The second of two posts about communicating change in an era of constant, 24-7 YouTubed social media.
As I noted last time, under the stress of public speaking, 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.
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. 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.
I have seen this kind of public speaking misfire many times. One company president, having just taken over another company, went on a speaking tour of the company’s sites preaching about how equal and fair the merger was going to be for both of the former organizations. Unfortunately, what he really believed was that he was going to be taking control of both companies with the same determination and obsession with detail that had brought him to the head of a major multinational. The result was that his message was all about openness, but his body language was all about control and domination. Audiences throughout both companies picked up on the incongruities and the merger floundered. The company lost momentum and the stock price lost 90 % of its value in 12 months.
It’s extremely important for executives leading change programs to get very clear about their own attitudes toward the change and to make sure that any company-wide message program they undertake is consistent with their own beliefs. If that’s not the case, prepare for trouble.
We live now in a transparent age, and social media provides an instant information outlet for disaffected, suspicious, and badly treated employees during change programs, mergers, and the like. Any company that believes that it can first fool its own employees and then the public is due to be disappointed.
Accordingly, the next crucial step in communicating change, once the lead executives are clear and consistent with themselves about the importance and the direction of the program, is to design a transparent communications process that will bring dissension and debate inside the organization rather than driving it outside.
The overwhelming urge of bureaucracies is to stifle debate and deny dissension to the outside world. Bureaucracies respond to debate like immune systems, preparing antibodies to attack and dispel the disease that’s afflicting them. This near-irresistible tendency must be resisted in the twenty-first century, because it’s simply no longer possible to maintain bureaucratic obfuscation in the way it might have been in the past.
The communications options for disaffected employees are virtually as robust and inexpensive as those for the organization itself. And they have the added advantage of actually believing what they’re communicating.
On the positive side, the opportunities for employee engagement and involvement are more available than ever before. Working with one large company in the United States, I first helped the executives get clear on the change imperatives they were facing, and then helped them develop messages that would resonate company-wide. We were able to use an enormous array of company social media, town halls, intranets, newsletters, email communications, speaking engagements, and team meetings to spread the word out to the tens of thousands of employees. But the most powerful aspect of the program was involving the employees themselves in pilot programs to create the specifics around the call for change and the desired goals that the senior executives had articulated.
The call for change was complicated, and the need was undeniable. Together, these twin imperatives might have created confusion and stasis. But because of the care the senior leadership team gave to the development of the messages and the attention the executives paid to first clarifying their own attitudes toward change, the employees heard consistent themes from an extraordinary variety of channels. The result was that there was minimal misunderstanding or confusion about the need for change and the desired goals.
Enlisting the employees in the program was both relatively straightforward and essential. Straightforward because there were few if any inconsistencies. Essential, because no change program can be made real unless everyone hears the call and gets on board. It only takes one unaligned cog to destroy an entire system of gears.
Change is the stuff of everyday organizational life – and so must be belief and consistency in the messages the flow from top to bottom in the organization.