The Dos and Don'ts of Communicating Change

Fall (or Autumn, if you prefer) has arrived with a vengeance here in Toronto. Lazy summer days have been replaced with gusting winds and chilling rain, and billboard posters for luxurious tropical destinations are starting to line the freeways.

All this has me thinking about change. Everything changes, all the time, and yet at work as in life, we often find it so challenging.

Most of us will be able to recount a story of a change program that has not gone as well as it should. In fact, research shows that 60-90% of change projects fail, and of these, 70% can be attributed to poor people management. 

How change is communicated is therefore critical to a project’s success. With this in mind, here are some dos and don’ts that I’ve accumulated across the years, that can make or break a change project.


Know your people

Without a doubt, of all the elements in your change communications strategy, spending time getting to know the people you’ll be communicating with provides the greatest return on investment. 

Considering and planning for how each group affected by the change may respond exponentially increases your chances of successful communication. For example, has one group been the subject of more organizational change than others? Do remote workers feel historically ignored by the organization? Will engineers want to focus on the facts, while human resources want to hear how people are being looked after?

This knowledge will arm you to speak in the right way, to the right people, at the right time. It will inform your channel selection, your tone of voice and shape your messaging. 

Listen, listen listen

Nothing you say can be more important than what the people in an organization have to say. 

Genuinely listening to employees will: 

  • Demonstrate that the organization cares about what happens to them

  • Give employees a stake in the project’s success and therefore a reason to support it

  • Provide advance warning of potential project obstacles

  • Improve your communications by deepening your understanding of your audience

It’s vital that communicators get out from behind their desks and listen to employees. But for the best outcomes, regular listening should also be done by project and organizational leaders. Being visible and making time for people can feel costly, but will pay handsome dividends in the long run. 

Celebrate milestones and wins

Change is hard. Remember to recognize when milestones are achieved and the team has a win - no matter how small. A sense of progress will re-energize both the change team and the wider staff, and celebrations keep everyone feeling positive and excited about the future. 


Expect people to ‘just get on with it’

People process major workplace changes in a similar way to how they would process grief. They may experience any of shock, immobilization, anger, denial, bargaining or depression (perhaps multiple times), before reaching acceptance of the change.

Ignoring this can alienate those you most need on board. 

On the other hand, recognizing where employees are in the process of acceptance allows you to tailor your messaging and help your people to move through the cycle more quickly and easily. 

Ignore saboteurs

Saboteurs. We all know them. The guy standing around the water cooler, bad-mouthing the project to his colleagues. The lady who seems mysteriously unable to complete any task related to the change. These people may not seem threatening in isolation, but they perform the equal and opposite role to change agents, by using their networks and their influence to mobilize resistance to the project. 

While it’s rarely possible to make every colleague an advocate for the change, identifying and addressing the behaviour of saboteurs can be an important defence tactic. Often saboteurs will simply want to have their concerns heard, so employing good listening tactics (as we described above), together with some short-term targeted communication can be very effective.

Stop communicating

Most major projects will experience delays or set-backs at some point. These can happen for any number of reasons and are usually innocuous. But what may seem minor to those in the ‘inner circle’ can become a source of rumour and innuendo for those going about their daily roles. 

Keep project communications short and frequent. If there’s an issue, be honest about it - let people know what’s happening and why, and what’s being done to fix it. If there’s not much to say, say so. You can use quieter periods to enjoy some levity in your communications - why not put out a quiz about the change program, or share some insight into how the program came about, who the project leaders are, and so on. 

What lessons have you learned from communicating change in your organization? Have you got some great stories to share about things that have worked brilliantly or failed spectacularly? Let us know!

Here at AlphaJuliet, we have extensive experience in managing large-scale change programs and crafting and delivering change communication strategies for major corporations, not for profits and government. If you'd like to talk about how we can help you communicate change in your organization, please get in touch

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