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4 blunders when communicating change

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(MoneyWatch) So the time has come to communicate a major change at your organization. Maybe it is a downsizing, a restructuring, or a switch to a "better" compensation system (ha, not bloody likely). Unfortunately, we've all seen how such announcements often unfold.

Employees huddle in the cafeteria, where the CEO makes an impassioned speech worthy of a football coach (or not). Following the usual call to win one for the team, the company launches a communications campaign on several fronts. Offices are bombarded with videos. Communications staff produce special editions of the employee newsletter. The varsity squad of senior executives fans out to deliver the message to the B team.

But the game is already lost. Why? Because this approach is wrong, wrong, wrong. Not only will it fall flat, it is positively harmful. Here are four blunders to avoid.

1. Face time. To achieve optimal results, internal communication campaigns to announce potentially unpopular changes should first be done verbally, and in person. Unfortunately, this doesn't  happen at most large companies. Case studies, surveys, and other research show that the best way to relay a major corporate change is through face-to-face communication.

2. Down in front. Many well-meaning CEOs try to improve communications by going directly to front-line employees (usually under the advice of senior HR executives and consultants). That's a mistake for two reasons. First, it can be viewed as merely a symbolic move, and today's disillusioned workers have little love for the empty gesture. Second, and more damaging, these campaigns can weaken the relationship between front-line workers and their direct supervisors. Instead, let employees know that they work for someone who is connected and has a degree of power within the organization, rather than communicate the message that the CEO is all-knowing while the supervisor is out of the loop.

3.  Mind the pyramid. Other well-intentioned senior executives push for equality in the workplace, meaning they believe supervisors should sit shoulder-to-shoulder with front-line employees to hear the big news. That, too, is a mistake because it is evidence of senior management's failure to recognize supervisors' higher rank within the organization. This reduces the supervisors' perceived power and weakens his or her effectiveness as a force of change. Understand that the only communications with the power to change behavior is the kind between a supervisor and a direct report.

4. Supervise this. The pace of change is accelerating rapidly in business today, and many ill-equipped executives will be called upon to make major change communication decisions as part of a senior executive team. As a result, more time must be time helping supervisors with what they should say and do to help get people on board, rather than only coaching the CEO. Energy and resources should be directed toward creating briefing cards for supervisors, which will help them answer their staffs' key questions.

While other forms of communication should not be abolished, the emphasis should be on making supervisors privileged receivers of information. When the future of the firm is on the line, ultimately it is the CEO's job to communicate the change. Wise CEOs will use their supervisors to ensure distribution of the message and positive reception of the change.

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