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Department of Premier and Cabinet

Communicating Change

Almost every book or article about change says that a key role for organisational leaders in change is to communicate. But what exactly does this mean?  

Explain at every opportunity 

When leading change, you need to seek out every opportunity to explain why change is necessary and explain how things will be (or are becoming) better as a consequence of the changes. If information about an aspect of the change is not known, or cannot yet be shared, explain that this is the case.

Communicating about the changes just once is not nearly enough. Not everyone will hear, understand or accept information the first time they are given it. Repeating the same information over and over increases the chance for employees to hear, understand and accept the information when they are ready to do so. When you feel that you are communicating ‘about three times as much’ as you thought you would need to, then you are probably getting it right. Developing a communication plan is an excellent way of identifying what, who, why to communicate the change with. 

For more information visit the Change Toolkit page for factsheets & templates.  

Build a shared understanding

Remember that communication is not about talking. It is about developing a common understanding through a conversation. One of the things that gets in the way of developing a common understanding is that what employees hear is filtered by what they believe and already understand. In a change situation, everyone’s first concern is likely to be ‘what does this mean for me?’ This is the filter through which they will take in and make sense of the information provided to them. It is also the basis upon which employees will fill any gaps in the information they have been provided with.

Change programs need regular messages that are simple, consistent, and delivered by leaders who have a strong understanding of the change initiative. Generally employees are not afraid of the unknown. They are afraid of the unexplained. A true leader shines a light on the road ahead to help others see where they are going.

Ask questions and listen

Just as you should take every opportunity to explain the change, you should also take every opportunity for people (employees and other key stakeholders) to tell you about how they see the change. Because of your position in the organisation, some employees may be uncomfortable volunteering information about the change to you. It is important that you invite them to share their insights with you by asking questions. Useful questions at different stages of the change include:

  • Do you think that the changes are a good idea?
  • Are you concerned about the changes?
  • Are there better ways we could achieve the same outcomes?
  • What opportunities do you think the changes will create (or have already created)?

What you are listening for in the responses are not just the overt answers to your questions, but also evidence of misunderstanding, confusion and resentment.

Continue communicating, even once the change is underway 

One of the most common mistakes leaders make is to stop communicating about the change as soon as the first change activities have commenced. It is important that you keep communicating about the change until you are convinced - and there is compelling evidence to confirm this view - that the change has been adopted to such an extent that it will not be undone. The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished. 

Mistaking communication for consultation

Communication is different from consultation. Both are important during organisational change.

Communication is all about keeping information flowing in all directions through the organisation and throughout the entire change process for example, leaders telling employees what is happening and why, and employees telling leaders what is happening and why.

By contrast, consultation is about asking employees for their ideas about how to plan and implement the change-for example, leaders may ask employees about how the organisation could be structured to achieve better client outcomes. Or leaders may ask employees about when a new ICT data system should come on line so that it has greatest chance of success.

Both communication and consultation involve asking questions. With communication, the questions are focused on checking understanding. With consultation, the questions are focused on ‘what do you think we should do?’

Basic questions to ask yourself

  • Is my message consistent with that of Head of Agency, Senior Executives, Human Resources and/ other managers?
  • What additional information do I need to effectively communicate with my direct reports?
  • Are my formal and information communications timely, honest, and accurate?
  • Do communications detail the business rationale behind the change? Do the messages achieve the following:
    • Give reasons for the change and explain the benefit?
    • Ask for employees help in making the change work effectively?
    • Show support for the change (help others accept the change)?
    • Clarify the vision, plans, and progress of the change initiative?
  • Does the communications strategy effectively relay how the change will affect employees and the business in the short and long term? Does the message do the following:
    • Provide as many details as possible?
    • Address the ―What‘s in it for me? question?
    • Supply realistic detail of both the positives and negatives of the change?
    • Let employees know that the organisation has an appreciation of the effects of change on them?
  • Have I addressed employee questions and issues, and have I captured and escalated important employee concerns or communicated the outcomes of decisions so that they reflect the nature of the issues raised?
  • Has the organisation determined how to clearly communicate what is expected of employees and resources available to them to help them transition?
  • Do I communicate proactively and adjust my communication approach depending on employee reactions?
  • Do I create opportunities for two-way, face-to-face dialogue and follow-up on items of concern following these conversations?
  • Am I effectively reaching my audience via numerous channels?
  • Have I made employees aware of dispute resolution processes (both individual and collective)? 

Communicating change: some practical tips

 Communicating Change - some practical tips
Tip Explanation
Specify the nature of the change

Avoid generalised statements and overviews. Employees need to understand the specifics and how it affects the way they do their work.

