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Communicating Change

Principles to make the most of every opportunity

July 24, 2018
 
 

In recent weeks, business analysts have been carefully monitoring the AT&T/Time Warner merger. With companies like HBO, Ameritech, and others caught in the shake-up, the impacts of the deal promise to be far-reaching for media, tech and other industries. While the exact implications will take time to solidify, the major deal reiterates one tried and true concept: the constant of change.

Every industry faces change, be it a media giant or your mom-and-pop shop down the street. We’ve seen this firsthand at my own institution as well—since January, we’ve welcomed a new dean and completely reorganized our division, bringing in new departments and programs to form the Division of Professional Studies for the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. This certainly doesn’t compare to the scale of an $85 billion-dollar deal; however, there are basic best practices that my organization and yours must keep in mind when navigating change.

Start on the inside

While the initial instinct may be to share the news with customers, analysts, and anyone who will listen, many organizations inadvertently overlook some of their most important constituents: their employees. These are the people who are going to make the change happen in a very real way. To make sure all goes well, they need to have information and resources at their fingertips—be it an email, a video on the company website, a podcast they can listen to on the way to work, or ideally some combination of all the communication channels at your disposal. 

Having an informed workforce not only prepares them to answer questions from external audiences, but helps drive support and excitement for the change event. Clear communication that addresses employee needs and concerns helps them understand the larger plan and the part they play. Taking the time to make sure people inside your organization are well informed creates advocates who can better guide your external audiences through change.

Establishing trust

This focus on internal communications also helps build trust between employees and your leadership team. This is crucial during times of change and has long lasting-benefits for the company and its culture. Organizations that abuse this trust inevitably see change shift into something negative, even to the point of a full-scale crisis. During the Volkswagen emissions scandal or the outrage that Wells Fargo faced for their high pressure sales and fraudulent accounts, trust eroded inside and out. In both instances, employees were left scrambling for information and unable to answer consumer questions in a timely manner. This led to anger, frustration and ultimately the ousting of leadership at the top level. In the case of Volkswagen, the repercussions are still being felt as the former executives were indicted just this May, years after the story broke.

When an organization can’t provide answers to the questions its audiences ask, it effectively takes itself out of the conversation. Choosing not to engage doesn’t stop the narrative, however. People will fill in the blanks for you—and very rarely will they be positive. People have a tendency to assume the worst when facing change, especially when they don’t feel heard or fear the situation is outside of their control. But if your organization has taken the time to build trust in leadership at all levels and pays attention to its employees, you will be in a much better position to get information out quickly and keep your staff engaged.

Find common ground and build on it

Once you’ve taken the time to inform your internal and external audiences and gotten them excited about the change, how do you keep the momentum going? One of the best steps may be to highlight what’s not changing. 

Even if your change situation presents a lot of positives, there will still be some unknowns and that is bound to make people nervous. At UW-Platteville, we had to account for changes in leadership, plus the introduction of new staff and programs. With so much happening at once, it can be difficult to know where to start. Our communications team has worked to reassure people by focusing on their existing connections. By reiterating our mission, a tradition of excellence, and a stable of high quality programs, it gives people context for what they can expect in the future. Then we carefully explain how these new pieces fit into our current strategy. There may be changes to the plan, but the decisions behind the change are built on the same values and vision we’ve operated under for years. Standing on familiar ground helps all the parties involved in your change start working and growing together. Plus, when disagreements arise, you can always turn to the shared goals, values and ideas to refocus the discussion.

Don’t be afraid to fail, but learn from it

Despite careful preparation and considerate communications, there will be times when initiatives fail. Looking again at AT&T serves as a great example. The current merger with Warner is not the company’s first go-around with the U.S Department of Justice and government regulation. The company has undergone a history of mergers and acquisitions over the decades. Some were successful, and others, like a proposed acquisition of T-Mobile USA in 2011, only resulted in lengthy and expensive legal battles.

Now, most of us will not have the Federal Communications Commission come knocking if it doesn’t like our proposed change, but there will be times when the opposition is too much to overcome. In these instances, it is important to take a step back and analyze your situation. What concerns outweighed your potential benefits? What questions did your audience have that may have gone unanswered? What were the determining factors in denying your proposal—time, money, resources? Recognizing these issues can help you regroup and create a more responsive and proactive plan for your next proposed change. 

All of us will experience change in our careers and personal lives, no matter if we work in higher education, at a small local business, or at one of the largest corporations in the world. Each change brings an opportunity that you can make the most of by focusing on principles like building trust in your team, finding common ground and learning from failure.

Megan Hinderman is a writer, editor, and instructor for the Division of Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

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