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8.2 Organizational Communication and Change

Due to the aforementioned reasons, as well more traditional communication problems such as sender arrogance or receiver resistance to change, change initiatives often fail to meet their objectives. For instance, John Kotter flatly states that ineffective communication of the change vision is one of the primary causes of failed organizational transformations.Kotter (1996). T. J. Larkin and Sandar Larkin, two noted communication consultants, assert that change-oriented communications are too often lofty, vague, and impersonal so the message is never really understood and therefore change initiatives founder.Larkin and Larkin (1994). And Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones observe that most change communication lacks authenticity, so the rest of the organization doesn’t trust what is being said and consequently the change effort stalls or goes in unintended directions.Goffee and Jones (2006).

Unfortunately, there is much more written about how communication fails to support change than what works. Consider the title of one article arguing for more communication within organizations: “If communication isn’t working, nothing else will.”Taylor (1998). In another article, a leadership expert states,

Transformation is impossible unless hundreds of thousands of people are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices. Employees will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they believe that useful change is possible. Without credible communication, and a lot of it, the hearts and minds of the troops are never captured.Kotter (1995), p. 60.

Also, many change consultants point out how pervasive rumor and innuendo are within organizations today due to the ineffective communication at work. For example, Jeannie Duck states, “In the absence of communication from the leaders, the organization will seek information from other sources, whether those sources know what they are talking about or not. Your silence does not stop conversation; it just means you are not participating in it.”Duck (2001), p. 143.

Unfortunately, many if not most of the communication prescriptions made tend to be overly simplistic or overly complex. On the simplistic side, some observers argue that all change communications simply need to be face-to-face, frequent, and informal.Anastasiou (1998). While these practices have merit, they do not consider such contextual factors as the organization’s size and geographic diversity, the urgency of the change initiative, or the availability of communications technology.

On the other hand, some change communication prescriptions are overly complex. For example, one change consultant recommends that a formal change communication action plan be developed for every change initiative. These action plans were recommended to include (a) careful consideration of change targets, (b) deliberate change messages, (c) prespecification of change messages, (d) timing and frequency of the message(s), (e) establishment of ownership for the communication, and (f) measurements planned for the change. Of course, then the change leaders are supposed to execute this plan and iterate as necessary.Bennett (2000). One wonders if the change leaders will have any time to do anything other than communicate to the rest of the organization!