How to communicate change to your team

 

Company changes like strategic shifts, layoffs, and reorganizations are never easy. But they become practically impossible if frontline managers — i.e., you, not just the executives who initiated the changes — don’t communicate about them in ways their teams can understand, relate to, and accept.

To craft an effective message, try our Planner: Communicate a change to your team. And here are tips to do it right:

1. If possible, get your own head around the change first.

Some changes demand fast action — for example, if layoffs are underway and you need to break the difficult news to your team. You won’t have time to fully process what’s happening.

But in other situations, you’ll be able to reflect on your own feelings before getting in front of your team. This is usually time well spent, because if you feel overwhelmed, confused, or skeptical, there’s a very good chance your team will pick up on those feelings — regardless of what comes out of your mouth. Poor eye contact, a defeated-sounding tone of voice, or an impatient answer to a question might seem like small things, but to your team, these kinds of behavioral cues can fan the flames of doubt and worry.

For tips on processing company changes, see our related article How to mentally adjust when your company changes.

2. Preemptively address any messaging dos and don’ts with your boss and/or HR.

If your team hears one thing about a change from you, and something quite different from your boss or other leaders, you’ll have two big problems on your hands. First, the inconsistent messages could confuse your team. Second, your credibility could take a hit if your boss talks to someone on your team and hears a version of the change that’s off base.

At the same time, you know your team better than your boss and HR, and it’s your job to explain changes in a way that will resonate with each individual on your team — not just parrot what you hear from above (see tip No. 6 for more details). With this in mind, you might need to balance what your boss and HR suggest you should say with your honest opinion of what you think your team will respond to best.

When in doubt, do a dry run of what you’re planning to say with your boss and/or HR person to resolve any contentious points ahead of time. (In doing this, you may also get some feedback that will help you refine your delivery.)

3. Break or follow up on news of a company change with the whole team, preferably in person or on videoconference.

Now is not the time to hide behind your computer screen and hope your team reads the all-company email announcement. By bringing everyone together, the team will hear your interpretation of events at the same time and in the same way, minimizing the chances of confusion, gossip or anger about the order in which people were informed.

Don’t forget about team members who work remotely. You might want to include them via video, rather than with a traditional phone call, so that you can better gauge their reactions. For more tips, see our article Checklist: How to run great remote meetings.

4. Be direct and clear in your opener.

Change tends to trigger people’s fight-or-flight response — which, in turn, triggers thoughts of worst-case scenarios, even if the change is beneficial. With this in mind, the last thing you want to do when you announce a change to your team is intensify people’s dread by describing it in a wordy, confusing way that invites misinterpretation.

Keep your body language relaxed and open, and your tone of voice as calm as possible. Also, avoid jargon and business-speak, which can come across as dehumanizing.

  • Poor: “As you know, there have been a lot of changes going on to enable the company to pivot to our new, three-pronged globalization strategy, which will ultimately allow us to increase ARR by at least 30 percent in the next six quarters. As part of this shift, the team in Austin has been right-sized in order to operationalize the first prong of the strategic plan, which is to get the right people on the bus.”
  • Better: “I called this meeting to share some really difficult news. All 32 people on the engineering team in Austin were let go this morning.”

5. Use “we” and “us,” not “they” and “them.”

A huge — and common — misstep managers make is to pass the buck and blame company changes on “management” (e.g., “Management has decided to pull the plug on Project X” instead of “We’re pulling the plug on Project X”). To your team you are “management.” And even if you had zero input into what’s happening, distancing yourself from it in your language only fosters a sense of futility, as well as a potentially toxic us-against-them attitude.

This is not to say you should always blindly go along with changes, or pretend to support them when you don’t. But in most cases, company changes aren’t optional — unless you opt to leave the organization. (For more on this complicated issue, see I’m skeptical of a company change.)

6. Emphasize how it will affect your team (i.e., not you personally, and not just the organization).

It’s human nature: People want to know what’s in a change for them. Managers who ignore this risk losing their team’s attention and engagement. Therefore, it’s almost always better to tailor change messages for your team, rather than just relaying what you hear from above (which wasn’t crafted with your team’s perspective in mind).

Before you talk to your direct reports, put yourself in their shoes and consider the pros and cons of a company change. This simple but important exercise will help you focus on what matters most to them.

  • If the organization’s message is: “The company is relocating to a new building 10 miles south of here in September. This will cut costs by 30 percent and better position us for long-term growth.”
  • Your team message may be: “We’ll be moving to a new building 10 miles south of here in September. I know that most of you live in the city, so that will mean a longer and more expensive commute, which is a bummer. On the positive side, from what I understand, it will be a bigger office with parking for everyone, and there are more conference rooms, which should make our technical reviews easier to schedule. And there’s a move logistics team, so there should be minimal disruption to our work.”

7. Explain why the change is happening.

Although your team’s primary concern will probably be what the change means for them, it’s also important to provide some context. No one appreciates being told to change without knowing why.

