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8.3 Using the Communication System to Bring About Change

One of the primary reasons why communication within organizations tends to be fragmented is that the organizational leaders think of it as a collection of tools rather than an overall system.Katz and Kahn (1966). An organization’s communication system consists of a particular message, the change leader(s) personal attributes, the change targets’ collective readiness to change, feedback loops between leader(s) and target(s), and the variety of channels of communication operating within an organization. Robust organizational communication systems are essential for bringing about organizational change. The following section discusses each aspect of the communication system.

The Change Message

When communicating with others, it is important to consider the nature of the messageA message that communicates organizational change. The timing and medium of the message should be tailored to address the nature of the information. in order to make sure that it is heard. For example, downsizing and layoff messages evoke strong and often powerful emotions within organizations. Consequently, the timing and medium of that message should be tailored to address the delicate nature of the information intended. Similarly, the message must be clear and direct if there isn’t much time to make the change. And if the message is complicated, such as the need to replace an old technology with an entirely new one, then the communication system must take this into consideration.Kotter (1996).

Change Leader Attributes

If the change leader is perceived to be honest and authentic, then the message is likely to be heard—no small task in our information overload world. Authentic leader(s) display their true selves throughout the changes of context that require them to play a variety of roles. Authentic leaders also nurture their relationship with followers by highlighting their strengths, while revealing human weaknesses; they maintain their individuality while conforming enough to hold the organization together, and they establish intimacy with followers while keeping enough distance to command respect.Goffee and Jones (2006).

Related to the notion of authenticity is the ability of the change leader to listen well. Warren Bennis and Bert Nanus state, “A leader must be a superb listener, particularly to those advocating new or different images of the emerging reality. Many leaders establish both formal and informal channels of communication to gain access to these ideas.”Bennis and Nanus (1997), p. 96.

A third and final characteristic of the change leader is his or her credibility with the rest of the organization. As we discussed in the trustworthy leadership dimension, credibility brings trust. What we add in this chapter is that this credibility-induced trust also facilitates communication and information sharing.

Followers’ Readiness to Change

Employees within an organization vary in their readiness to change. Some individuals just don’t like any change, while others will leap at the opportunity to try something new. Most individuals vary between these two poles of readiness depending on the perceived costs and benefits of a particular proposed change. In other words, if the employee perceives a change as relatively easy to adopt (i.e., low cost), and the change brings about many advantages or solves existing problems (i.e., high benefit), then the employee will be relatively open to the change.Armenakis, Harris, & Mossholder (1993).

Another way to think about the employee’s readiness to change is to consider all change proposals as a diffusion-of-innovation problem. Everett Rogers devoted his lifetime to understanding how innovations diffused within social systems, and he discovered a very interesting fact: When confronted with a particular change, individuals tend to sort themselves out into a normal distribution in terms of readiness to change. In other words, roughly 16% of all employees will be early adopters of proposed changes; 34% will then follow the early adopters. Next, another 34% of employees will be late adopters. And finally, 16% of the employees will resist the proposed change as long as possible.Rogers (1983). In sum, when attempting to communicate to an entire organization, it is very helpful to know something about the nature of the change targets before, during, and after a change initiative is launched.

Feedback Loops

Most systems have feedback loops, and communication systems are no exception. Just because a change message is issued is no guarantee that the message is heard. Furthermore, even if the message is heard at the time that it is issued, it may not be remembered later on. And even if the message is remembered, it may not lead to new behavior. Hence, feedback loops are essential for uncovering what was heard, what was remembered, and what new behaviors, if any, have resulted.

In addition to message assessment, feedback loops are also helpful in improving the change initiative, for a variety of reasons. First, the change designers may not see the entire situation, and feedback loops help them to broaden or refine their perspective. Second, some change initiatives are just wrong-headed, and the communication system should enable the rest of the organization to weigh in on its overall worth and efficacy. Finally, new things are learned as change initiatives are rolled out, and these lessons need to be distributed to the rest of the organization so that the lessons can be leveraged.

Barry Oshry points out that most feedback loops within organizations are “filtered” so that the established reality perceived by senior management, middle managers, or frontline workers goes unchallenged. Furthermore, in complex social systems, such as an organization, feedback loops often provide conflicting information. When this happens, most social systems tend to ignore the information because sorting out the discrepancies can be difficult, upsetting, and time consuming.Oshry (1993). Effective communication systems have many feedback loops, and the information conveyed as feedback is weighed and considered.

Channels of Communication

There are a wide variety of communication channels possible within organizations. Communication channelsInformation exchanges that involve both formal and informal mediums. involve both formal and informal mediums of information exchange. Formal mediums include such things as town hall meetings, newsletters, workshops, videos, e-mail, bulletin boards, manuals, roadshows, and progress reports.Balogun and Hailey (2008), p. 195. Informal mediums include such things as hallway discussions, one-on-one meetings, departmental briefings, and having senior leaders walking the talk. In both cases, the invisible social network within the organization plays a powerful role in interpreting the message.Farmer, 2008.

While most organizations tend to prefer using certain communication channels in all situations, the selection of the channel should be based on the specific change context. The reason for this is that communication channels vary in their efficiency and information richness. Rich communication channels are typically interactive and face-to-face, and they provide an abundance of contextualized information. Some channels, such as e-mail, are extremely efficient but not information rich at all. Other channels, such as one-on-one private meetings, are not efficient at all, but extremely information rich. In general, the more complicated and emotionally charged the change initiative, the more communication channels will be needed, and they need to be information rich, particularly in the beginning of the change program.