Explain the 'why' Explain the business, socio-political or organisational reasons for the change. It may take some detective work, but understanding the reason will help employees buy-in to the change.
Explain the impact of change, both good and bad Some employees may be adversely affected by the change, so being open about the positive as well as the more challenging aspects helps them to consider their options. It also helps minimise the impact of speculation and gossip.
Develop creative communication Don’t just rely on one method of communication. Using a range of methods will ensure you connect with everyone, regardless of their preferred style of communicating.
Manage the negatives As negatives occur, make sure they are promptly addressed and managed.
Explain what success looks like People need to work towards the future vision. Be clear about what success will look like and how people will know when they are moving towards it

Explain the ‘what’s in it for me’

Identify the benefits for each individual in the new world. Benefits may be on a personal, professional or job-related level.

Repeat yourself!

Employees take time to engage with new messages and they may not be ready to take information on board the first time it is presented. Follow up your communications with additional reinforcing communication, giving employees every opportunity to question and understand the message.

Make communication two-way

A key part of employee's motivation will stem from their ability to be involved. Provide the opportunity for feedback, discussion and debate, even if you don’t have all the answers. It will always be appreciated.

Tips for creating a positive workplace 

Most employees will understand that change impacts may still give rise to legitimate concerns such as how will this affect my job; my projects; and my work colleagues. It is therefore important to listen carefully to employees  as well as regularly give responsive and consistent messages. Remember that employees are different and will listen at different times depending on their circumstances and state of mind.

There are five steps that can create a positive workplace:

  1. Effective Communication
  2. Engaging and Motivating Employees
  3. Encouraging Positive Employee Attitudes
  4. Encouraging and Open and Supportive Working Environment
  5. Encouraging dialogue by leading successful meetings

Effective Communication

High performing workplaces have an environment that practices open communication, consultation, cooperation and input from employees on matters that affect their work and workplace. The involvement of employees in matters that affect them or that they can affect is an important strategy in maintaining an environment where they feel motivated, supported and connected.

Open communication can also provide a sound platform for performance planning, continuous improvement and risk management. This includes regular feedback, recognition and acknowledgement of the contributions of employees. It is also important to clearly communicate individual and team priorities and clearly defined objectives; this will reduce the potential for ambiguity in job performance.

Engaging and motivating employees

Employee engagement in an organisation is the commitment to the purpose, vision and values and in feeling a sense of ownership in the service that they provide. Employees are engaged in the success of an organisation when they 'feel, think and act like owners'. This is achieved through the development of trusting workplace relationships, supporting growth and development for employees, encouraging open communication, utilising positive reinforcement, ensuring involvement and creating a positive environment. This helps employees feel the contribution that they make as an individual within our Agency to the overall provision of a service to the community is valued.

Employee engagement provides considerable outcomes for an organisation, not only in the level of service provision but also in the level of commitment. Tapping into the discretionary effort of employees is a very significant resource. Discretionary effort is the inclination of many people/employees, when given the opportunity to work in a supportive, focused environment, to work over and above the bare minimum requirements. These are the employees that take personal pride from their work whether they are being measured or not.

The level of motivation and commitment that engaged employees bring to an organisation assists significantly in the retention of these dedicated people.

Encouraging positive employee attitudes

Employees with a positive attitude are more motivated, show initiative, contribute positively and take performing well in the workplace more seriously. They are more open to the performance management process, and more likely to participate in a positive way.

Negative employees do the minimum to get by. They don't have a lot of drive, and they don't take a lot of initiative. They are not concerned about their work performance, or likely to react positively to performance management.

How a person perceives or understands their environment is a significant influence on how they respond to or behave in their environment. Employee attitudes are often a direct consequence of their perceptions of their workplace.

The behaviour and level of communication of leaders and managers in the organisation is vital to how employees perceive their workplace, and therefore a critical factor in employee attitudes. Employees who can trust their leaders are more likely to have positive perceptions and experiences of their workplace. Leaders and managers:

  • follow, and be seen to follow, policies and procedures
  • expect everyone to follow policies and procedures
  • communicate openly, honestly and consistently with employees and others
  • encourage employees to play an appropriate part in decision-making, and acknowledge and consider diverse views
  • give reasons for decisions, revealing all avenues available, giving all relevant information
  • practice ethical decision-making, and are prepared to give reasons for their decisions
  • guard against hiding their actions and decisions from scrutiny, or appearing to do so
  • don't play favourites with employees
  • make sure they are informed before making a decision
  • encourage employees to report wrong doing
  • deal properly with reports of suspected wrongdoing, support employees doing the right thing even in the face of adversity (don't make scapegoats, or shoot the messenger)

Encouraging an open and supportive working environment

Generally, if employees are in the right position and in the right environment, they will be more likely to feel motivated and subsequently will not underachieve on purpose. Any errors are then more likely to be genuine mistakes, errors of judgment or systems failure, rather than poor performance or misconduct. An open, safe workplace environment is one that is accepting of mistakes as an opportunity to learn, rather than a situation, which causes blame. This is more likely to foster a culture of trust and engagement rather than a negative, unproductive culture of blame, where mistakes are covered up rather than remedied and learnt from. Problems are also going to be more containable if they are addressed and remedied as they occur, rather than covered up to emerge at some future point where resolution is less effective.

