Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Written by Mille Marlo
Communication in relation to change management is crucial in order to implement change management successfully. We have seen several examples in recent years of how ineffective communicative leadership skills have led to disastrous results for companies. An example of this is ‘The Blue Spider Project’, in which the lack of communication had serious consequences for the company (Kerzner, 2002). Another real-life example is the merger of Chrystal and Daimler-Benz who faced significant cultural differences which were not communicated sufficiently before the merger, and thereby lead to failure (Watkins, 2007). Gilsdorf (1998) argues that many mistakes in change management programs can be linked directly to or connected to a breakdown in the communication process. It is vital to grasp and understand how to communicate change management in today’s society in order to implement change management successfully. That leads to the question that this article will investigate:
What is the best way to approach communication in regards to change management?
Factors to Consider
We live in a world where constant changes are necessary in order to reach the consumers' needs and demands. Companies have to make changes on strategic and operational levels in order to survive and grow on a competitive market. Organizations know the importance of good communication, however, they often find it hard to forge the link between ‘what gets said’ and ‘what gets done’ (Kitchen and Daly, 2002). This is something that creates uncertainty in an organization.
Before being able to answer the intial question it is necessary to understand what change actually is. There are several definitions of change, which make it difficult to define. However, since this article deals with communication, the study focuses upon change as a communicative process. According to Ford & Ford’s (1995) definition of change:
“Change is a (…) process of social construction in which new realities are created, (…) sustained, and modified in the process of communication. Producing intentional change, then, is a matter of deliberately bringing into existence, through communication, a new reality or set of social structures” (Ford & Frod 1995, in Cheney et, al., p. 329).
2. Flexibility vs. Stability
Today, the market is influenced by increasing turbulence due to growing competition and customer being more demanding. As a result of this external pressure, organizations are forced to do more with less. The development within the market therefore makes organizations wanting to be more flexible and more adoptive to changes (Jackson 2001; Lawler 1996; Obsorne & Gaebler 1992 in Cheney et al., 2011). However, even though changes can be good for organizations, they can also bring negative consequences as organizations strive towards achieving stability at the same time. These factors, stability and flexibilities, are two desirable factors for an organization although they negate each other (Ibid). Cheney et al. (2011), describe the two as a dialect, where the two extremes are both interdepend and negating. In other words, the more an organization pursues change, the less stability the organization has and vice versa.
It can be argued, that organizations want change too-often due to the turbulent market. Changes are thereby necessary but how many and how big? Cheney et al. (2011) argues that many organizations have learned that fundamental changes need to be followed by periods of stability where changes are implemented and consolidated in organizational practices. It means that there can be too much change in a given period, which results in employees finding a period of stability more attractive. The communication of the change is, therefore, important in order to get support from the employees. Communicating change successfully gives the employees of an organization more faith in the plan of the change as it becomes more manageable (Cheney et al., 2011, p.326).
Having an understanding of how leadership is practiced in terms of communication is crucial as it has a direct impact on the outcome of change management. A good leader can be described as someone who is trusted by the employees, someone who must have a good business sense and a broad understanding of how things fit together (Allert, J.R., 1997, p. 16). In other words, the leader is the one responsible for making sure that the overall vision of the change, objective or goals are achieved. According to Cheney, et al. (2011), leadership occurs in many different contexts and can be identified at a variety levels of analysis.
When talking about leadership, it is not an objective ‘thing’, that exist only on the ‘real’ material world. The organization must be re-created and born in the “equivocal interpretations that are intrinsic to communication” (Taylor et al., 1996, p.5 in Miller, 2014, p. 83). Alvesson (1996) argues that the degree of leadership should be restricted. It can be used on a regular basis to shed light on styles, personalities, and behaviors of different groups, for example project managers (Alvesson, 1996, p. 458). However, for the leader to implement a change within an organization, it is important to know which communication approach to apply.
4. Communication Strategies
Talking about communication strategies, a bottom-up or a top-down approach is mentioned. The bottom-up approach, is often considered as an untraditional communication approach (Ströh, 2007). Compared to the top-down approach, the bottom-up approach is considered untraditional due to the fact that organizations are giving power to the employees and the management loses some of the power and control of the situation (Stewart, G.L, 2015).
