How effective leaders communicate difficult change

A communication plan and a positive attitude will help ease fears amidst major change.
How effective leaders communicate difficult change

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about major disruptions in the global marketplace that we will be feeling for years to come. The job losses, remote work arrangements, transition from in-person interactions to digital platforms, and business closures have left in their wake a workforce fraught with uncertainty.

Some pandemic-related changes are likely temporary, but others could be permanent, such as staff reductions, downsized office space, or mergers with other firms.

“Organisational change is usually positive — it signals growth and market adaptation. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard on the humans,” said Lisa Hannum, president and CEO of Beehive Strategic Communication in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the US. “Employees and customers take comfort in what we know. Change creates uncertainty.”

Employees tend to resist change, not because they want to block it, but because they don’t understand it, she said. She pointed out that while change creates uncertainty, when it is well managed and effectively communicated, it can be positive and energising.

“Change often fuels creativity, innovation, and momentum, but to facilitate successful change, you must get the employees on board,” she said, and added the best way to do that is through communication.

“When you are proactively and consistently communicating, listening, and inviting feedback, you are minimising resistance,” Hannum said. “Even if it’s hard in the short term, change is designed for long-term benefit to an organisation’s stakeholders.”

Hannum joins a group of change management experts to offer six tips for effective communication that can smooth the pathway to transformation in your workplace.

Consider your organisation’s culture. The first step in crafting your communication strategy is to examine your company’s culture, Hannum said.

“Whether you are a two-person team or a large corporation with 2,000 employees, it pays to understand the shared values, goals, attitudes, and practices that characterise your workplace,” she said.

How you communicate is a key component, so crafting a communication strategy that fits your culture will raise your employees’ collective comfort level, and an important part of that process includes focusing on how your employees like to receive information.

A well-thought-out strategy should include the communication channels you typically use, such as face-to-face meetings, email correspondence, or apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams.

Craft a communication plan. Change management consultant Paul Townsend of Luxembourg suggests building a communication road map, including a timeline.

Mileposts might include preparing your messaging by anticipating questions employees might ask and creating a script for both in-person conversation and staff meetings that includes plenty of time for open conversation, feedback from employees, and questions.

“It is crucial to give employees space to voice their thoughts and concerns, to help identify resistance and pain points, as well as good ideas and opportunities,” he said.

Be transparent. Simply be open, honest, respectful, and authentic about changes that may be coming, said Dr. Lalitaa Suglani, a Birmingham, UK-based psychologist and leadership coach.

“Let employees know change is coming, even if you don’t have all the facts,” she said, adding that employees can sense disruption in your office environment even if your plans go unspoken.

“If you keep your plans hidden, you may breed distrust,” she said. Suglani suggested that firm leaders support employees by letting them know change is on the way and understanding that disruptive change can also impact their home life and their families.

“Give employees a chance to mentally prepare for change and time to digest it,” she said. “Even if you don’t have all the facts, be transparent and explain that while there is uncertainty around the change, you will keep them informed along the way as you learn more facts.”

Start at the top. Communicating change should begin with top decision-makers, like the CEO, board, or management, depending on the company’s size.

“Whether the change is suddenly forced upon you, like the shift COVID-19 brought, or it was planned months or years out, top leaders absolutely have to own the change and communicate to employees its importance,” said Benjamin Friedman, founder and CEO of Build Scale Grow, a New York City-based consultancy.

After making the initial announcement and setting the tone for change, leadership may appoint a change management team by identifying champions in various departments and business units who will keep an eye on helping move the change forward, he said.

Involve employees. Depending on the type of change you are facing, it is often a good idea to involve employees in implementing it. This will help empower them, give them a sense of control, and help them feel included in the process, Suglani said.

On the other hand, if employees sense the organisation is making significant changes without them, they may feel neglected and left out, which could lead to negativity and resistance.

“Employees will resist change for different reasons, but the main reason is fear of not being able to cope with it and loss of control,” she said. “An important component of communicating change is first understanding how change is affecting individuals, validating their feelings by acknowledging that change can be frightening, and helping them overcome fear by including them in the process.”

Focus on success. In communicating your organisation’s changes, consider how to put your new vision for the future into concrete terms employees can understand.

One way is to explain what effective change will look like, describe the reasons for it, and discuss its scope, Friedman said.

“Be prepared to describe scenarios for success as well as what might happen if change does not occur,” he said. It is also important to provide regular updates describing where you are in the process and celebrate progression. “Humans have many cognitive biases, including a propensity for focusing on the one negative thing in a sea of great things,” he said.

“By acknowledging each accomplishment and celebrating the small wins that occur along the way, you can help conquer negativity and inspire optimism in the midst of disruptive change.”

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at