“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
– Winston Churchill
Change. One of life’s most constant experiences, yet the one most of us resist. Why? Because we crave stability. At work a stable environment helps us work efficiently and feel secure. Unfortunately corporate life offers no such thing, and with increasing changes of globalization, tech innovations and workplace cultural shifts, the modern professional must be willing and ready to work with change and even leverage it to the advantage of their companies and their own careers.
Over the last two years alone we’ve seen massive changes in business. The merger of AT&T and Time Warner. The contentious resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. Think about what it must be like for a middle manager working in one of these companies. In an environment of extreme uncertainty, they are required to translate big messages down the ladder in a way that reduces fear, defuses resistance and gains the buy-in of their teams. With operational success hinging on their ability to effectively communicate, they become the change agents of their organizations.
No pressure, right?
In this blog we’ll discuss change, resistance, and the important role of middle managers to communicate effectively in times of change, and even how to build commitment during these critical periods.
Maybe you’re a middle manager whose company is going through a transition—an expansion, a downsizing or a new initiative that requires a shift in workplace culture. You’ve been tasked with explaining decisions you played no part in making. You might not have all the info you’d like to have. Maybe you have unanswered questions of your own. Still, it’s your responsibility to gain the commitment of your teams so that this major organizational change can move forward.
Prepare yourself to meet resistance in all of its glaring forms. Resistance is a natural reaction in times of change. Most people will have one of four reactions to a change that could affect their lives. 15% of people are angry, 40% are fearful, 30% are uncertain but open and 10% are hopeful and energized [Source: Roger D’Aprix, Communicating for Change /Price Pritchett 1996]. That’s over half of your team feeling angry and fearful. You’ve got to find a way to build understanding, confidence and commitment.
You need a plan.
The manager with no skills or training will attempt to overpower resistance with ineffective behaviors like coercion and threat. Or she might discount it and avoid it, ignoring her employees concerns, questions and feelings. Neither strategy will work. Employees will fight right back and some may leave the organization. This is why the middle manager’s role is so critical and why the tools we are about to discuss are valuable and worthy of your time to learn.
As a leader, you must lay out the facts, explain the rationale for change, illustrate what success for all looks like, then provide a plan. And do it in a way that inspires buy-in and action from your teams. You want them to know that their input, involvement and ultimately their work is what is going to create this positive change for their company.
A technique developed in the mid 1930’s by Purdue University instructor Alan H. Monroe, called Monroe’s Motivated Sequence is a useful tool that inspires people to take action.
Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Attention
- Grab the attention of your audience by describing your company’s situation. You want to open their eyes and make them a little uncomfortable.
Step 2: Need
- Urgently communicate the need by reinforcing the problem facing your company and your teams.
Step 3: Satisfy the Need
- Here’s where you introduce the solution and lay out the plan forward.
Step 4: Visualize the Future
- Paint a picture of the successful outcome you all will achieve if you work together (as well as what might happen if you don’t).
Step 5: Action
- Now it’s time to ask for action. Let your teams know exactly what you need them to do enact the plan and ask for their input and opinions so that they’re able to take ownership.
Imagine yourself in your company’s conference room just having delivered a message like this to your teams. You were powerful, clear, urgent and inspiring. During your speech you looked around the room and saw heads nodding. You got the message that yes, “I hear what you’re saying. I believe you. This is a good idea. I believe in this plan”. And in the process, you have reinforced your position as a trustworthy manager who is capable of inspiring action and change.
Nice work. You’ve begun the visionary process of change-making. You have started an ongoing, consistent dialogue with employees that will:
- Reduce ambiguity and confusion
- Change attitudes
- Foster participation
- Build commitment
Dr. John Kotter, thought leader and author of Leading Change (1996) describes this phase as enlisting a volunteer army. Within Kotter International’s Eight Steps for Accelerating Change, he states that large scale change can only occur when at least 50% of the company is on board and willing to work towards the change. Once these employees are actively engaged, their leaders must keep them inspired to work toward the company’s vision.
This is where a long term action plan is necessary to support your work of shaping the thinking and attitudes of your reports. Your day to day commitment to this plan through personal example, direct interactions, meetings, presentations and written communications will be what carries your organization’s change and ultimate success, forward.
If your company’s leaders and middle manager are faced with a challenge like this, consider our program The Leader As Communicator. In this workshop, your understanding of the topics discussed here will be supplemented by real in-person practical experience and one-on-one feedback with a trained coach who can help you perfect your change communication strategy and your overall communication skills.
Change in life, and in business is constant. Arm yourself with the right tools and become a powerful agent for change.