Communicating change effectively either inside or outside a company or organisation is not just about the art of communication, but about the science of the human mind.
This is dealt with by Paul McGinniss, director at the North America Neuroleadership Group, who alters the axiom that “the only constant is change” to “the only constant is resistance to change”.
“If you’re not taking into account the brains of the people upon which the change is being instituted, your initiative will experience a less than desired outcome…
“It’s about the common brain-based reaction to change that poses a significant challenge…The brain likes to maintain homeostasis to guard the body from threats. Change is a disruption to this state. The natural reaction to a disruption of homeostasis is for the limbic system to engage, creating the proverbial fight or flight response. Change can also be thought of as emotional pain. Ironically, the body reacts to emotional pain the same as if it were physical pain. When you introduce a change, your employees are fighting to avoid it as if their lives depended on it, which their brains literally think is the case. It’s no wonder they are not expressing your same enthusiasm about your initiative.”
But it’s not just employees who may behave in this way: an organisation’s customers or other stakeholders may react to change similarly.
McGinniss goes on to say:
“Change in the brain is represented by new wiring. New wiring is created from insights which happen when we make a brand new connection in the brain. The brain loves insights. Insights release various brain chemicals associated with pleasure states.”
Achieving this insight in the brains of your audience during a period of change requires effective communication.
The BBC’s current programme Metamorphosis – the science of change shows how some parts of the natural world adopted the “trick” of metamorphosis to shape-shift from one creature to another. But while the caterpillar has little choice but to transform into a butterfly, humans don’t have the same compulsion and can prove inherently resistant to and suspicious of change, as much as they might ultimately welcome and embrace it.
It takes active decisions to start on the human pathway to change and requires human co-operation and collaboration for it to work well. In a company, this means:
- A senior decision maker to be persuaded of the value of change and create a vision for it.
- Senior management to support that vision and accept the responsibility to persuade others.
- Staff to trust and believe in the vision while feeling able to question it for clarity and their own reassurance.
- If the change involves a new proposition or challenge for an external audience, it involves creating trust, understanding and advocacy among those people.
But recognising the need for communicating change effectively isn’t always a given in organisations: depending on culture, some can be arrogant or dismissive about the value of communication in supporting change and development.
That’s not to say that without communication nothing happens; after all, highly intelligent and capable people within certain job roles who are not natural communicators continue to develop products and harness new technologies. However, among these personalities, communication can be viewed as the softest of soft skills and, therefore, inferior or irrelevant to the core technical capability of the business. Their frustration is palpable when people don’t just “fall into line” behind them.
A 2011 study for Burson-Marsteller among multinational companies showed that only 18% felt that “the goals and scope of change are effectively communicated throughout the business”, suggesting that “most companies are not good at communicating internally, or at engaging employees, on a day-to-day basis – making it even more difficult to do so during times of change.”
The evolution of an organisation – and the way it morphs, as it must, to reflect market changes – can be made so much smoother with effective communication, both one-way and two-way where necessary to involve a wider internal audience or external community.
As shown in this useful description of the Change Curve, communication is a vital part of organisational change. And, crucially, it means that communication includes the art of listening!
The fantastic stories encapsulated in the 2,000-year-old Roman writer, Ovid’s book – Metamorphoses – suggest that transformation can create either dreams or nightmares. The result you get within your organisation or among your external audience will depend on your commitment to communicating change effectively.