In instances where things go wrong in the workplace, it is important to address the situation in light of the lessons that can be learnt in order to improve future performance, rather than going over past mistakes to allocate blame.

Notwithstanding the above information, some mistakes do recur frequently enough that they need to be handled more seriously.

Encouraging dialogue by leading successful meetings

How to deliver key messages

Managers are often handed talking points and asked to convey key messages to employees. For this communication to be effective some preparation is critical. Here are guidelines to follow:

  • Familiarise yourself with each message so you can restate it, unaided, in your own words.
  • Ideally, you should have only three to five key messages to deliver.
  • Bring messages to life by discussing why the information is important to you and sharing anecdotes from your personal experience.
  • Avoid repeating jargon or vague, ambiguous language. Find a way to state the message simply.
  • Focus on aspects of the message that address employees concerns and interests based on your knowledge of what’s on their minds.
Leading a team briefing

When leading a team briefing your role is to encourage dialogue, build consensus and gain commitment. Here’s how:

Encourage dialogue by:
  • Asking open-ended questions that can’t be answered yes or no. This assists to gather facts and stimulate discussion.
    • Example: “What do you think is behind their concerns?”
  • Showing empathy by acknowledge you can appreciate others’ viewpoints.
    • Example: “Given the circumstances, I can see how you would feel that way.”
  • Disagreeing constructively. State why you look at the situation differently and offer an alternative suggestion.
    • Example: “My experience with that has been different. I find it’s best to …”
  • Agreeing concisely. Avoid restating points already made.
    • Example: “I agree with Juan’s position for the reasons he mentioned.”
  • Encouraging quiet employees to join the discussion by calling them by name.
    • Example: “Sue, what do you think we should do?”
  • Posing a question to the group and, if there is no response after a brief pause, calling on someone who you believe should contribute to the discussion.
    • Example: “Tony, any thoughts on this?”
Build consensus by:
  • Summarising what you hear the group saying.
    • Example: “It sounds like the team believes we need to …”
  • Testing a conclusion with the person most likely to disagree with it.
    • Example: “Ed, does that square with your thinking?”
  • Encouraging dissenting parties to resolve differing views.
    • Example: “Fiona, I hear you saying it’s a capacity issue. But, Tom, you seem to be suggesting it’s a training issue. Say a little more about that.”
  • Pushing for closure once you perceive a general sense of agreement.
    • Example: “It seems everyone believes we need to outsource the process. Does anyone disagree with that?”
Gain commitment by:
  • Summarising the agreed-upon course of action.
    • Example: “So, we agree that we …”
  • Defining next steps.
    • Example: “How can we make this happen?”
  • Using close-ended questions to confirm accountabilities.
    • Example: “Joan, can you call him today?”
  • Determining follow-up actions.
    • Example: “Let’s meet again next Monday to check our progress.”
What to discuss at the next team briefing

If you feel unsure about what to cover in your next team briefing, here are some questions employees are nearly always interested in hearing about:

  • What are your top priorities?
  • What’s the rationale for a recent change and how will it impact on us?
  • What of significance to us is happening in other parts of the company?
  • What new roles are being added or filled?
  • What’s being done to promote career and professional development?
  • What have you heard others say about our core strengths and weaknesses?

Workplace communication tips:

  • Demonstrate change is a priority.
  • Be willing to modify and create new elements or organisational culture.
  • Acknowledge the potential losses and address the needs of employees who perceive they have lost something.
  • Link the old with the new but don’t disparage the past.
  • Build trust every day.
  • Reward employees who positively drive and implement change.
  • Find ways to respect the past. Employees may have spent considerable energy in the development and promotion of a particular system or program, and may find it challenging to move forward to a new way of working.
  • Maintain the focus and accountability of team members throughout the transition and help them to work through their concerns.
  • Have systems in place to help you through the transition period, such as regular team briefings, setting and monitoring team goals.
  • Lead by example.
  • Develop cascading commitment. Successful change needs employees at every level to champion the change.
  • Don’t be afraid to acknowledge what is still unknown
  • Don’t hesitate to acknowledge fears, where appropriate.
  • Acknowledge small wins or successes throughout the change process.


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