7 Dangerous assumptions to avoid when communicating change

Our clients tell us that communication is fundamental to the success of their change programmes and prove this by having a communications role on the team in some shape or form. Despite this, when working with these teams, we see quite a few assumptions being made about communications in a change environment; dangerous assumptions that  will always come back to haunt you.

There are many, many of these, but here are our top seven.

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Assumption 1: One-way, broadcast communications will do the job throughout the change.

In any change, people need to have the opportunity to think about the message they have heard and be able to ask more questions about it. This is the only way they will really absorb and understand the message. It’s not just about transmitting the message – it’s a combination of transmit and receive which means a two-way conversation.

Assumption 2. Perception is not important.  

Whether a change is perceived positively or negatively can make or break its success.  Communication is essential in building the story of the change and shaping the perception that the audience has.  As one of our clients puts it ‘Perception is our reality’.

Assumption 3. Everyone knows how to communicate.

Communication doesn’t always come naturally to everyone - even senior managers - and especially during change.  Don’t assume that someone in a management position will be able to communicate change messages, especially to immediate colleagues.  They may need support in understanding what they should be doing and how to do it.

Assumption 4. Everyone is talking the same language.

Not everyone understands the terminology you’re using.  You need to explain it all clearly, avoiding three letter acronyms (TLAs) and jargon.  If you do use TLAs, spell out all the words used and then explain what they mean. Don’t assume that spelling out the TLA will wave a magic wand of understanding.  It won’t. Avoid jargon and communicate in clear, straightforward words.

Assumption 5. Tell them once and they will understand.

Just because you have given people a message, it doesn’t mean they completely understand it.  Think of change communication as a journey or story, not a one-off event. Each message you give helps to build the story or journey of the change.  This journey includes:

  • Someone receiving, understanding and applying the message to their world.  This message should be delivered many times in different ways to build understanding.  Don’t forget to include face-to-face meetings in these channels and give people the chance to ask questions

  • Following up with feedback and discussion, helping build people’s understanding and gauging their reactions. Plan a few days between face-to-face meetings or events to allow time for the message to sink in and questions to come to the surface.

  • Make sure that every communication activity or event helps to build the change story

Assumption 6. It can be planned.  

Communication can and should be planned, but change can throw up communication opportunities when you least expect them. Be prepared to deliver spontaneous communications and respond quickly to dispel rumours if needed. And, make sure that your leadership team understands this and are prepared to support a rapid turn-around.

Assumption 7. Communicate when you have a decision to announce with all the facts.

Leaving people in limbo while you wait for the complete picture can be tricky. Fill the void and avoid rumour where you can.  If you don’t, people will make up their own story. Even if you don’t know all the facts, share the areas where you are seeking more clarification, and let people know when you think you will have the answer. Make sure you deliver on that date.

Avoid these dangerous assumptions at all costs. Test your theories and you should see a massive improvement in your communications and how they land.