Every organisation is wrestling with change management in one form or another these days. Getting your communications right, argues employee communications expert and author Liam FitzPatrick, actually relies on a tried and trusted channel — the line manager.
The days when life was steady and constant in most organisations are long gone. No one gets through one end of the year to the next without having to implement some form of change or another.
📚Internal communication plays a critical role in change management. Download the eBook "Building a Better Company with Internal Communications" and learn how to successfully drive change in the workplace.
Be it tweaks to the IT system, new products, fresh HR processes, or just staying ahead of the competition, change management is the concern of every leader — everywhere.
But the challenge is rarely in the practical introduction of different tools or features.
Change management for the practicalities of change is easy; often it’s just a case of tracking whether the right features are being delivered on time at the right price.
Life gets difficult when we want people to change their behaviours, and very few changes don’t depend on people acting differently.
In our book, "Successful Employee Communications", Sue Dewhurst and I don't talk about things changing but people transforming.
If a change is to be successful, the management process has to find a way of getting inside employees’ heads and that’s not going to come just from a well-crafted email or a great video.
It’s going to happen when someone who knows the individual employee explains, in person, the why and the what of the change.
Think for a moment about changes that have happened in your workplace.
If the change was successful, it probably began with general awareness raising moving on to a more detailed explanation before giving you the tools or scope to actually deliver the results. Finally, there was some kind of embedding phase when you all celebrated the change before bracing yourselves for the next round of change.
And contrast that with poorly executed change you have experienced.
I’m willing to wager that if the change management process had any communication at all, it was limited to a few crude awareness tactics like an all-staff email, a poster in the lifts and some cheap desk clutter like a stress ball branded with whatever bizarre name the project management team came up with.
Normally, this just results in a general sense of confusion surrounding the project.
We often can’t see how the change is relevant to us and what we’re meant to do to make it successful.
Project Upgrade might tell you that O365 is coming but what does that mean for how you work? Project Safe might exhort you to fill in a new on-line form to report hazards but why should you bother if you feel pretty safe already?
The fundamental challenge in any change management process lies in showing people what change actually means to them. And that relies on someone who knows them translating the awful slogans and the head office rhetoric into a description of how their work will change tomorrow.
And a line manager is always going to be best placed to be your translator of choice.
My line manager understands my job. They know what I’m good at and they have experience of what I’ll struggle to get my head around. And they know what worries me and what excites me. Their insight into how I think makes them a million times better qualified to explain things to me than some video of the Programme Manager talking in vague terms about the need to be competitive/keep up with developments/comply with government regulations.
Sadly though, internal communicators can fail to set middle managers up for success. And, even worse, they are often unfairly blamed for the failure of change and transformation initiatives.
They’ll get called the marzipan layer and senior leaders and change management teams will suspect them of deliberately frustrating change.
Local managers are accused of reinforcing the status quo or more serious crimes and heresies such as the dreaded ‘Not invented here’ syndrome.
However, the reasons why line managers fail to be effective supporters of change or they just don’t deliver are simple and easily fixed.
A change manager who wants to recruit middle managers needs only to ask five simple questions in order to work out how to empower and energise their local communications.
Question 1 – Do Line Managers Know They Are Meant to Communicate?
Surprisingly, a very large proportion of middle managers do not realise that it's actually their job to communicate.
And I don’t just mean big things like change or corporate objectives; many managers get by telling their teams as little as possible about anything. As long as the job gets done, who needs to talk about things that don’t directly apply to today’s problems?
There’s an added dimension when change management comes into play.
Not only do you need managers to understand that communication is a requirement of their role in general, they have to see a specific role in support of a change or transformation.
What are the most in-demand communication skills in the workplace?
Quite simply if we haven’t said to local managers “We need your help to explain X, Y and Z”, how can we rely on them working it out for themselves?
I have found it useful to produce a simple pack that sets out in detail what messages we are hoping to land and the role that we need local leaders to play in delivering them.
A good pack will explain when the messages need to land where the manager can turn to for added support. But a pack on its own is of little use if question 2 hasn’t been addressed.
Question 2 – Have We Properly Explained It to Them?
If you’re a line manager, sooner or later you’ll receive an email asking you to brief your team on something you’ve never heard about.
You’re faced with the choice of looking like an idiot in front of your team, proving that you’re not party to the inner workings of the senior leadership, confusing the hell out of your subordinates or hitting delete on the email.
Unsurprisingly, most managers will ignore the instruction to communicate. And who could blame them?
Before sending out an order to cascade communications, invest time in briefing managers on the background and wider context.
The aim should be to give them comfort that they can answer questions not in the specific brief and understand well enough to translate a change message into terms that make sense to their teams.
At the very least, this requires some sort of detailed briefing session where the change or transformation is explained.
In the past, I have found, as a rule of thumb, that 50% or this briefing session should focus on how the change is to be communicated.
Sessions looking at typical questions will not only give managers confidence in dealing with harder parts of change management but will also highlight areas where the overall message is unclear or not understood.
