Change communication: How change succeeds “In My Backyard
Changes determine our everyday life. Yet we often have a hard time with it. We want many things to improve – but not in our own backyard. We show how change communication can be improved.
We all want a better world. Whether on a global level or in our own village, many things could be better. But when it comes to getting things done, we resist. Why?
What is Change Communication?
There is a lot to do. For example, the energy transition, sustainable transport, more livable cities, digitality and networking, electronic democracy. But when the time comes, there is often fear of negative implications and rejection of a new project or change. The Nimby phenomenon – “Not in my backyard” – is a problem of our time that companies and politicians have to deal with.
In this case, communication is a key success factor that decision-makers can use to manage change processes, whether in the corporate or the political sector. Change communication can be used to optimally manage ongoing processes and strategies. Communication experts can influence opinions, moods and emotions with the right communication strategy. In doing so, it is important to recognize and reflect on resistance and to always be ready for a dialog. Communication is therefore the most important task of management.
The phase model
How can change processes be managed in terms of communication? What phases do all processes go through? Here, it is first worth taking a look at the emotions that affected employees (for example, in the case of restructuring processes within a company) or citizens and neighbors (in the case of announced major projects) go through:
In the 1960s, the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a phase model that shows the mental states that changes can bring. The initial state of shock is followed by denial, frustration, anger and depression. The low point is often accompanied by overt resistance – whether rational or irrational. However, this resistance and mourning phase is then followed by an opening and curiosity for the new situation. In this phase, those affected are ready to learn how to find their way in the new situation. Finally, they accept and integrate the change.
This model has been adopted by numerous business experts and used to visualize change management processes. It shows that people are quite capable of accepting change – at their own individual pace. So communication strategies cannot be enforced in the short term, but need a long-term approach and an understanding of the stages a person goes through during change.
The following steps should be followed in communication:
1. clarify urgency
People often forget to make the urgency clear when changes are imminent. Often, communication managers themselves are not clear about how to justify a change. Yet this is the first step in change communication. If people understand why a change is urgent and essential, they are more likely to accept it. Harvard professor John P. Kotter has successfully visualized this urgency as an image of a penguin whose ice floe is melting. His leap onto the next ice floe – and thus a change – is urgent. That is what needs to be communicated.
2. formulate vision
The task of the top management (regardless of whether in the company or the public sector) is to provide clear direction for all those affected. This is the most important step in change management. Strategies are undoubtedly important – but rarely do leaders think to communicate how those strategies came about. They need to tell the story of the challenges they faced before the change that they now want (and need) to solve. This story can be disseminated on all channels, internally and externally, and inspires understanding and a ‘sense of purpose’ among those affected. And it is always better to tell the story yourself early on than to have it told by third parties.
3. mobilize fellow campaigners
For every vision, there are valuable employees or stakeholders who support a change. These must be identified for the Change Success Story to be disseminated within the target group. This creates the right impetus ‘from the bottom up’.
4. break through oppositions
The most difficult step is usually to break through oppositions, as there are invisible barriers as well as visible ones. Here, an individual solution must be found – ideally in dialog – to break through these cognitive or even capacitative barriers (through training, workshops or dialog offerings). Political barriers may also have to be removed.
5. turning change into normality
After a change process, the performance in the company and the satisfaction of those affected is (ideally) higher than before. This state must become normality in the final step.
Of course, we must not let ourselves be deceived into thinking that the state we have reached is a final state. Rather, we should ask ourselves whether we are not rather in a change continuum in which we have to go through a change process again and again. Communication is the key to successful transformations here, whether digital, structural or physical. The consequences for employee structures and public organizations are far-reaching. A clear agenda, ideas, clear positioning, and success stories serve as a means to highlight barriers, bridge motivation gaps, and provide examples of what behaviors lead to success for all stakeholders.