How Can You Communicate a Culture Change?

Today’s business environment is marked by change: managers and their teams have to deal with rapidly evolving technology, greater risk appetite and more employee turnover. Against this backdrop of so much change, business leaders know work cultures must shift as the organization evolves. Yet while changing a workplace policy might be easy, shifting a culture can be incredibly tough on any organization. You can’t simply announce a new way of working and expect everyone to fall in line. Instead, implementing that new vision takes strong leadership and stellar communication skills.

Researchers at Towers Watson have long studied the strong correlation between business leaders who can communicate and implement change and how those businesses perform financially. The firm’s latest Change and Communication ROI Study found that companies that train leaders to achieve the highest levels of communication and change management skills are 3.5 times more likely to significantly outperform their industry peers where leaders lack these skills. Effective communication involves more than simply keeping everyone on the same page, too. It requires motivating people in a way that aligns with the greater business vision. 

“Only 1 in 4 organizations really excel at communicating change.”

The  case for communicating a culture shift is clear. Yet the Project Management Institute found that only 1 in 4 organizations really excel at communicating change. Here’s how to stand out from the pack of struggling execs and demonstrate the necessary leadership to effectively shift your culture:

1. Connect the dots between culture and strategy

Jon R. Katzenbach, a senior vice president at Booz & Company – which is now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers – wrote in the Harvard Business Review that business strategies often clash with the on-the-ground culture in the office. But Katzenbach insists culture is the more important element. If you want the culture to shift to align with a new strategy, you have to connect the dots clearly for your team. Why is the business moving toward an open-office floor plan? Why is the organizational chart shifting to accommodate new project teams? If employees understand the motivation behind a certain shift – and can connect how that shift will directly feed into the company’s overall strategy – they’ll be less change-resistant. Employees excel when they understand how their day-to-day work contributes to the company’s long-term vision. 

2. Identify the squeaky wheels

Of course, you’ll need to communicate the culture shift to everyone on your team. But some team members are likely to be more vocal than others. If you can identify those stakeholders early on and invest the energy into getting them onboard with the shift before it happens, you can transform them from vocal critics to change cheerleaders. In addition to all-team meetings and emails about the upcoming change, don’t shy away from informal one-on-ones with employees who play a big role in influencing team morale, whether that means the captain of support staff or a spirited team lead who seems to be at the heart of office happenings. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, business management expert Alan Murray argued that it’s also important to reward people for their accomplishments once they are on board with the change. This not only communicates the positive outcomes of the strategic shift, but it also helps to create incentives for others to become more invested in the process. Getting out in front of the challenges at the personnel level will ensure a smoother transition in the long run. 

3. Shut up and listen

A staggering 70 percent of all change initiatives fail, according to a seminal study published by Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria in the Harvard Business Review. But the truth is that many of those flops were products of faulty plans from the onset. To safeguard your culture shift, take a modern business tip from nearly 2,000 years in the past: Cicero is credited with saying, “If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings and speak my language.”

The best way to get your stakeholders committed to a fundamental culture change is to involve them in the process before the shift has been set in stone. Host town hall meetings about the proposed shift and ask for genuine – even anonymous – feedback on how this the proposed change will impact their day-to-day tasks and what the vulnerabilities might be. Then, the most important step is to listen. Crowdsourcing the entire change will lead to wishy-washy tactics and frustrating inconsistencies. It may even seem like more work in the short term. But if you really pay attention to what your team is suggesting, you might find they spot a red flag early that can save you unnecessary headaches later on.


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