Three key steps to communicate effectively during change

By Heather Campbell

The last few months in the UK may have been holiday season but it doesn’t feel like life really eased up this year. We’ve been experiencing some significant changes with increasing cost of living already hitting many people hard, unsettled international and national politics bring uncertainty and, of course, so recently the death of Queen Elizabeth II. We thought we’d left behind the word ‘unprecedented’ with the pandemic, but I still see it used as an accurate description about many of the changes we’re living through.

Of course, change in the macro environment brings change within organisations. In particular, many of the leaders I have worked with in recent weeks have been grappling with how to respond to the cost of living changes that are impacting employees across their businesses. Some are introducing pay rises; others have decided that pay rises are not the best solution. Some are encouraging employees to work from home more often to save on costs associated with travel and childcare; others are encouraging people to come into the office more often as a way to save costs on energy bills and even to have access to subsidised, quality meals.

On top of this, all the usual organisational change that’s a part of doing business continues. Restructuring, office moves, new systems…they haven’t gone away.

More than ever, with significant change impacting many aspects of national, business and personal life, leaders need to play their part effectively, and one of the most important things to get right is communication. Whether you’re a fan of the British Royal family or not, leaders can learn a lot about effective communication by observing their approach since news of the Queen’s death was announced. As a specialist in communication and human interaction, I’ve been fascinated to observe this.

Here are three key lessons that business leaders can apply in the workplace.

1. Be visible. I’ve been impressed at the sheer stamina the senior members of the Royal family have shown as they have criss-crossed the United Kingdom, being photographed, shaking hands and viewing countless bouquets of flowers at every stop. When you’re busy dealing with change yourself, it is easy to get caught up in meetings that keep you in the C-suite corridors. When the warmth of the welcome may be uncertain, it can be tempting to retreat behind closed doors. When you’re on a steep learning curve personally, it can seem easier to stay away rather than risk getting it wrong in public. This is a mistake. You must get out and engage with people. Doing so will help you stay informed of what’s really happening ‘on the ground’ while it provides others with the opportunity to hear from you directly. The power of the grapevine and the uncertainty it brings will be greatly reduced.

2. Show your humanity. We’ve seen, sometimes shockingly up close, the pain of grief etched on the faces of the Royal family. We’ve seen the clips of King Charles losing it with oversized ink wells on small tables and leaky pens, and signing the wrong date on key papers. Visibility brings the risk of visible errors too. But people don’t expect perfection from you. They do, however, want to know you care about them. At the start of the pandemic, as offices closed and the walls of our homes defined our physical world for several months, one the things that many people noticed and appreciated was that everyone had become more human. Showing our humanity helps to build empathy and empathy helps to build the positive relationships that are needed more than ever during change.

3. Reveal the workings. Thanks to the power of television cameras we’ve all been given a view of the workings of changing from one monarch to another. Meetings with the privy council, declarations made and acceptance of new responsibilities, signing documents that will be held in archives of the nation for centuries to come. All of this has been done in public view as never before. This isn’t simply about being visible, this is showing the inner workings, the processes, that have previously been kept behind closed doors. Showing the inner workings helps people to understand more and to be included. It empowers us. We feel that we’re being treated as the adults we are. In the business world, this means sharing not only the what but also the why for decisions and actions. It means giving details that will help people to make sense of what’s happening. It means allowing people to ask questions and gain greater clarity for themselves.

Change is never easy and is often a time when there’s increased unease, pressure and risk. We can’t avoid these completely, but we can mitigate against these if we follow these three simple steps.

And, whatever the change you’re going through, always observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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