Sometimes communicating about change is a pleasure. An organisation announces a popular improvement in ways of working, a company shows success and commitment by investing in a range of new products and services, or a firm responds to success by expanding and employing more people. But with the ups, change also brings the downs. Sometimes we have bad news to give – unpopular alterations in roles, adaptations in working arrangements that are not liked, outsourcing and redundancies.
When there is bad news to communicate there are two common tendencies. The first is avoidance, and the second is to try and answer lots of questions before talking to anyone. The first is shown by comments of the sort “do we have to say this just now?”, and the second by comments of the form: “let’s get our facts straight” or “we shouldn’t communicate unless we can answer all the questions”.
There is definitely a minimum amount of information that makes communicating worthwhile. But whilst the tendency to delay and seek detail are understandable, these are tendencies to resist.
A special case – the constrained world
There are some specific situations in which communication about changes are constrained by the law, regulatory rules or agreements with interested parties such as unions. In these situations, there can be formally agreed frameworks for things like staff consultations with set notice periods and descriptions of the type of information that must be communicated.
I have often been involved in these situations. In different culture and legal jurisdictions, the rules vary. The international variations in rules is a particular challenge when managing change across a multi-national organisation. Mostly though, these rules set a set rhythm to the communication process.
But with the majority of change communications, it’s not rules that determine what is communicated when – it’s the discretion of those leading the change.
The human tendency
Few of us like being the bearer of bad news. Most of us want to avoid giving bad news, and when we have bad news to give we shy away from speaking it out. At work, if we are compelled to share bad news, we tend to seek to understand the details so we are not caught out by difficult questions.
Irrespective of whether it is because we don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, or we want to get all the information we can first, the end result is that communicating about unpopular changes is often slow – too slow.
The problem is that if we really want people to be able to prepare for change, the earlier we communicate about the upcoming changes the better.
The earlier you communicate the more time you give people to prepare, whereas the later you communicate the more prepared you can be. The earlier you communicate the more time you have to deal with challenges and issues. The longer you leave it, and the closer communications come to the change happening, the more people are left without time to prepare, and the more cursory will be your responses to any challenges.
I have often found that what could have been a mildly unpleasant but constructive conversation, if done early, becomes a painful process of confrontation and accusation when done late. In the desire to shield people from bad news and avoid unpleasant situations we often make it worse.
The counter arguments
There are a couple of arguments against communicating early. One is that unless you have all the information you need, you may look unprepared or accused of not sharing enough. A second is that with an unpopular change if you communicate too early, people have longer to plan and enact some form of resistance or negative response to the change.
These are both true. Nevertheless, I still think in most cases the benefits of early communication outweigh the costs.
A better approach
Don’t worry too much if you think you have insufficient information to communicate. Try giving a general sense of the direction of the change. What helps this is to clearly set expectations about where you are in the change process; how there is still analysis to be done, uncertainties and decisions to be made - and therefore the information you have is limited; how you want to help people prepare, and what level of involvement they will or will not have to shape the change. It's best to be completely honest about this. Then, give your audience a timescale of when you will be able to tell them more.
This will not resolve all the problems. Some people will still complain you are not telling them enough. When you feel this, remember this is better than the alternative. If you communicate late, then you will be seen as having done things behind people’s backs. That is not just a problem for your current change. It sets a tone and a style of relationship that will colour future attempts to make changes.
If you are worried that people may respond badly to what you have to tell them, my response is that they will usually respond even worse if you leave it too late. (And really, you shouldn’t blame people for responding badly to something that impacts them in a negative way. That's a normal part of change. We’re all human after all).
f you truly respect your team members and want to treat them in the best way, then the early warning of changes is the honest thing to do. Anyone who claims organisational values of the form “our most important assets are our people” or “we treat our staff with respect”, and then determines and plans changes in detail behind their backs and executes them without warning, is really playing lip service to these claimed values.
Every situation is unique, so these are guidelines, not rules. You need assess your situation, do your homework, and choose the timing - favouring early disclosure where possible. Then be clear in what you say, be honest that you have limited information and accept the criticism that will come with this, and try to commit when you will be able to say more.
Early engagement is usually much better than late surprises. Let me know if you agree or see things differently.