This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center

Change is an inescapable reality of the modern workplace. The declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations to confront an array of drastic and previously unimaginable organizational changes. Many business-as-usual approaches to serving customers, working with suppliers, and normal work routines have been disrupted. A survey by McKinsey & Company found that COVID-19 has accelerated companies’ digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and their internal operations by three to four years, and these changes are expected to be long-lasting.

The single biggest challenge organizations face when implementing changes is gaining employee buy-in. If people do not change, there is no organizational change. For any organizational change to succeed, change agents should aim to reduce employees’ resistance toward change and simultaneously mobilize employees to be open and committed to implementing the change.

Effective internal communication is vital in driving employees’ support for organizational change. Recently, my co-authors and I conducted a series of studies to explore various processes by which internal communications at different levels – i.e., top executives, direct supervisors, and organizations – motivate employees’ positive attitudes and behaviors toward organizational change. From these studies, I have summarized some practical insights to share with change agents, internal communication professionals, and leaders of different levels.

Building a transparent communication system rooted in substantiality, accountability, and participation

When an organization enters a change period, rumors and informal talk about the change will often surface. To prevent unfounded rumors and fear from spreading, organizations must embrace the notion of transparent communication from the get-go. This means frequently updating employees on what is known, what is unknown, what actions are being taken, and what consequences are anticipated in a truthful, substantial, and useful manner.

The benefits of transparent change communication? Research shows that transparency enhances employees’ trust in their organizations, reduces perceived change-related uncertainties, and engenders employees’ commitment to change.

A key aspect of communication transparency is for organizations to properly disclose information that is relevant and substantial. A common mistake in change information dissemination is burying employees with redundant information. This “noise” – e.g., repeated meetings, emails, white papers, spreadsheets – obstructs employees from locating the key information and causes mental exhaustion. To find out what information employees truly need, organizations should engage in two-way, participative communication and adopt relationship-oriented, action-based public relations strategies. Organizations can identify the most relevant information to meet employees’ informational needs by consulting employees and soliciting their feedback.

Using charismatic rhetoric to instill vision, passion, and collective efficacy

Executive leaders including CEOs, heads of business units, and top management team members, are the key determiners of an organization’s strategic direction. Organizational leaders influence change outcomes by aligning employees’ personal goals with the vision of the change and by uniting followers through charismatic rhetoric. Studies show that top leaders’ use of charismatic rhetoric during organizational change has been associated with employees’ commitment to change, openness to change, and lower turnover intention after the change is completed.

What exactly constitutes charismatic rhetoric? Evidence-based insights show that 1) when explaining the change, executive leaders should emphasize a sense of continuity of organizational identity by connecting the organization’s past, present, and future. Leaders’ depiction of the change as non-threatening or even necessary for the preservation of the collective organizational identity would decrease followers’ negative sentiments toward change; 2) top leaders can energize employees by communicating aspirations and exciting possibilities, therefore encouraging employees to join together and foster solidarity. In communicating their personal passion and excitement about change, top leaders demonstrate a notion of positivity and personal involvement, which can be contagious; 3) leaders can express confidence in employees to work towards common goals and employ imagery and metaphors to provide employees with hope for the future.

Touching employees’ heart: communicating with care and empathy

Employees’ worries and concerns about change are usually laden with emotion. In this context, leaders’ use of empathetic language (which focuses on care, compassion, and perspective-taking) is more important than ever. Supervisors assume an important role in providing comfort and assurance to their followers. Research has suggested that employees’ direct supervisors are the preferred sources of implementation-related and job-relevant information during change. Specifically, the use of empathetic language by supervisors increased employees’ affective trust in supervisors and decreased their turnover intention.

Communicating with empathy and care also means leaders verbally recognize what followers have gone through by listening and checking in on their thoughts. In turn, line supervisors can translate employees’ concerns to decision-makers, serving as internal boundary-spanners across different lines and functions.

In summary, leadership and communication are essential ingredients for successful organizational change. Organizations need to invest in courses, training materials, and periodic meetings to teach leaders how to communicate vision, passion, and care. Public relations and change communication managers should assist leaders in crafting appropriate communication strategies, tactics, and messages to maximize the influence of communication for change.

Cen April Yue (Ph.D., University of Florida) is an assistant professor of marketing, advertising, and public relations at the University of Connecticut and research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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