No Company is Static
No company is static. Change takes place everyday but some changes are more more visible and have greater wide-reaching implications on stakeholders. Indeed whether change is in the guise of CEOs and management, takeover bids and M&A, business process re-engineering or new technology, or even office re-location, managing change is fraught with challenges and concerns. Change begets more change – planned or anticipated as a consequence of corporate moves or unexpectedly. Companies who do not communicate their position and intention to their employees lose a valuable source of support and strength.
Thinking the Worst When We Are in the Dark
Take for example, an M&A. Usually media focus is on financials and legal issues. Management is concerned about bad press and price of shares on the stock exchange. Most times, any media coverage about employees is about doom and gloom issues like retrenchment, change of management and so on. While the excitement rages, some companies take for granted the real people working in them. Employees form perceptions about their companies’ intentions in the media. They do not know much more about the ongoing discussions and negotiations than the general public. Is it any wonder that post-M&A, some companies find that their best talents are working elsewhere and those left behind have low motivation and morale.
Research tells us that when we are in the dark, we tend to think the worst. Our negative bias is instinctive, a flashback to our forefathers’ cautious fight or flight response to a new or unfamiliar stimuli. Our survival instinct. In moral studies, we learn that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Our minds imagine the maxi-ominous thus building anxiety and negative stress within and despite our outward bravado, physiological signs of distress become palpable and worrying. We harbor fear and suspicion in our hearts. Our behavior reflect these emotions and the workplace magnifies the tension and dissonance, making it ripe for conflict and unrest. Are we surprised that employees suffer from low morale and are unmotivated?Targeted Messages
Communication specialists advise frequent and targeted messages before and during the change process, and also after, to allay anxiety and to diffuse the power of rumor-mongering. We understand the need for information and clarity. What if the prognosis is bad and the news is unpleasant? Downsizing. Restructuring. Changing of the guard. Do we tell the whole truth or do we sugarcoat? What would be a positive way to communicate?
How about we tell them the simple truths AND communicate hope? Hope is believing that our goals are within our reach and we have the means of getting there despite the odds. To help employees deal with the realities of the outer world internally and yet have a sense of control builds hope. Learning to cope rather than surrender to helplessness is the stuff of resilience (Reivich & Shatte).
Control, Commitment, and Challenge
Dr. Kobasa in her study of executives and managers who are more resilient to stress than others who are more vulnerable, has found three critical factors – control, commitment, and challenge. Let us consciously shape our messages to inform and to reassure the concerned employee that he has control over the outcomes thus boosting his psychological well-being (Seligman). Here, the role of change communication champions ranks high in managing the inner turmoil. They might be the CEO, HR or employee counselors, or even outplacement or re-skilling resources, etc as appropriate.
Even as we manage the downward spiral of pessimism and negative emotions, we work towards building employee engagement – getting them to get involved and be committed to the organisation’s endeavors. I believe that employees are reasonable rational beings, by and large, and would work anywhere for a cause and some money wherever they feel that their efforts are recognised, valued and appreciated. Too simplistic? Perhaps employee engagement is about helping them find flow (Csikszentmihalyi) in what they do – meaning and purpose in a challenge that absorbs their focused attention and sustains their interest. For instance, quality circles at a time of new technological implementations involve the expert end-users in active strength-finding in melding old and new ways.
Employees in the Face of Change
Employees are our best assets and we tend to depreciate their value and impact. Why not consider employees our strongest allies instead? Then we would work to cultivate the right working environment and conditions for their continued investment in our organisations. Positive communication is communication with a strategic bent towards building a strength-based organisation where we treat our employees with respect and honor their ability to apply their strengths where it matters. In positive communication, we aim to inform, educate and support through thought, word and actions that change is inevitable but not immutable.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.
Kobasa, S. (1990). Stress-resistant personality. In R. Ornstein and C. Swencionis (eds.), The Healing Brain: Breakthrough Discoveries About How the Brain Keeps Us Healthy. New York: Guildford Press.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1994). What You Can Change . . . and What You Can’t*: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. New York: Knopf.