March 23, 2016 Symbal

Talk the talk to make people walk the walk

The way employees and leaders talk about a change initiative affects their ability and willingness to behave in a way that supports the change. People’s actions are powerfully influenced by the conversations they participate in. If invited to participate in a conversation, and not just listen to others voices, people will become co-initiators of change. Getting involved in the reasoning both stabilizes productivity and creates the ability to change. In other words, the way we talk about change really matters.

As a researcher and teacher in organizational communication, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing change communication go from a rather anonymous specialty to a burgeoning field of research during the last 10–15 years. At the start of the millennium, when I wrote my doctoral dissertation on strategic change and internal communication, change communication barely existed as a concept in academia or in practice. At that time, research on the topic was scarce and mostly dominated by a linear, one-way model of communication. The general notion was that change communication, or rather information, was a top-down process where management delivered change related messages to employees who were supposed to adjust accordingly. If they did not, the ever-present ‘resistance to change’ was to blame for the failure of change initiatives. Luckily, more nuanced perspectives on change communication have appeared since then.

One perspective that has gained recognition among communication practitioners, at least in Sweden, is characterized by an emphasis on sense-making, i.e. how we understand the world, behave in line with these interpretations and thus actively create our own environments (such as the organization we work in). Perceiving communication as a highly interpretive process of sense-making and sense-giving of course makes change management more complex. However, it also allows for us to see why change often fails due to a deficient understanding of the employees’ stake in and interpretation of the change at hand.

Yet another expanding and highly relevant line of inquiry takes a more critical stance. Here, power, politics and the struggle over symbolic or financial resources as well as meaning are seen as crucial factors that may drive as well as hamper change. If these subtle but extremely influential factors are not taken into account, even the most well-designed communication strategy is destined to fail.

During the last couple of years, scholars have tried to shed some light on the process of change communication by applying a literary and linguistic framework. The importance of language, metaphors and stories is not new in organizational communication. Still, as these concepts have made their way into change communication, they have also opened up new venues for successful change implementation. If we take this research seriously, which I strongly endorse, organizations may in fact be conceptualized as continuously ongoing ‘conversations’ between the members of an organization. The way employees talk about their work, their colleagues and organizational processes is not merely talk. Talk is what makes up organizational conversations and these conversations mediate action, i.e. what people actually decide to do or think, e.g. in relation to a change initiative. This line of reasoning indicates that stability as well as change to a large degree resides in the way we talk about organizational matters. Change often requires new actions and novel understandings and this shift is deeply anchored in how we name, frame and talk about things.

Maybe I’ve just made this even more complicated, but the take away is quite straightforward: In this context talk is not cheap. Change leaders have to pay attention to what people talk about, how they say it and to whom they say it in order to foster conversations and stories that support a certain change initiative.

Today, there is a plethora of research on change communication and the inspiration ranges from utterly linear, top-down models to rather fluid post-modern theories of communication. No matter what kind of theories, perspectives or gurus one may favor, it is gratifying to be able to conclude that change communication has gained a considerable amount of scholarly interest. Nevertheless, it is even more rewarding to note that a lot of this knowledge is not secluded from practice. What I take away from numerous contacts with practitioners in the communication sector is that linear and persuasive models of change communication have not ceased to influence practice, but they are certainly accompanied by far more effective and complex ways of approaching communication and social interaction during change processes.

My suggestion is to learn from theories and apply them when preparing and planning a change. Use them as a framework for managing the change over time. But don’t get stuck in the models when the actual change and transformation is about to happen. Make your leaders take on the role of being conversation starters and good listeners. Because it’s in the everyday conversations the energy that drives change will be found.

Sara von Platen

Title: Assistant professor, Dept. of Strategic Communication, Lund University.
Experience: Engaged researcher and lecturer on organizational communication, communication consultancy and organizational change.
Anthem: Things Change, Dwight Yoakam
Weapon of choice: Knowledge and patience
Sara von Platen

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