Big changes rarely come with absolute clarity. Uncertainty, fears and rumors carry whole teams into all sorts of directions. Successful change needs engagement though and there are ways to refocus the team and effort.
The shock of change and the state of uncertainty
An ever changing world produces ever increasing frequencies of change. When change is properly and carefully communicated, employees are invited to take part in the decision making process and the execution, change can be a very fruitful, energizing endeavor for everyone involved.
This is not only true for marketing organizations but since marketing functions interact with scores of other internal and external stakeholders, chances are that the marketing teams are impacted on several levels with any larger change.
Unfortunately more often than not change is half heartedly approached, announced and commanded top-down. Employees are left with questions, fears and uncertainty.
Some of the major changes that are demanding and difficult to master are:
- Major reorganizations
- Mergers or acquisitions
- Loss of major accounts or projects
- Introductions of key processes that will change interaction and collaboration
According to those bigger changes the corporate communications group can not be responsible for the entire change management but needs to be aware of crucial change management and change communication processes and in the best case lead suggest them to line management prior to change communication.
Solidarity and rumor mill
It is part of human nature to explore what is unclear, to find solutions for difficult situations and to team up in solidarity if a dangerous dynamic unfolds. And when people gather, they communicate.
When the anticipation or plan to change something drastic is simply dumped into a crowd there are always gaps, misunderstandings and unanswered questions.
Management should immediately make themselves available, approachable and also attackable when changes are needed that will impact people personally and in bigger ways.
If this process is weak or ignored individuals and groups of people will fill the gaps with rumors, guess work and assumptions. Neither of them can be helpful to address the upcoming changes engagingly and enthusiastically.
The mess created by management
The result of such an unchecked and weakly managed situation will most certainly be:
- Loss of motivation
- Foul mood within the teams
- Anger and even hostility
In short: a mess! And it would be clearly a burden for all the individuals to cope with that kind of environment while they are already scared and lost.
There cannot be any meaningful collaboration and readiness to address the changes ahead.
This is the perfect storm for the change manager and line management. But they might have brought this on themselves by not following what is described in the first paragraph of this article.
Team up to do the dirty work
There needs to be corrective action to regain trust, remove uncertainty and invite peoples creativity and eagerness to participate in the changes.
As a first order of business, management should apologize for having allowed the situation to develop to this frustrating stage.
Second, and most importantly, everyone is required and invited to address the mutual conflict together, as a team. This includes line managers to clearly demonstrate team spirit as opposed to hierarchy behavior.
If the following or similar process is applied it should leave everyone with a sense of ownership. But first the big barriers need to be cleared and those are:
- False assumptions
- Open questions
Get to know the whole truth and get into gears to own the future
Setting the stage can start with the above mentioned apology and the invitation to establish a common position with the promise to focus on activities that will help managing and influencing the changes.
In a workshop setting a simple list of facts vs rumors/assumptions should be established. The longer the uncertainty and the deeper the change this list might contain many personal and emotional records of the weeks or months past.
The goal for this list is to:
- Start the engagement process
- Allow utmost honesty
- Open a valve
- Address all concerns
It might make sense to set up some simply engagement rules prior to this session like:
- Take turns and everyone makes one point at a time in every round
- Do not interrupt when someone speaks
- Do not question the legitimacy of the concern
What have we heard about the change, what do we think we know?
When team members answer this question it will become quite clear that different people believe to have learned different things and it might well be. At the same time this is the perfect way to gather all the noise, facts or rumors and allow to have the elephant in the room.
Some colleagues are convinced that staff will be laid off. Some others take snippets from hallway discussions for face value.
Everything lands on the list. If the team dynamic is dire or delicate this list can even be gathered offline and anonymously. Asking the team how to gather that list might also be good management. So is: ensuring everyone that everything stays within this circle!
After the list is complete it can be consolidated to be slimmed down.
What is fact, what is rumor?
In a second column the statements should then be qualified to differentiate between:
This will provide room to debate the various concerns and statements. Going through this list top to bottom it might be beneficial to ask:
- Is it a fact, do we have evidence (official communication, emails, etc.)
- Do we assume this to be fact (evidence is missing but it seems plausible)
- Does it remain a rumor because it turns out to be unfounded
Establishing a common knowledge and facts base
Once the team agrees on the list that shows what is fact and how is the fact supported with evidence; what is assumed and therefore needs clarification; what can be singled out as pure rumor:
- The rumors need to be ignored and the team will agree to not engage in any additional grape vine activity
- Action needs to be taken/assigned to clarify the open questions and assumptions
- Any facts based change will require next steps or even bigger initiatives to support that change, take control over it and establish that positive attitude that was so sorely missed prior to all these clarifications
The above table shows some examples to support this article. It is simple enough (along with the described change management process) but it can take anything from a moment to weeks of collaboration to end up with clarity and a motivated team that will now accept and engage in the changes ahead.