Chip Neidigh

Bypassing the Water Cooler: Communicating in Times of Change

Nature abhors a vacuum.
–François Rabelais.

When major changes are announced in an organization, an interesting dynamic develops:

  • Employees have a greater than usual need for information.
  • Leaders tend to more strictly control the flow of information.

In times of uncertainty, employees increase their sensitivity to any signals present, frequently misinterpreting whatever facts are available and filling the information gap with bizarre scenarios they have generated. Rumors, half-truths, and well-intentioned guesses end up dominating the talk around the water cooler.

So, what does this information gap cost an organization? Frustrated, anxious employees can cause significant organizational headaches. Bonds of trust between leaders and their employees erode, leading to reduced employee satisfaction and engagement. Customer-facing employees who are distracted or upset tend to make more mistakes, build less rapport, and engage less deeply with customers. Quality, customer satisfaction, and employee productivity suffer.

For leaders who want to minimize the confusion, frustration, and disorientation that attends major change, here are some practical ideas:

Clarify the big picture, repeatedly.
Seek out answers to the big picture questions, such as, ‘Why are we making this change?’, ‘Where are we going?’, and ‘How much will it hurt?’ Then craft those answers into simple, memorable Key Messages. Most importantly, share the Key Messages, over and over again, until people cut you off and finish your sentences for you.

Answer the WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) questions whenever possible.
Tell people as much information as you know about the details that will affect them personally.

Engage in two-way dialogue about the change.
Acknowledge individuals’ pain. Be authentic and express how you feel about the change. Surface others’ emotions, and deal with them productively. And get comfortable saying, “I don’t know;” you won’t have all the answers.

The hardest step on any new journey is typically the first one. Few leaders enjoy engaging in emotionally-charged conversations with their teams. But a willingness to “jump into the fray” can bear huge dividends in morale, productivity, and quality. Godspeed.

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