Communicating change – some practical procedural guidance

I’ve been on the look out for a good book on how to help teams develop their key messages for introducing change.  Whilst ‘Perfect Phrases for Communicating Change’ by Lawrence Polsky and Antoine Gershel1, does indeed have a rich array of phrases to use in different situations, it still did not quite help me with the ‘how’ for developing them.  However what the book does have is some very useful perspectives on how to go about communicating change.  This is what I will summarise in this blog.

Different phases of change require different kinds of intervention

The authors describe 3 phases: launch, execution, sustain.  There is of course also ‘prepare’, but this is something that we change management practitioners already know a lot about!

  1. Launch. This is the point at which it is essential that leaders communicate what is changing, and also what is not changing (this can give some sense of reassurance in an otherwise changing landscape.  Leader also need to consistently communicate the ‘why’ – something that sometimes gets left out of key messages.  I particularly like the authors’ suggestion that leaders practice being able to communicate the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ in 60 seconds to help people absorb and retain the information.  They also stress the importance of leaders being readily available to help answer the inevitable questions that those affected by the change will have.
  2. Execution. Polsky and Gershel’s suggestions here come under 2 broad categories: performance management and teamwork.  Performance management involves the focus on desired new behaviours, what people need to learn to achieve them, having clear definitions of associated roles and responsibilities, defining and monitoring measures to know that the new ways of working are being achieved, and celebrating success!  Teamwork is about leaders working with their teams in multiple ways to secure their engagement and involvement. It includes 2-way dialogues for input and decision making, defining and sharing common goals and rewards, surfacing concerns and resistance, and above all cultivating trust through role modeling and acknowledging contributions.
  3. Sustaining also involves continued acknowledgement of people’s efforts, positive attitudes and results.  It includes reviewing learnings about how the change was handled for the next time, and thinking about and articulating what the next change will be!

Different types of communication require different types of intervention

Polsky and Gershel distinguish between 1-way communications i.e.  broadcast communications with limited or no opportunities for dialogue e.g. town-hall presentations, voicemail messages, postings on the company intranet; and 2-way or multi-dimensional communications which allow for more dialogue.

They list a number of different communication objectives and suggest which method of communication would be best for each:

Type of communication 1-way communication 2-way or multi-dimensional
Announcing change To get the facts out With line managers, to get buy-in
Responding to questions For more technical changes e.g. using FAQs Where personal emotions are likely to be involved
Creating urgency To communicate deadlines, to ensure line managers are informed When wanting to make a personal impact
Clarifying roles and responsibilities For initial information, and for final confirmation When discussing personal implications
Communicating individual objectives As above To reach mutual agreement on what is involved
Empowering employees Once what is involved has been understood To set expectations and gain understanding
Keeping people motivated To send reminders and for more routine congratulations To acknowledge special achievements, and to address issues

They also cite the characteristics of communication that would be suited to 1-way vs. 2-way approaches:

1-way communication 2-way or multi-dimensional
Transactional Relationship
Fact-based Emotional
Sharing information Collaborating on a piece of work
Repetitive (especially if previously successful) Innovative
Maintaining a good relationship Dealing with relationship issues
Structured information (roles, responsibilities, milestones) Untructured
Simple Complex (requiring thinking and discussion
Audience fairly uniform* Audience very diverse*

(*I would not tend to use this particularly distinction as the individuals within an audience will invariably have their own ‘take’ on the communication and how it affects them personally.)

Best practices for communicating change (and for handling resistance)

The authors’ list of “do’s and don’t’s” really resonated with my own experience of managing change.  It included:

  • Build trust before you actually need to introduce change
  • Be direct (this is especially important when anticipating or managing resistance – see more on this below)
  • Talk to people early!  Get news out fast to  minimise rumours and raising false expectations
  • Adjust your communication style and messages to your audience (recognizing when 2-way communication is needed)
  • Watch your body language: it can affect the credibility of what you are saying
  • Find your own personal style (again, it will not only make you more comfortable in delivering your message, but aid in your credibility)
  • Choose the right person to deliver the message (it may not be you)
  • Don’t expect to have all the answers (and be prepared to acknowledge that you don’t)
  • Don’t expect to have the ‘perfect phrase’ (but see the earlier comments about the launch phase of change)

Handling resistance. It is not only inevitable that people will demonstrate resistance during change, but something to be welcomed as an indication that people are paying attention to the change, and thinking about the implications for them.

Polsky and Gershel suggest 4 steps in handling resistance that may be heading in the wrong direction.

  1. “Empathise” i.e. ensure you have rapport with the individuals concerned and that you understand, or at least acknowledge what they are going through emotionally
  2. “Level” i.e. make it clear to them how you perceive their behaviour and what impact it may be having
  3. “Listen” to their reactions to, and views about what you are saying
  4. “Take a stand” to explain what they need to do in order to comply with the change, and what the consequences will be if they do not (making sure that you have checked with HR first).

In my, and RiverRhee Consulting’s2 work with teams, we not only aim to surface resistance so at to take corrective action if needed, but also to help us review the communication and change management approach.  Insights gained from those affected by change could be an indication that we have not addressed everything we need to, but that we may need to do, or communicate things differently.


1. “Perfect Phrases for Communicating Change” by Lawrence Polsky and Antoine Gershel,

2. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, enhancing team effectiveness through process improvement, knowledge and change management. Follow the links to find out about how Elisabeth Goodman and RiverRhee Consulting can help your team to work more effectively for greater productivity and improved team morale.

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