Change leaders also know that once is never enough. As a transformation unfolds, people need updating. But they also need reminding that other managers are communicating and reassurance that colleagues are having the same struggles.
Planning for multiple briefing sessions — either in person or on-line — is always wise.
Question 3 – Have You Trained Them?
Many managers are nervous that they lack the skills to communicate. And often the only training they have received on communications will be a standard presentation skills course — probably a decade beforehand!
Yet communicating in support of change management is rarely about standing up and making a presentation.
Helping teams understand change or transformation is more likely to call on skills of facilitation, conversation starting and listening.
Investing in training that supports two-way communication is always useful especially if it helps them think about:
- The results they want to have from communicating
- How their audience will receive the message and how it can be tailored to reflect their levels of understanding
- What practical examples they should be using
- How to make the message stick in simple ways
- What questions they can use to get a conversation started
- How will they know the message has actually been heard?
I have found that large-scale sessions on communications training are not always popular with managers with busy schedules.
It can be more impactful to pick on a single aspect such as handling difficult questions or running a team discussion and weave that into a wider briefing about a specific change management update.
Of course, you should be sensitive to cultural issues. In Europe or North America, a team might welcome a chance to debate issues with a line manager. Elsewhere, such as in Eastern cultures, a manager who cannot issue clear instructions without the need for clarification might be seen as ineffective. Training should take into account the context within which managers work.
Offering training also shows managers that their role in managing difficult news is appreciated; it’s a powerful statement that senior leaders support them.
Question 4 – What Materials Are We Supplying?
Once, under time pressure, I supplied line managers with an abridged version of the investor presentation in the hope that it would help them explain change. Unsurprisingly, the line managers were not overwhelmingly grateful!
I’d lost sight of the fact that my role was to support line managers in their task of translating corporate messages into a conversation that made sense locally.
What people appreciate more is material that helps them explain a context, debate what competitors are doing or set out scenarios. This is where tools such as learning mats or videos of customers come into their own.
Overall, my advice is to ask managers what they find useful or look at what they are producing for themselves.
I have had a couple of my best suggestions from colleagues who recently joined from other organisations where they were given interesting tools to use!
There’s no point developing fancy tools if no one wants them or they can’t be used in the 15 minutes a week that are available for meetings to talk about plans and change!
Question 5 – Who Is Listening to Them?
Perhaps the most important question is how can you show managers that they are being listened to?
Fundamentally, no manager likes to think that they are just being used as an animated notice board. They want to add some value to the message and they want to know that they can report back the reactions of their teams and be heard.
Yet time and again, change managers will send out orders that something should be communicated and then show no interest in how the message has landed.
Furthermore, every people manager will be asked by their team to pass on a reaction or a comment. It might be a query, an objection or a positive suggestion.
If the manager has no route to sharing these with the change team or upper leadership, the experience is at best embarrassing and, at worst, undermining.
Some managers might even reason that it’s better not to communicate at all rather than face the prospect of being shown up.
More positively, being able to share their expertise with leaders is a powerful motivator for local managers.
How the listening is done will depend on the organisation and could be as simple as inviting leaders to complete a Google Form or a Survey Monkey questionnaire.
It might involve the internal communication team actively visiting local leaders and directly seeking their feedback or, even better, sending the change management lead out to meet them.
Crucially, the change team or senior managers need to demonstrate that they have actually heard the messages coming up from the front line. Ideally, feedback will be publicly acknowledged in future communications.
When specific valuable points are called out, it underlines the fact that managers have the ear of the leadership.
When adjustments are made to the change programme as a result of manager comments, it should be pointed out as evidence that the organisation listens.
A Word of Warning
Managers can derail your change management plans in more ways than poor translation.
For a start, if your local leaders think an idea is stupid, it will die pretty quickly no matter how slick your communication processes are.
It clearly is the role of the communication manager to point this out before everyone wastes time and effort trying to promote and explain a transformation that is never going to be supported.
It is part of the job of the communicator to have an ear to the ground at all times and to understand how colleagues at all levels in the organisation think.
Your insight and knowledge are the protection against the daft arts of the change management team.
This deep awareness is vital in other ways. How leaders behave decides whether the change or transformation is credible. Attempts to reduce costs will be undermined by the leader who is always known to travel first class.
A drive to improve collaboration through a new suite of IT tools won’t be helped when managers steadfastly hang onto old ways of working.
A good communications manager knows what is happening out in the business and is able to bring to the change management team examples that need fixing.
Of course, line managers on their own will not guarantee the success of your transformation, but they can assure its failure.
No amount of fancy technology or beautiful creativity will be able to overcome either the resistance or the negligence of local leadership. But getting managers to explain and support your change and transformation becomes much easier!
Just a small amount of thought will get you great results — why not start by asking how you can make their life easier?
Liam FitzPatrick is a change communications specialist who has written extensively on good practice. He is Vice-Chair of the IABC’s Global Communication Certification Council and wrote "Successful Employee Communications" with Sue Dewhurst.
What's next? Download the eBook "Building a Better Company with Internal Communications" and learn how to take your internal communication to the next level!