The Swansong of the Fascist Octopus: Creating Effective Change Communications
This piece was originally published in the Journal of Business Strategy.
George Orwell was talking about the correlation between authoritarian regimes and the corruption of language when he coined the undying phrase in the title. But if he were alive today, he might have turned his holy anger on corporate change communications. For reasons that are not entirely clear, companies resort to the worst clichés and clumsy language at exactly the moment when they most need both clarity and empathy in their communications – when they are attempting “transformative” organizational change. Worn-out clichés and barbarous acronyms seem to have become the norm even as employee communications specialists gather behind closed doors to discuss the next big change announcement, pontificating to each other about the importance of WIFMs (what’s in it for me) when communicating with employees. Understanding the reasons why this bizarre tendency is so common is the starting point for creating effective change communications. Corporate double speak can never be eliminated entirely, but awareness of the reasons for its existence can go a long way to mitigating its dire effects.
It should be said at the outset that, within the larger context of corporate rhetoric, change communications is not uniquely vulnerable to what the Financial Times’ columnist Lucy Kellaway called “corporate guff” (Kellaway, 2017). The annual Golden Flannel Awards which she “awarded” every year between 2006 and 2016 highlighted the best (worst) examples of corporate pontification. In 2011, she gave a sectoral award to a leading partner in a Big Four consulting firm for the following:
The challenge for me is to re-aggregate the big picture, while throwing my arms around as much of the density of complexities as possible, distilling them down to their most basic constituents and plugging them back into the big picture.
Not surprisingly, euphemisms for firing people was one of her favorite categories. In 2011, she cited a telecommunications company for explaining that firing 17,000 people was part of “managing for value.” Other winners included were a technology company which announced “an orderly ramp-down of about 3,000 persons” and a small media company that called sacking 14 people “an investment lay-off”. Her collection of the choicest corporate flannel can be found at https://ig.ft.com/sites/guffipedia/. Other equally painful examples abound which explain why most employees, especially of large multinationals, have developed an exquisitely fine ear for authentic empathetic communications. In this context, it is no wonder that developing effective organizational change communications is so difficult and, by extension, why most companies are so bad at it.
Another reason why change communications, indeed all types of corporate communication to employees, is so difficult is that this is a process which has been going on for almost 40 years. While most commentators believe that we are in the heyday of “disruptive innovation” and the organizational change efforts it has spawned, the first big wave of corporate “reorganizations (involving job cuts) took place during the Reagan era (1980-1988), exemplified by AT&T’s layoff of 27,000 in 1987. The next decade was also a witness to some of the largest layoffs in history – 60,000 at IBM (1993), 50,000 at Sears/K-Mart (1993) and another 40,000 at AT&T (1996). With these layoffs and almost equally large ones by then called reductions in force, during the 2007-2009 financial crisis, as backdrop, it is easier to see how the erosion of employer–employee relationships which was the result has complicated the effort to communicate effectively. A 2016 survey by Ernst & Young of 9,800 employees in eight countries determined that only 46 per cent of employees placed “great trust in” their employers, and 15 per cent reported “very little” or “no trust at all” (Ernst & Young, 2016).
Unfortunately, the fact that companies know that their credibility with employees is weak has had the paradoxical effect of making them contort their communications even more painfully to disguise the fact that corporate change initiatives are hard and have victims, as well as beneficiaries. It is this tension that has produced a generation of change communications filled with videos of dancing leaders, colorful customized post-it notes with upbeat slogans and a full portfolio of break-room posters, “humorous” T-shirts and screen savers. This is not to suggest that all the blame lies with corporate leadership. The human worker, especially in large, complex organizations, continues to find all sorts of ways to ignore, evade or actively resist even well-intentioned and often entirely necessary reinventions. There are many reasons for this. As Danish change management consultant, Torben Rick, has pointed out that long-term employees, especially middle managers, are often resistant to change both because they fear that their limited range of competency will be exposed by having to work differently and because they are emotionally attached to the way of doing business that they have taught to others, and it has become a comfortable routine. They have also learned from experience that corporate change is often a passing fad that can be safely ignored. As cartoonist Dilbert’s characters in one cartoon ask themselves on hearing of a new change initiative – “Will it pass quickly or linger like the stench of a dead woodchuck under the porch?”
The cost of poorly executed organizational change programs has been well documented, but even initiatives that meet with initial success find it hard to sustain momentum. Willis Towers Watson found that only a quarter of organizations undergoing change were able to keep momentum going over the longer term. Significantly, although 87 per cent of companies train managers around the change, only 22 per cent feel this training is effective. Even more compellingly, only two-thirds of senior managers feel that their message about the reasons for the change is getting through. This confidence drops even further the lower down the organization you go. Only half of middle managers and 40 per cent of first-line supervisors report that management does a good job of explaining the reasons behind organizational changes.
Notwithstanding the many challenges to effective change management, we believe there are four principles that can help organizations tackle these challenges successfully.