According to Susan M. Heatfield, a leader can never expect 100% support from an individual who was not personally involved in devising a change which has an impact on his or her work (Heatfield, 2018). She further argues that the employee will not mind as long as they get used to the idea and have the opportunity to have an impact on the direction of the change.
By creating an environment wherein employees feel as if they have the power to initiate change is also positive and contribute to the work culture of the organization. Another reason is that it is important for an organisation to understand how its employees feel within the organisation. More frequently, employees find themselves caught up in changes that others are initiating (Heatfield, 2018). By giving the employees a voice in the change process, there is an increase in the trust towards the management and the organization itself. It somehow creates some stability inside the organization while being flexible. Even though it is not possible to involve the employees in all the decisions, respondents to a ‘change management’ survey show that when change works, the organization has gone out of its way to use employee involvement (Ibid).
A top-down communication approach is considered as a more natural approach as it involves the top management communicating the change downwards within the organization (Ryan, et al., 2008). However, research has shown that a top-down change strategy needs to be coupled up with other change strategies for change to become successfully embedded within the organization (Ibid). The top management relay on the middle managers to communicate the organizational change downwards, something which can be a challenge in larger organization as the message does not reach all the employees. It is evident that a two-way communication flow needs to be established as it is considered vital that the middle managers succeed in communicating the change downwards when adopting the top-down communication approach. One of the benefits when having this approach is that the management keeps some controls within the communication process and the change itself compared to the bottom-up approach as described earlier (Stewart, G.L, 2015).
This article has illustrated the importance of communication in connection to change management. It shows that there is no ‘to-do list’ when approaching communication with regards to change management correctly. It depends on the individual, the situation and the relationship with the target audience. For example, the theory presented above does not go in depth about the risk of involving the employees in the decision-making process of the communication regarding the change itself. It is important to point out the risk the organization takes in order to implement these initiatives.
One approach might fit within one organization when implementing changes, whereas another organization would not gain the same success due to several factors. It is important to look into the organization itself, the change which must be implemented and make an action plan in terms of implementing the change successfully. The importance of leadership skills, communication skills, the organizations willingness to adapt and be flexible are all crucial contributors when evaluating whether the change has been implemented successfully within an organization or not. The theory and approaches presented above must therefore work as a guideline and not as a recipe when implementing change communication into an organization.
References & Bibliography
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Alvesson, M (1996). Leadership studies: From procedure and abstraction to reflexivity and situation. The Leadership Quarterly, 7(4), pp. 455-485
Cheney, G., Christensen, L., Zorn, Jr., T. and Ganesh, S. (2011). Organizational Communication in an Age of Globalization. 2nd ed. Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.
Ford, V. and Frod L. (1995) The Role of Conversations in Producing Intentional Change in Organizations, The Academy of Management Review, vol. 20 issue 3.
Gilsdorf, J. W. (1998), “Organizational rules on communicating: how employees are and are not learning the ropes”, The Journal of Business Communication, Vol. 35 No. 2, pp. 173-201.
Heatfield, S. (2018). Employee Involvement Is Critical to Success in Organizational Change. [online] The Balance Careers. Available at: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/change-management-lessons-about-employee-involvement-1917806 [Accessed 18 March, 2019].
Kerzner, H. (2002). Strategic Planning for Project Management using a Project Management Maturity Model. [ebook] New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pp.212-225. Available at: https://books.google.dk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=AkFpbYbJMEsC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=The+blue+spider+project,+project+management&ots=ImlnI7YKbs&sig=5mmkjXwvKat15fTxWIX1y9o2fes&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=The%20blue%20spider%20project%2C%20project%20management&f=false [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].
Kitchen, P. and Daly, F. (2002). Internal communication during change management. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 7(1), pp.46-53.
Miller, K. (2012, 2014, 2015). Organizational communication approaches and process. 6th and 7th ed. Bostion, MA: Cengage Learning.
Watkins, M. (2007). Why DaimlerChrysler Never Got into Gear. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2007/05/why-the-daimlerchrysler-merger [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].