Communication is not the same as engagement

Communication is a key component in any change program, but it cannot be taken as the sole way to create change.


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Communication is not the same as engagement

“People don’t want change” is often said. I don’t think that’s entirely true. Most people I meet are willing to change. They’re just tired of the multitude of change programs at the same time.

Communication is a key component in any change program, but it cannot be taken as the sole way to create change. It’s a trigger, a starting point, but much more is needed to come to real engagement of people and thus change.

I witness over and over again how change programs with large communication campaigns end up in an overload of information and little real change. Managers igniting the change look surprised that people aren’t making the changes they want. The system is ready, the tools are in place, the physical space is adapted and… people keep doing what they always have been doing. They show resistance.

Resistance to Change

According to colleague change advisor Rick Mauer, there are three levels of resistance to change.

communication Rick Maurer resistance

Current communication in most change programs mainly covers the level of cognition. It provides information, insights, data, ideas on why change is needed and what needs to be changed. It’s important to let people understand what’s going on. It’s the basis for change. Communication can surely help with that.

If you want to go to the level of emotion, basic communication isn’t sufficient. You need more than facts and figures, you need stories. You need to make people care about the change needed. Including storytelling in your change approach is crucial to create energy for change. Creating engagement in the change is the next step.

The highest and most difficult level to address is the level of trust. People might have a lack of trust for several reasons. Previous change programs might have failed. There might be insufficient trust in the leader who doesn’t seem to walk the talk. There might be an old trauma in the organization that’s not sufficiently dealt with. At this level, communication is not about sending messages, it’s about dialogue and conflict handling. It’s about finding root causes and resolving issues together. This is the level where deep change takes place.

To address the levels of resistance, communication is an enabler, but not the one and only answer. And above all, it should be communication in the broad sense of the word, not limited to top-down “mass”-communication.

Some of the issues with current change communication are:

One size fits all communication plans

You know what they say about ‘one size clothes’: it seems to fit all, but in the end it fits nobody at all. The same is the case for much of the change communication: it is send in the same way to all employees and stakeholders, not taking into account the different impact the change has on separate groups of employees. An employee in the field might need other insights and help for a specific change than somebody sitting behind a computer in the office the whole day.

No concrete expectations

In many change programs, no concrete expectations are set. What is it exactly that needs to be changed? Which change in behavior do you expect people to show? What are the business scenario’s in which change needs to take place? You can communicate all you want, if it’s not clear what’s expected and where people can find help, your beautifully designed communication plan will be in vain.

No engagement

Communication often stops with sending information, once or twice. You need to follow-up after: finding out if the message is well understood, understanding what’s needed to make the change, involving people to adapt the change to their own needs, helping them when they’re stuck, facilitating the change by making it as easy as possible.

Creating change in organizations, especially in large ones, is not something to be left to chance. It needs to be carefully designed from the perspective of the employee. Communication needs to be designed to start with, but more importantly, the interventions that are needed to let people make the switch should be carefully created.