dialogues about it. A survey after the dialogue sessions showed that while only 33% were satisfied with the change from a personal standpoint, 53% were satisfied with it from a business standpoint. People can understand and make changes, even those they dislike, if you keep the communication lines open.

Let’s hear from you. What other truisms about change have you observed? Don’t worry if they’re not groundbreaking. Sometimes the greatest learning comes from timeless wisdom.


Communicating Change in Three Steps

The only constant, it seems, is books, articles and presentations about change.

It’s the topic that just won’t go away — and for good reason. People hate change. It requires us to leave something familiar and comfortable and to try something ambiguous, different and maybe a bit dangerous.

We slip into a routine at work and we hate it when things get shaken up. At home, we watch the same TV shows and complain when they’ve moved to a new time. We eat the same foods, buy the same brands of groceries and keep our furniture in the same place (unless you’re my dad, in which case 6 months is too long for a room to look the same).

I’ve heard a lot of people speak on the topic of change, but never anyone as effectively as Dan Heath. The Fast Company columnist and co-author of the best-seller “Made to Stick” spoke last night to the Richmond chapter of the American Marketing Association. The title of Heath’s talk, “How to Change When Change is Hard,” sounded like every other presentation on change that I’ve seen, but he told stories and offered insights that I have not heard before. It was an entertaining, enlightening hour that passed much too quickly. That’s just about the best thing you can say about a presentation.

People are naturally resistant to change, Heath said, partly because we act based on our emotions. We don’t always think logically about why change might be good. Instead, we allow our fears, desires, hurts, anger and other emotions to guide our thinking and dictate our actions.

So, in order to lead such change-resistant, emotionally driven people to change, we have to appeal to their emotions. Put this line of thought into a business context: business leaders often try to bring about change by laying out logical, data-driven, Point A-to-Point B arguments to which people pay little or no attention. Meanwhile, people are thinking, “I’m comfortable with the way things are now” and “This doesn’t feel very good!”

Heath doesn’t suggest that change must be brought about solely through emotional appeals. Logic and reason play important roles. But without giving people something to feel about the change, business leaders have no hope to bring people along.

Change is a process that people take in three steps, Heath said:

  • They see it.
  • They feel it.
  • They change.

A chill ran up my spine when I heard this. Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post about my dad’s career as a preacher — which often involves leading people to change. He said his professors taught him to give congregations three things in every sermon:

  • Something to know.
  • Something to feel.
  • Something to do.

And I wrote about how these three points line up with what I have come to believe are the three things we communicators can and must influence among our audiences:

  • Knowledge (they see it)
  • Attitudes (they feel it)
  • Behaviors (they change)

It’s all the same stuff. This is the purpose of communication in the workplace. If we communicators aren’t trying to influence these three things in our communications, then we are useless expenses to our organizations.

A lot has been written about the role of communications in organizational change. Plenty of consultants make tons of money trying to make it a complex topic. In fact, it’s really quite simple.

  • Tell people what they need to know and let them see it through stories and examples.
  • Fill those stories with emotion and feeling so that the audience comes along with you and buys into the message you’re delivering.
  • Tell people what they need to do as a result of what they know and feel. Lead them to behavior change, if necessary, or to continue desirable behaviors.

Is it time to change your approach to communication? Striving for these three things is a good place to start.