As I talk to audiences recently, and, in fact, as I get ready to talk to those audiences by interviewing the meeting planners, conference organizers, and potential audience members, over and over again I hear a strikingly similar plaint.

They begin by saying, “Our industry differs from every other one you’ll talk to.  Change is the only norm.  But more than that, it’s the speed of change that’s incredible.  We don’t know from one quarter to the next what new tech developments there are going to be, what new market entrants there are going to be, what new regulations (or lack thereof) there are going to be.  Our industry is topsy-turvy and changing faster than it ever has.   On top of that, our employees, like our profits, are stretched thinner than ever.  They’re (the employees are) stressed out, working 24-7, and facing the pressures of adapting to change like never before.  And on top of all that, we don’t know if Amazon is going to come into our market and completely change everything virtually overnight.”

The funny thing is that every industry is saying something that sounds eerily similar.

The irony is that they’re all right.  Each industry’s confrontation with change is particular and different from every other.  It’s just that the main pressures and trends are so similar.

If you’re an executive at the top tier of your organization, or somewhere in the middle of the organization – or a front-line manager – how do you lead your organization through this sort of bone-crushing, soul-mangling change?  What does it look like from a communications angle?

One of the most difficult aspects of any change program is communicating to employees the urgency that the executives may already feel.  If you paint too dark a picture of the need for change, you risk frightening employees about the state of the organization.  They’ll check out, maybe even make plans to leave, and you’ll compound the trauma for those who are left.  But if you paint in colors that are too mild, the sense of urgency will not be communicated and the natural bureaucratic tendency toward inertia will ensure not much happens and certainly not in time.

The goal of any change communication program then, is to put out messages that make the status quo untenable and the future more alluring than the past – in a way that gets everyone moving forward in the same direction.  It’s a tricky balance to get right, and it begins with the senior executives’ own attitudes toward change.

Let’s start with some old-fashioned wisdom.  My grandmother always used to say that the only people who crave change are wet babies.  A crucial first step is to confront your own feelings about change.

Why is that so essential?  Every face-to-face communication is two conversations, the verbal and the non-verbal.  When the verbal and the non-verbal conversations are aligned, the communication can be successful.  If the two are not aligned, the people in front of you will believe the non-verbal every time.  It’s essential for executives at every level involved in communicating the need for change to believe in the need for it themselves.  Anything less, and you’ll see that incongruity leak out between the content and the body language.

And you can imagine the success of a meeting in which half-hearted executives attempt to convince overstressed and resistant employees about the importance of a change the managers don’t themselves believe.

But it’s even more complicated than this.  Under the stress of public speaking, at the level of, say, an important meeting with career-influencing announcements called for, humans experience adrenaline flooding their system, and the result is that their bodies need to release that build up of adrenaline in a variety of ways.  Sadly, that expression of adrenaline by the speaker looks to the audience almost always like a lack of belief in the message.  Adrenaline comes out in ‘happy feet’ – the inability of the speaker to stand still – or in fidgeting, twitching, wandering eyes, and a variety of other ways, but they all look like the speaker is not fully invested in his or her message.

These signals to the audience are the more powerful because, for the most part, they’re not picked up consciously.  Instead, they’re read by our unconscious minds.  Those unconscious minds are incredibly good at picking up such signals and interpreting their intent – meaning how they might affect us.  This unconscious mental process happens faster than and before conscious thought, so it’s literally true that an audience may decide not to believe a speaker even before he’s opened his mouth.

That makes the intent of the executive about the change program very important.  If he or she is not completely committed to it, and believing in it deeply, the odds are overwhelming that the audience will pick up the unconscious hesitation and decide not to follow, believe, or trust the leader.

The first of two parts.  Next time – some examples of how not to communicate change.

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