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When people matter: how communicators can influence organisational change for the better

On Thursday 26 September the North East branch of the Chartered Insitute of Public Relations (CIPR) held an organisational change management event at the Business School entitled;

When people matter: how communicators can influence organisational change for the better

Have you ever been involved in a workplace change management programme where you haven’t a clue what it’s really for? Experienced the anxiety about what it means for your role and career? Or, having emerged from a ‘transformational change’ exercise, you can’t pinpoint what’s actually transformed or even altered for the better?

Change is a fact of life for most organisations today, but examples of it being managed well are few and far between, according to industry research and common experience.

However, it doesn’t need to be that way if programmes are carefully designed to put people first. Recognising that change is a human, emotional issue, not a process we must all endure, is a starting point. 

The theory and practice of people-centred change was the central theme of this stimulating session for the CIPR North East senior communicators’ forum. It encouraged insightful contributions from all who attended, based on a wide experience of change programmes in many organisations and sectors.

The session was led by Professor Julie Hodges of Durham University Business School, a world leading expert, author and consultant on organisational change, and Jane Clayton, Head of Employee Communications at Northumbrian Water Group, who has a wealth of practical experience from her work with national companies over the last decade. It was chaired on behalf of CIPR North East by Huw Lewis, Customer Services Director for Nexus. 

Professor Hodges, a change advocate, outlined the importance of organisations making a compelling case for why change needs to happen as well as articulating a clear and attractive vision, especially the benefits, of the proposed change.

Supporting and engaging employees along the way is essential. Professor Hodges’ model of people centred change has five key elements: stakeholder relations; assessing readiness for change; developing and maintaining trust; dialogue and co-creation.

Communications and engagement professionals can therefore make a huge contribution to all stages of a people-centred change programme, from stakeholder mapping, analysis and targeting, helping to articulate the vision and rationale, to encouraging – sometimes anxious, angry or cynical – leaders, managers and colleagues throughout their journey towards what is often an uncertain future.

But how exactly can we make change a less painful employee experience than it is largely perceived to be? The forum heard a number of key points, based on industry research, practical experience, and anecdotes of good and bad organisational change.

  • Ignore the people element of change at your peril. As Professor Hodges noted, if you get this wrong, you can’t guarantee change will happen. Put people first, using the model of people centred change described above as a guiding framework.
  • Accept that change is an emotional issue. The Fisher Change Curve 2002 outlines the process of transition and the human emotional reaction to it, such as anxiety, happiness, fear, threat and depression, which can inform the development, timing and targeting of your engagement strategy.
  • Targeted engagement plans beat ‘one size fits all’. Organisations often have a complexity of roles, people and cultures with a variety of perspectives and reactions to change. To help target activity, Northumbrian Water uses an employee segmentation model and monitors engagement levels through regular pulse surveys and ‘heat maps’ - relying on managers’ assessments of their own team’s stage in the change journey.
  • Tackle the inevitable ‘what does it mean for me’? question as early as possible. This can mean different things for different staff, further reinforcing the need for a targeted engagement model.
  • Use all communications and engagement channels at your disposal; create an open and positive dialogue. Channels can range from using traditional communications methods, such as written packs of information, to well managed face-to-face consultation sessions, to working with ‘change champions’ and influencers in the organisation who are often not colleagues in a hierarchical position of power. 
  • Ask questions, listen - but be prepared to hear the answers. Follow up broadcast communications with dedicated ‘listening’ sessions which can help check whether messages have been received as intended and to correct any misconceptions. Seek and use employee feedback and ideas that support the organisational direction of travel. Communicate the business reasons why some ideas could not be used to show respect and recognition of people’s contributions. 
  • The stages before and after the change are as important as the change process itself. Assessing – and addressing – organisational readiness for change is essential, as is continuing to lead and manage the change well after the programme has closed so it becomes business as usual. Communications and engagement professionals have a key role to play here – from coaching leaders and managers to act as role models and manage the process to ensuring a continued and consistent dialogue with staff.

This blog captures just a flavour of what was a wide-ranging and in-depth discussion during a two-hour forum.

Professionals wishing to find out more about the theory and practice of people-centred organisational change can find out more from Professor Hodges’ four books on the subject or follow her thought leadership on LinkedIn. Her work is also the subject of a free, open online course via the Future Learn platform.Follow Jane Clayton via LinkedIn