Most leaders agree that communication with employees matters greatly during times of organisational change. But what constitutes effective communication?
In a study led by Kelly Smet at the University of Leuven, 1,994 employees reported the extent to which they agreed with statements such as ‘Employees are informed about changes at work in a timely manner.’ The data showed that poor quality of formal, top-down communication significantly increased employees’ feelings of insecurity about their jobs. Furthermore, employees who perceived communication as inadequate were more likely to listen to unsubstantiated rumours and gossip.
Leaders might argue that the study tells them nothing new. However, it proves that a disconnect remains: leaders usually think they communicate well, but employees habitually say that the communication they receive remains poor.
Simply communicating more frequently is rarely the right answer, though. Researchers led by Wenhao Luo at North China University of Technology have identified five leadership communication styles or orientations, as follows:
- Reality orientation involves providing comprehensive information about both benefits and risks to the organisation so employees can understand the rational arguments for and against change.
- Subordinate orientation is about focusing on both the emotional and tangible needs of subordinates by demonstrating care, consideration and respect for them – and by focusing on the benefits of change for those subordinates.
- Hope orientation entails using stories, imagery and vivid language to encourage, inspire and instil in employees the belief that change can successfully be achieved.
- Support orientation requires that leaders demonstrate their determination, confidence and commitment to the change – that they are willing to provide whatever support is necessary to accomplish change.
- Enforcement orientation involves the use of commanding, dominant and fierce language and behaviour to drive change.
Leaders usually think they communicate well, but employees habitually say that the communication they receive remains poor
Luo’s data showed that hope, subordinate and support orientations were all positively associated with employees’ emotional buy-in – their level of commitment and willingness to engage with change. Notably, the reality orientation was ineffective at winning over employees.
As a result, telling employees repeatedly about the rational business case for organisational change is a futile strategy. Most employees don’t care enough about the numbers as they relate to the organisation; they have their own fears and worries that must be assuaged and managed.
The use of stories, vivid language and imagery may be contrary to the thinking of many business people. However, Senthil Muthusamy at Middle Georgia State University points out that many qualities in the workplace such as trust, integrity, vision and commitment are conveyed both through leaders’ positive words and actions.
Gordon Shaw, a former executive director at 3M, the conglomerate best known for consumer brands such as Post-It Notes, wrote: ‘Stories are a habit of mind at 3M, and it’s through them – through the way they make us see ourselves and our business operations in complex, multidimensional forms – that we’re able to discover opportunities for strategic change.’
Even something as seemingly trivial as a dramatic saying can have an outsized impact. Decades ago, South Korean firm Samsung was a domestic manufacturer of inexpensive products for other companies. But its then chairman Lee Kun-hee embarked on an ambitious programme focusing on design and innovation, famously saying ‘change everything except your wife and children’. It ultimately transformed the business into a global brand.
Understanding the persuasiveness of hope, subordinate and support orientations is a start. But even leaders who understand these orientations vary greatly in their ability to use them. If you are a leader trying to usher through change, I suggest that you gather good-quality feedback from your employees. To what extent do they think you are managing their fears and helping them to feel more hopeful? To what degree do they feel you understand their needs and fill them with confidence that you have the determination to make change happen?
To complicate matters, research by Grit Tanner at the University of Hamburg and Kathleen Otto at Philipps University of Marburg confirms what many managers may have long suspected: some employees are inherently more open-minded to change and others much less so. This finding is of little use in the short term; but in the long term, consider hiring employees who are dispositionally more receptive to change.
Change is difficult. But one fact is clear: simply communicating the numbers and the business case for change is rarely effective in achieving change.