How to Communicate your Change — and Make it Stick

By Danielle Rocheleau

Organizations often come to us and say, “I don’t understand what’s going on. I sent the email three weeks ago and no one has adopted the new process.”

Consider a time that something changed in a professional context and you felt it was well-managed. If you felt supported and confident in the process, I guarantee that your comfort was due to good communication.

This article explains how you can communicate your change in a way that brings your team onboard, and ensures that your change sticks. I will cover:

Context for Change: A Non-Profit’s Stages of Development

The Road to Maturity

As organizations mature, they go through a journey that starts with an idea. A group of passionate individuals comes together and turns that idea into a start-up. Now they’re on a path toward non-profit maturity.

As they move through growth, maybe they get a grant. Maybe they are able to secure long term funding. They hire a staff member, allowing them to deliver more programs. And as they move up this arc of maturity, they get to that point where they’ve started to develop best practices, they have good leadership, they have a decent reputation.

It’s a very comfortable place to be.

So, when opportunity knocks, or when change is forced upon them, they resist. The whole organization pushes against it because they love the original momentum, experience, or stability they’ve achieved. And they start to move into decline.

Change or Decline

In some cases, when an organization can’t mobilize on change, they may be looking at significant reinvention to turn things around. This is often where Laridae is called in to provide an external perspective, give recommendations and help their change take shape.

All organizations are somewhere on this path, either facing imminent change, avoiding change or rebuilding from change. Sometimes different parts of the organization are at different points on this path. It’s important to acknowledge that growth is a continuum there are things always happening. And chances are, you might go in a circle around some of these stages in your journey. And that’s okay.


Lewin’s Change Model: Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze

Lewin’s change model depicts many organizations as being frozen in shape, encountering the melting scenario of change, and then refreezing afterward into a new and hopefully exciting shape.

When it’s our turn to melt, and we need to rewrite our policies or reframe our processes and alter our services, the one common thread through all of this change is that you’re communicating the entire time.

  • If you’re communicating in a way that supports the change and your people, and you’re continuously moving them to that new shape, then chances are you’ll refreeze neatly together at the same time in the same place.
  • If your communication is haphazard, or insincere or confusing, you’re going to force some people to freeze too soon. They’re not going to come with you to your new shape and solidify with that new norm.

As for myself, I personally like to stay in the melting phase!

I enjoy the journey to new and improved states of being, and I’m ok with the continuous pursuit. My colleagues may not all feel the same way. As long as you’re working with people, you need to respect there are differing appetites for changes. You must be ready to predict or plan for how your audience will react or how they will show up during change. Everybody’s experiencing it differently.


The Four Personas of Change

Consider the last major change you experienced and see if you can identify these personas in the people you went through it with.

The Resistors

20% of the people in our change circle will show up as resistors.

They will disrupt the change. They will interrupt the progress towards change. To give them time to adapt and to ensure they fully receive and understand the messaging, resistors need to be brought in early. They tend to need more information and they may take longer to process it.

A good way to win over resistors is to give them a task that helps them inform others of the changes. Perhaps you can invite them to do some research that allows them the opportunity to prove you wrong, or discover proof that it’s all going to be worth it.

The Bystanders

This is about 60% of those who participate in change.

They’re just fine to go either way. They’re neutral to the change, and that’s okay. They are just going to observe and see how it plays out.

The Helpers

There is about 10% of your change circle that can be defined as helpers. They tend to be a little quieter but they’re happy to encourage the change and move essential pieces forward. And, maybe, quietly encourage others to be excited about the journey.

The Champions

And then there are the 10% of your audience who can be defined as champions.

They love the change! You’re not even finished speaking and they’re saying, “Yes, let’s do this.” This is the other group that needs to come in early. Engage them by asking them to pilot the change and put it into practice before it rolls out.

When clients engage us to run branding projects, for example, we love to work with a steering committee representing different areas of the organization. Although there may be people who are from each persona identified – they often end as champions of the process and of the newly established identity for the organization.

If you do this right, and you bring in your resistors early, and support them to become informed and confident in the process, then sometimes your resistors can be converted to your biggest change advocates.


The Five Stages of the Change

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ‘change curve’ diagram describes the typical emotional journey that we experience when dealing with change or transition and is most often associated with the stages of grief. It consists of shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Not only do individuals experience this, but whole organizations will experience this change curve.

After the initial shock of being confronted with a change, people often resist by trying to prove that the change is either unreal or unnecessary. Do either of these sound familiar? “The ministry is changing funding? That’s ridiculous” or “Hey, this is turning into a global pandemic. Not possible!”

And when the change can no longer be avoided, denial may give way to anger or blame.