Collaborate on change
The classic change management model involves appointing a high-level task force (there must be a code name!) led by a rising corporate executive who gathers a handpicked transition team to define the problem which inhabits a “war room” for six months and comes back with a change strategy and process. Toward the end of this period, communications experts are brought in to “sell” the initiative to employees.
There are several risks to this approach. The first is that it is very hard to persuade employees that the change is positive and necessary and that they should be on board when they have played no role in defining the problem it is attempting to solve. Even if there is in fact widespread agreement among employees about what the problem is, involving them in the process in an authentic manner will give the change initiative a chance to achieve wide adoption and support. Involving middle managers early in the process will also give the change team insights into the potential obstacles that they would have no way of predicting without input from the employees running day-to-day processes.
Celebrate the past not just the future
Any fundamental organizational change usually involves the elimination or dismantling of internal structures with some history and legacy attached. Even internal corporate department names are brands to employees, and when they go away, employees can experience a sense of loss. When the reorganization also involves real brands, inherited from acquisitions, that are going away, that sense of loss is multiplied 10 fold.
The solution is to widen the lens of change communications to include not just the fantastic future that the change will enable but also the achievements of the legacy structures being dismantled. “Smith & Co.” may be just one of many business units being merged, but to a certain group of employees, it was a part of their personal identity, carried on their stationary and business cards, on the side of the van and over the entrance to the building. This is true not only in the case of individual employees individually but also tribes of employees, and behavioral science teaches us that tribal identity is one of the most powerful human cognitive structures. This is one of the reasons why employees in a merged organization, meeting each other for the first time, will seek to establish which legacy business the other party grew up in, even 15 years after the merger was consummated.
Celebrating the achievements of the past can be achieved in a number of ways, both big and small. It can be as simple as including details of past innovations and business milestones in the story of the change or as large-scale celebratory events across the company. One electronics distribution company which had acquired dozens of brands that it was retiring went as far as to conduct an official “wake” attended by 400 managers at a luxury hotel in Dallas. The two-day event was designed to communicate the change in detail, but one entire evening was devoted to celebratory videos and testimonials that with warmth and humor communicated the achievements of the past while creating a new tribe for the future.
A new starting line
The new change initiative that senior executives have been working on for 11 months is finally ready to be shared with the organization. The very best communications experts have created a communications plan with “train the trainer” materials, videos from senior leaders and a cascading series of roll-down town hall meetings to communicate the benefits of the change across the organization and around the world. The posters are ready to go up. The announcement goes off like a charm, and the feedback you hear is highly positive, but two months later, it feels like the change process is foundering. When you query the organization’s day-to-day leadership, you hear that there are many questions about the plan and what people should be doing to achieve it.
This common phenomenon is traceable to a simple fact but one often overlooked. By the time the change program is announced, the change team and senior executives have collectively spent thousands of hours engaged in thinking through the initiative, pouring over organizational charts and working through the impact of the change on every part of the business. They have lived, as it were, within the skin of the change for many months. For an average middle manager, never mind for an average employee, their exposure to the reorganization after two months has consisted at best of a town hall meeting, a brochure, a video and a presentation from their manager, perhaps 5 hours in all. It is, therefore, not altogether surprising that their ability to embrace the reason for change and how it should now drive their thinking and behavior is superficial, and they lose the plot quickly. The degree of message decay is, naturally, directly proportional to the extent to which the change directly affects their part of the organization. Truly effective change communications requires senior leadership to put themselves into the shoes of their employees and understand that for them, project [insert energetic noun here] started today, not 11 months ago and that there is a new starting line.
Choose your words
Changing large organizations not facing a fundamental existential threat is a truly difficult challenge. This is why many senior executives try to create a dramatic narrative to underscore the importance of and the urgent need for the change. Their favorite term of art is to talk about a “burning platform” designed to conjure up the image of a burning oil rig with the implication that there is no choice but for all employees to leap together into the churning waves (the future) or face death. The difficulty this creates is that it produces instant skepticism in employees who understand perfectly well that the enterprise is not about to sink beneath the waves and that they can continue to do what they have been doing without risking their ability to deliver against their target. While defining the company’s future as a rescue from a burning platform is appealing, it is better for leadership to use the language that more accurately corresponds to the reality on the ground.
Almost as difficult for senior leaders, apparently, is preventing themselves from using change clichés in their communications. The rhetoric of “breaking down silos” to “unleash the organization’s powerful potential” by “aligning value” and becoming more “customer centric” long ago lost its effectiveness. While criticizing corporate leaders for this weakness may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, this propensity does real damage, even when the clichés are not designed to obscure the negative aspects of any change initiative. This is because long before management consultants coined the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (or lunch), employees understood deep in their bones that no amount of fulsome exhortation will magic away the hard work of change. It is much better to speak plainly, explain clearly and acknowledge vulnerabilities with humility. No amount of paradigm shifting, with or without fire in the belly, will build synergies creating bleeding-edge opportunities to push the envelope and go the extra mile. Or as George Orwell put it, you might as well throw the jackboot into the melting pot (Orwell, 1946).