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4 Ways Effective Leaders Communicate Change

Communicate Change

The change initiative you are leading will likely fail. The good news is, there’s a way to dramatically increase your odds of success – focus on how you communicate change.

The failure rate for corporate transformations has “hovered around 70%,” according to research from McKinsey & Company. Sometimes these transformations fail quickly and spectacularly in a public display. More often, however, the failure is a slow one; change initiatives that were loudly trumpeted in Q1 have drifted into obscurity and been forgotten by Q4. 

Leaders seeking effective change know the biggest threat to their success is not the passionate and vocal opposition to change – it’s the slow fade into mediocrity through lack of prioritization and participation from the organization. It’s having your initiative pushed to the side of the desk and being forgotten.

To avoid the fate of irrelevance, you must understand that your role is split between action and promotion – a significant and important part of your job is marketing! You should spend as much time talking about the change as you do implementing it. Market the change initiative through a compelling message that resonates with the organization.

Successful change leaders follow four practices to craft and deliver a compelling message to communicate change.

1. Begin with the Emotional Need

The commitment to change is an emotional one. As human beings, we need to understand “the why.” A change leader should articulate not only the facts that support the need to change, but also why people should care about the change. Explain how the need for change supports the company vision, mission, and values – or in some cases, the company’s very survival!

In the beginning, many will approach the initiative with skepticism, especially if they have seen other initiatives fail in the past. Communicating the need for change in a way that connects emotionally with the audience should create a feeling of discomfort.

For one recent initiative, I pulled together several poignant comments from the company’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey describing a lackluster customer experience with the support organization. I arranged them on a PowerPoint slide as speech bubbles over the silhouetted torso of a customer, and faded in each comment as I read them aloud to the organization. This presentation was an uncomfortable experience, both for me and the support team in the audience. However, when the team heard how the customers responded to their support experience, they were emotionally willing to listen to ideas about change.

When the audience feels uncomfortable with the current state, they will naturally look to you for a solution.

2. End with a Compelling Vision

After you establish the need for change, the audience is receptive to hearing about the vision. By describing the destination, or end state, you relieve their anxiety. You cast a vision of the future that resolves the tension created by the discomfort of the current state and the now accepted need for change.

At the inception of the initiative, you don’t have to know every step of the journey, or every detail about the destination. But you should communicate a realistic and clear end to the journey. What problem will be solved? What will it feel like to operate in this new state? How will success be measured? Complete the story from both an analytical and an emotional point of view. Just as you let the audience feel uncomfortable over the need for change, begin leading them to the feelings of relief and excitement associated with the future state vision.

A family embarking on a road trip knows where they are going. They may not know every turn they will take or stop they will make along the way, but the destination is clear, and they know it will feel good upon arrival.

Communicating the vision early on serves two purposes. The first is immediate; it inspires confidence that there is a plan to resolve the issues causing the uncomfortable tension. The second is long-term. Knowing the destination keeps the organization on track. It answers the classic family road-trip question: “Are we there yet?”

3. Obsess about Words

The words you use to communicate change matter. These words will become the dialect of your change. Effective change leaders develop a new vocabulary for the organization and the words become symbolic of the change initiative. Introducing this new vocabulary to the organization spreads the message of the change beyond the change team. You can identify early adopters and change champions because they will pick up on the dialect and begin speaking your language.

As a leader, you should use the words consistently and reinforce your team’s usage of the words. Don’t allow anyone to dilute the message by using different words or phrases. These key words should become indicators for the organization upon any conversation related to the change initiative. 

I have even branded the change, partnering with marketing to create a logo and imagery that could be used on t-shirts, stickers, and other employee swag. The brand is symbolic of the change – the old way of doing business is passing, and we are adopting a new methodology. The brand is a memorable representation of the new dialect. It packages the deeper operational vocabulary the organization is adopting.

4. Repeat the Message, Repeat the Message, Repeat the Message

Effective change leaders know that repetition is the most important aspect of communication. Constantly talk about the change – promote it, explain it, defend it, and reinforce it.

You may be living and breathing the initiative, but a portion of your audience will only hear about it on department updates or business reviews. With the urgent pressures of the day-to-day, it will be easy for them to lose track of the project milestones and progress.

Repeat your message to stakeholders often. Schedule recurring debriefs or one-on-ones if necessary. 

In your repetition, remember to continually ground your audience in the need for change and the vision of the future. One of the rules of marketing is that your audience needs to hear the message seven times before they will remember it. The same is true of your corporate stakeholders. Take every opportunity to remind them why you are changing, what awaits at the end state, and what it will feel like when you get there.

Send weekly status emails, schedule stakeholder update calls, or develop a newsletter. Enlist “change champions” to carry your message throughout the organization and relay feedback and concerns. When a colleague asks how you are doing, instead of saying “fine,” share the latest progress update on the initiative. Create opportunities to repeat the message and communicate change.

These Four Practices Improve Change Acceptance

The Six Sigma world teaches that the effectiveness of a change is a product of its quality and its acceptance. In other words, the best change in the world won’t be effective unless it’s accepted by people!

When you communicate change, following these four practices to craft a compelling message that will greatly improve the change acceptance.

Begin with the emotional need, end with a compelling vision, obsess about words, and repeat the message. Repeat your message until your audience starts saying it back to you, in your dialect, with your vocabulary. When everyone in the organization can articulate the need and the vision in the right words, you’re communicating effectively, and the organization is ready to accept the change and follow you into the future.

I originally published this article on LinkedIn on February 4, 2020.

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