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How To Communicate Difficult Organizational Change 

How To Communicate Difficult Organizational Change 

by Daniel Lock 03/12/2018

One thing is certain, at some point in organisational life, as a leader you’ll be required to deliver news that change is coming. And some may not like it.

Announcing change can be intimidating and challenging for the leader. If not handled deftly it can wreak havoc on the how well the change progresses. Resistance and outright mutiny can result.

Based on my experience in organization change, my involvement in leadership training, and our conversations with over hundreds of executives, here’s six ways managers can engage their people in change and connect with them.

Allow way more planning time than you think is required to develop the content, the delivery, and the crucial follow-up

You’ve seen the Ted talks, and perhaps comedians and they look so polished and effective on stage. But ask them how they make it look so easy and they’ll tell you it’s in the preparation. Lots of preparation.

Preparation isn’t the only consideration. It’s also important to communicate more often and in more channels. In the first instance, you’ll expect to hold a town hall style meeting or video conference to introduce and explain the change. Expect to also conduct follow ups and feedback sessions conducted by appropriate levels of leadership.

Coordinating announcements and sequencing when and who will deliver them is an important factor. It sometimes seems like we’re having meetings to plan a plan, but good planning and sequencing of communication events will save time, and pain, over the long run.

Multiple opportunities for understanding conversations is critical to effective change. And equally, receiving the change in the correct order and from the right leaders is critical to credibility.


Train all levels of leadership to emphasise context

Don’t assume middle and front-line management will communicate the messages well. Conduct briefing sessions and work with them through role plays if required to help them in the delivery. In sensitive conversations are easily misinterpreted.

On the receiving side of an organisational restructure early in my career a manager told us we “lucky to have a job, let alone get paid more for additional responsibilities”. I’ll never forget that. The resentment and gap of trust and relationship was palpable. We remained that way for some time, despite the overtures of senior management.


Describe the urgent case for change

The organisational inertia of managing the day-to-day and the inevitable problems that arise will cause a business to drift.

An interruption is needed.

Because without a prodding outside force creating a crisis of sorts, leaders won’t sit down and do the careful thinking, planning and strategizing to make success happen.

To illustrate why it’s important to create an interruption or crisis, consider this study conducted by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen. She conducted research with obese women, wondering how do our expectations impact goal achievement. It’s important to make the urgent case for change in order to galvanize people from the status quo. After all, change has costs and can be painful, so they need a solid ‘why’. Describe the impacts and missed opportunities to customers, staff, the business if you don’t change.


Personalize both the impact and the resolution

Have empathy for how people are impacted. Moving down from the why, beginning talking about the ‘what’. If you talk only at the why, people may become confused about what applies to them; and Ambiguity is one of the key reasons for resistance.

So, for example, come prepared to meetings having thought through potential impacts to people so you can answer these concerns on the spot. This alleviates anxiety, as if you don’t know the answers you must go away to get them, which can take considerable time. Employees will appreciate the attention and support even if they’re negatively impacted.


Give the affected people as many options for as much participation as you can

People don’t resist what they create. This allows for autonomy and pride. While some changes really will impact people negatively, such as redundancies due to reorganisations, if you don’t the why and what with empathy and then asked for their input, they’ll help you generate practical ideas.


Ask and answers these questions:

1. Does the proposed change create a future the realization of which fulfills matters of fundamental interest or importance to the relevant parties.

2. In the realizing of that “created future”, the people you are leading (those who must act to realize that “created future”) must see an opportunity to fulfill their concerns.

3. In the realizing of that future, the people you are leading must see an opportunity for self-expression.

4. In the realizing of that future, the people you are leading must see an opportunity for them to personally make a noteworthy contribution to the realization of that future.

Thinking through these questions, if you see gaps, move to fill them immediately.


Demonstrate empathy and responsibility, not just authority

The Freakonomics team recently looked apologies and what makes for a good one. The answer was to acknowledge the impact on others, combined with a concrete and believable plan for restitution to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The same approach can be used when introducing difficult change. By taking responsibility for the impact of the change on others, whether you instigated it or not, builds credibility.


Summing up

These 6 tips and approaches will get the communicating challenging organisational change. It can feel laborious and tedious to spend time in meetings planning for every contingency.

So, where do you stop?

The guiding question to ask yourself to keep on track is not, “Have we communicated enough?”, but “Have we reached our people?”

Daniel Lock helps organizations unlock value and productivity through process improvement, project and organizational change management. Find out more about him at and check out his latest in-depth post, CHANGE MANAGEMENT PROCESS: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide where you’ll learn not only the fundamentals of change management but why these are critical to achieving business outcomes. Make change work for you and add to your tools and techniques.

Twitter: @DanielLock

Daniel Lock

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