At this stage, elements of bargaining emerge, and people may become quite moody.

You may know this dip as this the valley of despair when people really start to understand the impact of the change and what they may be losing – even temporarily – before things get better again. This is a “what about me” stage. You may hear comments like, “This really hurts the program I’m delivering,” or, “My daily routine is completely messed up.”

Expect this! And be ready to respond with information and with empathy. Help people reframe the impact that the proposed changes will have on them. Don’t try to minimize the losses people will experience – they need to know that the cost of the change to them personally has been well understood.

In this time, it is essential to overcommunicate. Restate the rationale for the change, and tell the story of how it has come to this point. Start from the beginning every time, and scaffold information as it becomes available. This will ensure that people understand the background, learn to appreciate the purpose of the change, and build trust that you are offering new information as it’s ready to be shared.

From here, we move into acceptance. Gradually, people will start to engage with the change, see some benefits, integrate it into a new routine and move into the “well this is ok” zone.

You can’t skip the dip

Believe me when I say this: No matter how skilled a communicator you are, you can’t skip the dip. That valley of despair is going to happen no matter what you say or do or how often you say or do it.


Eight Best Practices for Communicating your Change

Now that we understand a bit more about how people experience change, we can use that knowledge to inform our communications approach.

It’s actually quite straightforward.

When communicating change, you need to give thought to what you communicate but also to how often and when your communication needs to take place.

1. Over-communicate

If you think you’ve already shared it one too many times, share it again several more times. Don’t feel awkward about this. Just because you’ve heard yourself say the same things, again and again, doesn’t mean everyone else has. 

Share your messages regularly, frequently and assume it’s the first time, every time that people are hearing or reading your words.

It truly takes time for those messages to sink in. Your goal should be to have everyone on the team saying, “Yeah, yeah we get it!”

One thing I’ll often say to clients is “consistency compounds.” In the beginning, you feel like you’re saying the same thing over and over and over until all of a sudden, it works.

Depending on the change you’re facing, your updates may not provide much information. Have the meeting anyway. Stand up and tell the team that there’s no update because the Ministry hasn’t responded yet. You’re reinforcing your willingness to communicate and building trust at the same time. You want your team to understand that you will be a source of information for them.

You want to avoid the damage of perceived secret conversations or the belief that you know more than you’re saying. 

2. Know your audience

Remember the personas above? Consider who your resistors will be – and your champions. Bring both those groups in early and get them engaged to be part of the solution. Tailor your messaging with an appreciation for how they will perceive and manage this change.

3. Use a multi-channel approach

Do not rely on email alone. People ignore emails. Or lose them. Or accidentally delete them, or assume they’re about something else and file them, or forget. We all do it.

If your only channel is email, you’re going to run into situations where someone hears about the change from a client, or from someone in another region, or from a Ministry contact and they’re absolutely irate about being caught uninformed.

Do not rely on email alone.

Send your email, sure. And your Slack message. But first, talk to your managers or team leaders. Arm them in advance with answers to questions they may get from their direct reports. Add yourself to the agenda at all available team meetings. Host an all-hands call. Host another one. Host a daily stand-up meeting at 9 am for updates. Be available. Encourage questions by providing thoughtful answers and by listening when anyone comes to you from “the dip”.

4. Acknowledge different points of change.

By the time you’re sharing word of the pending change, you’ve probably been working on it for months, if not years. You’ve already experienced the stages of grief associated with change, and you’re on the up – you’re solving problems and seeing the future with bright eyes.

Acknowledge that different people will take different amounts of time to reach different points. Be sure that you start the story from the beginning, even though it feels like forever ago.

5. Make way for feedback

Engage with empathy and ensure that there’s a feedback loop. For every communication that goes out, you must have a way for information and feedback to come back in. I often use my 1:1 meetings to obtain feedback.

6. Monitor and iterate

If you learn that your message didn’t land the way you intended, go back to #6. Monitor, and iterate. If it didn’t work the first time, how can you be more clear?

In theory, good communication seems very simple. It is, and it isn’t. The complicating factor with all communications success is people. Your audience is not a homogenous collection of ears eagerly awaiting your words. It is a complex mix of individuals at different stages in their acceptance of change, with differing abilities to absorb information and each facing different, often disruptive challenges that you must compete with for attention.  

I hope the best practices above give you some guidance on how to manage your change communications.


Tool: Guide for Planning Effective Communications

If you are anticipating making some organizational changes in the near future, and you’re thinking about planning your communication around these changes, our “Guide for Planning Effective Communications” could be useful.

Learn more and download the guide here.


Looking for Help?

If you are looking for additional help, get in touch and we can set up a free discovery session to see if we’re a good match to help you develop a change management strategy for your organization.