Experienced manager Michael Zippiroli once saw a sales team flat-out stop working — “there were 15 angry people doing nothing, just sitting with their feet up on their desks,” he recalls — because when the department’s quota was raised by 20 percent, their manager had given them no context around why it was happening or how to deal with it. Only after some clearer communication of the full story (that the company was rolling out three products that were completely new to the market — and likely to fuel demand) did the team’s outlook improve, Zippiroli says. Does that mean they were jumping up and down about having a higher quota? No, but they began to view it as reasonable instead of arbitrary.

8. Be upfront about hard truths (but don’t bad-mouth your organization).

It can be tempting as a manager to downplay or omit information that could prolong an already difficult or awkward conversation. But honesty can go a long way toward defusing tension. For example: “I know we’ve been through three restructurings in the past two years, and it hasn’t been easy. I’m not going to lie: This one probably won’t be, either.” You’ll not only earn some respect for being straightforward, but also encourage a similar level of transparency in your team.

Keep in mind, though, that it’s possible to go too far. There’s a big difference between saying a change is going to be difficult and bad-mouthing your organization. When in doubt, ask yourself: Would you be comfortable repeating your comments to your boss?

9. Ask for the team’s feedback (and read the room).

Getting people’s input can help them process the change. As management guru John Kotter writes in Leading Change, “Most human beings, especially well-educated ones, buy into something only after they have had a chance to wrestle with it. Wrestling means asking questions, challenging, and arguing.”

After announcing the basic “what and why,” invite your team to weigh in (e.g., “What questions do you have at this point?”). It’s also important to wait several beats after you ask. Depending on your team and whether or not you’ve cultivated a feedback culture, people may be hesitant to speak up. Silently count to 10 and keep your body language open (i.e., arms relaxed at your sides, good posture, a warm and welcoming expression).

You should also be prepared for some confusion, emotion, and negativity. Most people’s first filter for hearing about change is their emotions. Here are a few response tactics you can try:

  • Allay anxiety and nip rumors in the bud with information you know. For example: “I can understand why you’re concerned — doubling the team’s size over the next year will present plenty of challenges. But the leaders I’ve spoken with have assured me that if we need more space, we’ll remain in the city, at least for the foreseeable future.”
  • Express solidarity. For example: “I agree it will be a tough transition — we’ll all need to help each other through it.”
  • Don’t lose your cool if someone asks a question or makes a comment that catches you off guard. You can always simply say, “Thanks for bringing that up. I’ll need some time to look into it, and will share what I learn with the whole team tomorrow.” And then do.

10. If appropriate, share a rollout plan.

Some changes, such as switching to a new software system or making a strategic shift, require implementation. Explaining how that’s going to happen will help your team visualize and prepare for the change’s impact on their day-to-day, which should make for a smoother transition. And as long as the rollout plan seems feasible and well-thought-out, your team’s peace of mind and confidence will probably get a boost, too.

See our article How to guide your team through change for more details.

11. Communicate when and how you’ll continue to communicate.

Managers play a crucial role as their team’s best — and sometimes only — conduit to information from above. This part of your job becomes even more important during times of change and uncertainty. In the absence of information, people will jump to their own (often incorrect) conclusions.

There’s an easy way to avoid this: Clearly spell out how you’ll handle ongoing communications about the change:

  • “I’m going to follow up with each of you in this week’s 1-on-1s. I’ll also be providing updates on the merger in our team meetings. And if anything significant happens between those meetings, I’ll post an update to Slack.”

Once you share your communication plans, follow through — even if that means reporting that you have nothing to report.

12. Follow up with each team member individually.

Each person on your team will respond to the change in his or her own way, and at his or her own pace. By following up individually, you can ask open-ended questions to help you better understand each person’s state of mind and, if appropriate, suggest ways you can help.

If you already do weekly 1-on-1s, the follow-up process will be logistically easy. But if not, or if the change is particularly difficult and you don’t want people to have to wait for their usual time slots (for example, if colleagues were laid off), you may want to schedule additional check-ins.

Examples of questions you might ask to start the conversation:

  • “How are you feeling about Tuesday’s news?”
  • “What concerns do you have at this point that haven’t been addressed?”
  • “Have you been through something like this before in your career? What were some of the things you learned during that process?”
  • “What can I do to make things easier?”

What if the person is having trouble accepting the change? See our related article A direct report is resisting the new way.

13. Define any new terminology.

According to experienced manager James Burgess, “Any time change happens, it’s common for new words to be used to describe the new situation, team process, or culture. It’s important to remember that the same word or terms can mean different things to different people.”

With this in mind, don’t assume that everyone’s on the same page when you talk about a new market segment, company value, or process. Listen patiently to your team members’ interpretations of new concepts, and fill in any gaps in understanding.

14. Regularly remind the team that the goal is not perfection.

In some cases, such as a change that involves new or higher standards, some members of your team might feel so much pressure that they become paralyzed. Others may take the opposite approach, arguing that the change doesn’t go far enough (e.g., “If we don’t change this other thing too, then it’s all worthless”).

You can guard against these reactions by constantly reminding your team that change happens in stages, is bound to be messy, and usually entails making a lot of mistakes. The point is progress, not perfection.