I recently read an excellent article by Kristy Hull in last May’s strategy + business (I’m a bit behind) on Getting to the Critical Few Behaviors that Can Drive Cultural Change. In it, she provides a strategic framework around change that centers around zeroing in on those impactful and actionable new behaviors by employees that are key to getting to a particular business outcome. To brainstorm those behaviors, Hull invites us to ask the question, “In a future state in which we’ve achieved the goals, what would people actually do (or do differently)?”
As communicators and change professionals, we know that we are rarely lucky enough to answer that question with a behavior that employees only have to exhibit once or twice. It’s almost never “employees need to click their heels three times and say there is no place like home,” or the princess or prince is kissed and everybody lives happily ever after (and by the way, Hull does not at all imply that this is the case). Usually change behavior needs to be exhibited multiple times, often daily and often for the long-term. In other words, the behavior ideally turns into habit.
As Hull says, behavior change needs to be built on a foundation of the right incentives, focused performance management, and sometimes organizational design and leadership change. However, a good communication strategy needs to be overlaid on top of these other actions. Internal Communications can help embed the behaviors and turn them into habits with tried and true tactics.
Gathering Virtual Dust and Real Cynicism
This may be controversial (or maybe not with veteran Communicators), but I go into planning these change strategies and tactics with the belief that unless you are a brand new organization, every company has a credibility problem with their employees — especially their more veteran employees – when it comes to change. Every company, with the best of intentions, has started a corporate change “program” or “campaign” that has died on the vine because it wasn’t well thought through, just didn’t have the commitment by leadership that it needed, or circumstances changed and the need for the change was no longer appropriate. Whether it ended for good reasons or bad, employees are left with yet another water bottle on their desk, poster on their wall, or digital card on their screen saver with program logos or slogans like “Imagine the Possibilities” or “Innovate to Create,” that are gathering real or virtual dust.
Look, it happens. You try something; you put a lot of work into it. You do as many right things as you can. And you still fail. Trying and failing should not be a crime when it comes to cultural change programs (or innovation of any kind). This is how you learn. However, employees may start to lose faith in these programs. Maybe not after one failure, but after two or three, employees may be naturally skeptical. If failures keep happening, skepticism turns into cynicism, and then you have to recalibrate how you approach new programs.
It’s a problem, but not an insurmountable one, because through experience, I have also come to the conclusion that most employees want to believe. They want plans to improve the culture of the company to create growth to succeed. Why not? Growth means more money to do more interesting things (and better bonuses). Improved culture often means a better environment to work in, streamlined processes and less focus on unimportant things.
Stacking the Deck in Your Favor
The bigger elephant in any room when it comes to change is layoffs. Employees may be concerned that change could put their job in jeopardy. And let’s face it, with some change programs there may be some job loss. If layoffs are part of any change program, the earlier in the plan that can happen, the better off you will be. As upsetting as layoffs are for employees, if they can see that they are part of a broader change plan (and not just cost cutting) and that they are now “safe,” they are more willing to move forward even if still feeling badly for their laid off colleagues. Again, they want the company to succeed; they just need to know there is a plan.
When they see that they are safe, a few precautions can be put into place that will reinforce that desire, start embedding change behavior into habits, and give them some confidence that it will succeed.
- Start with Leadership: This is table stakes. Simply put, if employees don’t see their leadership exhibiting the behaviors they are asking from employees, then it won’t be long before they begin to wonder how committed the company is to the change. If there is training involved, start with the top leadership, and then have that trained leadership be part of the programs for the next level of leadership and so on down the line. It is important to remember that in a large corporations, while the C-Suite and the next level of division/business presidents are important for setting the tone, it is usually the CEO-2 and -3 leaders that employees see and hear on a more regular basis.
Making sure to engage that, what I call, “upper-middle” level is so crucial. I was once part of a research effort to find out how certain changes were being embedded into the company by conducting hour-long interviews with non-leadership employees. What we found out was shocking: not only were change concepts not being passed down from this upper-middle layer of leadership, but because the changes were seen as a threat in terms of where certain teams reported, some of that leadership layer were actively engaged in turning their people against the changes. We had done a poor job of engaging that level and helping them own the changes, and in return they stopped the change program in its tracks. Other research has shown that it is not always so nefarious; some leaders just don’t know the “where or when” of how to communicate the change.
A few business leaders I have worked with schedule calls with those next two levels of leadership on a regular basis to help them feel engaged with what is going on. The calls are followed with tool kits or “message maps” so that it is easy for the next layer to know what and how (and sometimes when) they can communicate with their teams. You can see how Internal Communications can play a huge role in this crucial piece.
- Paint a visionary picture with measurable milestones. As they say, it’s hard to get where you are going if you don’t know where that is. If employees are presented with a vision of the future as a result of the changed behavior that is both sunnier and feels realistic, they are more likely to want to get on board for the long haul. And if they are presented, in a transparent way, measurable progress, that will further boost your chances of changing behavior into habits. It’s the old charity thermometer trick. Some charities set campaign goals and show their progress by using the visual metaphor of a thermometer, and as the donation rise, you can see the mercury rising in the thermometer (never mind that in real life, this would mean you were getting sicker). While people may start a new behavior to get to a sunnier future, having shorter term milestones and a visual reference created by Internal Communications for employees to see the progress will drive them to continue to exhibit that behavior.
- Find your bright spots. Nothing motivates more than success. Related to showing progress is demonstrating quick wins and recognizing “heroes” of the new changes. Employees may sometimes have credibility issues with leadership, but they are apt to trust their colleagues. If you can show how fellow colleagues are prospering or how clients are happier with the new changes, you have done much to validate the changes. It is not foolproof, but it is incredibly effective.
- Make it easy. This is related to the Heath brothers’ idea of “shrinking the change,” which refers to helping people boil down a big change into specific actions. Many of us love using numbers for something like this. So if you want to boost prospecting, you create a “20 + 20” program where you ask everyone to spend 20 minutes a day researching new prospects, and make 20 calls a day to new leads. You can even make this into a challenge to heighten the fun. So if you are trying to embed learning in your culture, you can do “15 for 15” challenge, where you ask people to pick a topic and spend 15 scheduled minutes a day learning about this topic for 15 days straight, and then share what they have learned with others.
- Creating a change-adaptable culture. I listed this as one of the 5 greatest Internal Communications opportunities for 2018. It comes down to this: some changes are going to succeed and some will fail, but employees are going to need to get used to the idea that they are going to continue to happen at a faster rate. In fact, if you feel like your company is not in the midst of change, you should be concerned. And the change is not just about companies and what they do and how they do it, but it is about employees. In the last two years, I have seen a number of great articles on and speeches on the concept that they old pattern of education-then-career-then-retirement is over. Lifelong learning and career shifts will become the norm. That’s why a culture of learning is so important as a key building block to change adaptability. Training for leadership and managers on how to manage through change is going to become more important as well.
All this to say that Internal Communications can play a huge role in embedding change. However, it requires Communications to be in on the planning stages of the change and not brought in only when an announcement needs to be made. Also, it requires leadership to have a picture of not just the longer term vision, but the new behaviors and skills from employees it will require.
And with all of that, some changes will still fail, but if you have the right culture, employees will be with you when you brush yourself off and try again.