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By Henry DeVries

Gulp. Suppose the time has come to communicate a major change for your organization. Maybe it is a downsizing, a restructuring, or a switch to total quality management. The change is so important the future of the company depends on it.

Employees are mustered to the cafeteria where the CEO makes an impassioned speech worthy of a field marshal. Following the call to arms, the communications campaign launches an offensive on several fronts. All locations are bombarded with videos. Special editions of the employee newsletter sound the battle cry. Platoons of senior executives fan out to deliver the message on a more personalized basis to the troops.

But the war is already lost. Why? Because this approach is wrong, wrong, wrong. Not only will it fall flat, it is positively harmful.

Ask employees what information source they prefer. According to a study by the International Association of Business Communications, 92 percent said they wanted to hear it directly from their supervisor. The mistake that dooms most campaigns seeking to win support for new business goals is the failure to let supervisors explain the change to front-line employees.

To achieve optimal results, campaigns to communicate potentially unpopular changes to employees should be viewed as an applied science. Unfortunately, this does not happen at most large companies. Case studies, surveys and research clearly show that the best practices for a major change are to communicate directly to supervisors and to use face-to-face communication.

The rate of major change is accelerating rapidly in business today, and many executives will be called upon to make major change communications decisions as part of a senior executive team. Knowing the three biggest mistakes of change communication will increase their chances of success.

Mistake 1—Many well-meaning CEO’s attempt to improve change communications by going directly to the front-line employees, usually supported by the advice of senior human resources executives and consultants. Unfortunately, it is a mistake that is wrong for two reasons, according to the book Communicating Change (McGraw Hill, 1994) by international consultants T.J. and Sandra Larkin.

First, it can be viewed as a mere symbolic move, and today’s disillusioned worker has little love for the empty gesture. Second, and more damaging, these campaigns can weaken the relationship between front-line workers and supervisors.

Studies by Professor Donald Pelz at the University of Michigan and others clearly show that workers want to work for someone who is connected and has a degree of power within the organization.

Mistake 2—Other well-intentioned senior executives push for equality in the workplace. They believe supervisors should sit shoulder-to-shoulder with front-line employees to hear the big news.

Again, a mistaken strategy because it is evidence of senior management’s failure to recognize the supervisor’s superior status. This reduces the supervisor’s perceived power and weakens his or her effectiveness as a force of change. What many senior executives fail to realize is that the only communications with the power to change behavior is the kind between a supervisor and a direct report.

Mistake 3—Applying the strategy that more must be better, executives in charge of change campaigns use ink by the barrel: employee reports, posters, news bulletins, video scripts, team briefing outlines, brochures and guidebooks. This too is the wrong approach, because the critical communication is the type that happens face-to-face between a supervisor and front-line employees.

Energy and resources should be directed toward producing supervisor briefing cards which will arm them to answer the key questions that are in the minds of their staff.

While other forms of communications should not be abolished, the emphasis should be on making supervisors privileged receivers of information. When the future of the firm is on the line, ultimately it s the CEO’s job to communicate the change.

The wise CEOs will use their supervisors to ensure success.

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