Under the stress of public speaking, it is natural for humans to experience adrenaline flooding their system
It is extremely important for executives leading change programs to be very clear about their own attitudes toward the change first
My grandmother always used to say that the only people who crave change are wet babies. And communicating the urgency of change for them is quite easy too! However, in the context of organizational change, communicating the urgency felt by the top executives regarding the change is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of any change program. If you paint too dark a picture of the need for change, you risk frightening employees about the state of the organization. And if you paint in mild colors, the sense of urgency will not be communicated. The goal of any change communication program therefore is to send out out messages that make the status quo untenable and the future more alluring than the past. It’s a delicate balance and begins with the senior executives’ own attitudes toward change.
Undoubtedly, communication is paramount for any change to take place effectively. Every face-to-face communication is infact, two conversations -- verbal and non-verbal. Only when the verbal and the non-verbal conversations are aligned, the communication will be successful; the audience will believe the non-verbal if there is disconnect between the two. So, it’s essential for senior executives involved in communicating the need for change to first completely believe in it themselves. Anything less, and incongruity will leak out between the content and the body language.
However, it’s not just what meets the eye and is more complicated. Under the stress of public speaking, it is natural for humans to experience adrenaline flooding their system, and resultantly, their bodies need to release that build up of adrenaline in a variety of ways. What happens is that the expression of adrenaline by the speaker looks to the audience like a lack of belief in the message. Adrenaline comes out in ‘happy feet’ -- the inability of the speaker to stand still -- in fidgeting, twitching, wandering eyes, and a variety of other ways, and they all look like the speaker is not fully invested in his or her message. These signals to the audience are the more powerful because, for the most part, they’re not picked up consciously. Instead, they’re read unconsciously by our limbic brains. This inevitably leads to the audience deciding not to believe the speaker even before he’s opened his mouth.
This makes the intent of the executive about the change program very important. If he or she is not completely committed to it, and does not believe in it deeply, the odds are overwhelming that the audience will pick up the unconscious hesitation and decide not to follow the leader. This is because, audiences interpret the behavior of a speaker in terms of intent toward them, and the nervous expression of adrenaline becomes meaningful in a way the speaker almost certainly does not intend. The result is disastrous for the success of the speaker, and thus the change program.
Here, let me give you a live example of a public speaking misfire. One company president, having just taken over another company, went on a speaking tour of the company’s sites preaching about how equal and fair the merger was going to be for both of the former organizations. Unfortunately, what he really believed in was that he was going to be taking control of both the companies with the same determination and obsession that had brought him to the head of a major multinational. The result was that his message was all about openness, but his body language was all about control and domination. Audiences of both companies picked up the incongruities and the merger floundered. The company lost momentum and the stock price lost 90% of its value in just 12 months!
So, it’s extremely important for executives leading change programs to be very clear about their own attitudes toward the change first, and then make sure that any company-wide message program they undertake is consistent with their own beliefs. If that’s not the case, prepare for trouble.
We live in a transparent age where the Internet is an instant information outlet for disaffected, suspicious, and badly treated employees during change programs, mergers, and the like. Any company that believes that it can first fool its own employees and then the public will certainly face disappointment.
Once the lead executives are clear and consistent with themselves about the importance and the direction of the program, accordingly, the next crucial step in communicating change is to design a transparent communication process that brings dissension and debate inside the organization rather than driving it outside. The overwhelming urge of bureaucracies is to stifle debate and deny dissension to the outside world. This near-irresistible tendency must be resisted in the twenty-first century, because it’s simply no longer possible to maintain bureaucratic obfuscation in the way it might have been in the past. The communication options for unaffected employees are virtually as robust and inexpensive as those for the organization itself.
On the positive side, the opportunities for employee engagement and involvement are more available today than ever before. Working with one health care company in the United States, I first helped the executives get clear on the change imperatives they were facing, and then helped them develop messages that would resonate company-wide. We were able to use an enormous array of company intranets, newsletters, email communications, meetings, speaking engagements, and team meetings to spread the word out to the tens of thousands of employees. But the most powerful aspect of the program was involving the employees themselves in pilot programs to create the specifics around the call for change and the desired goals that the senior executives had articulated.
The call for change was complicated, and the need was undeniable. Together, these twin imperatives might have created confusion and stasis. But, because of the care the senior leadership team took for the development of the messages and the attention they paid to first clarify their own attitudes toward change, the employees heard consistent themes from an extraordinary variety of channels. The result was that there were no misunderstandings or confusion about the need for change and the desired goals.
Enlisting the employees in the program was both relatively straightforward and essential. Straightforward because there were few inconsistencies, if any, and essential, because no change program can be made real unless everyone hears the call and gets on board. It only takes one unaligned cog to destroy an entire system of gears.