Change Conversations

A key component of any successful change initiative is effective communication.

Written by Catriona MacLeod
Published 10 June 2021
Change Conversations

While it’s important for leaders to present a clear vision for change, managers also have a role to play in selling that vision to their team. Here, we outline ten ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of change conversations.

Five Dos

1. Do… take your time

When you’re trying to juggle organisational change with your day-to-day responsibilities, taking the time to sit down with your team members individually can feel like a luxury. But putting in the investment up front - giving each person a chance to raise concerns and ask questions - will pay dividends in the long run. Try to get something in the calendar as soon as possible after the change has been announced and give yourself more time than you think you need for each meeting. The agenda should be determined by the issues your team member wishes to discuss, not what you can fit into your schedule.

2. Do… focus on the ‘why’

The first step in John Kotter’s renowned change management model is to establish a sense of urgency. [1] In other words, you need to show people why the status quo is no longer an option and underline the consequences of failing to act. Before you begin a change conversation, it’s crucial for everyone to understand what the change involves and why it’s being made.

3. Do… make it personal

Explaining how the change will benefit the organisation is a good place to start, but it doesn’t necessarily get to the heart of one very important question: ‘What will this mean for me?’ One of the main causes of resistance to change is uncertainty, and it’s not always easy to connect the dots between a company-wide change and an individual role. When you’re planning to have a change conversation with a member of your team, make sure you do your homework. Try to anticipate the kinds of questions they’re likely to ask, so you can offer clear responses and minimise any anxiety associated with the situation. By showing team members where they fit into the change, they’ll be better equipped to make a positive contribution to the initiative.

4. Do… listen actively

Even if you think the case for change is clear-cut, it’s crucial for everyone to know that their opinion has been heard and understood. Once you’ve explained what the change entails and why it’s needed, your team member should be doing most of the talking. When you do speak, try to focus on asking open questions and summarising the points that have been raised to check understanding. Be on the lookout for subtle changes in body language or tone of voice, as these may tell you more than someone is willing to express out loud.

5. Do… follow up

A person’s immediate reaction to change doesn’t necessarily reflect how they will feel about it in the long term. For instance, someone who is initially resistant to an idea may warm to it once they’ve had the opportunity to reflect and discuss it with colleagues. Similarly, a team member who enthusiastically embraces a change in principle may become disillusioned once they realise what it means in practice. For this reason, it’s useful to check in with your team at regular intervals to gauge how they’re feeling at each stage of the process, and address concerns as they arise.

Five Don’ts

1. Don’t… put it off

If you don’t make an effort to meet with your team and respond to their questions, they will look for answers elsewhere. This is how rumours get started. With that in mind, it’s vital that you act quickly to mitigate uncertainty and prevent false or misleading information from spreading.

2. Don’t… make assumptions

A clichéd, oft-repeated notion in change management theory is that people are naturally resistant to change, instinctively drawn to maintaining the status quo. While this might be true in some cases, it doesn’t hold across the board. When approaching change conversations, don’t assume that your team member’s response will be the same as your own, or even the same as that of their co-workers. Instead, go into the discussion with an open mind and respond to what you hear, not what you expect to hear.

3. Don’t… over-prepare

This might seem to contradict our earlier point about the importance of preparation, but it is, indeed, possible to have too much of a good thing. On the one hand, you want to have the facts and figures at your fingertips so you can respond to questions and address any anxiety your team might be feeling. But you also don’t want to overdo it and bombard them with a carefully rehearsed presentation that stifles real dialogue. As in all things, balance is key.

4. Don’t… hide behind your tech

Even if it might feel more convenient or less uncomfortable to conduct a change  discussion over email, Slack or Yammer, these solutions are ultimately less effective than speaking to your team member face-to-face. It’s more personal, and shows you’re not simply trying to tick a box. If sitting down with them in person isn’t an option, then a video call will show that you’re listening actively, and help you to gauge how the information is being received.

5. Don’t… pass judgement

Last but not least, the purpose of a change conversation isn’t to get everyone to come around to the same way of thinking. Regardless of whether you agree with your team member’s point of view, the main thing is to give them an opportunity to share their perspective. This is particularly important in the early stages of the process, when emotions are more likely to be running high and offering counter arguments may simply encourage them to double-down on their position. Focusing on maintaining a positive and open dialogue can help generate ideas and solutions you might not previously have thought of, which can ultimately help the change to be more successful.

[1] John Kotter, Leading Change. (Harvard Business School Press, September 1996).


About the author

Catriona MacLeod

Catriona MacLeod

Editorial Manager
Catriona has over 19 years of experience in editorial management. She works with clients across a wide range of sectors to deliver relevant and practical resources to meet the learning needs of leaders and managers. Catriona loves the variety of her role, from writing and editing content to conducting video interviews with industry experts.

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