How to Communicate Change

Jan. 18, 2019
Why supervisors – not executives – should be delivering the first message

The time has come to communicate a major change for your organization – maybe it is a downsizing, a restructuring, or a switch to total quality management. The change is so important, the future of the company depends on it.

Employees are mustered, and the CEO makes an impassioned speech worthy of a field marshal. Following the call to arms, the communications campaign launches an offensive on several fronts. All locations are bombarded with videos. Special editions of the employee newsletter sound the battle cry. Platoons of senior executives fan out to deliver the message on a more personalized basis to the troops. But the war is already lost…because this approach is wrong!

The top mistake CEOs make when trying to win support for new business goals is the failure to let supervisors explain the change to front-line employees. In fact, according to a study by the International Association of Business Communications, 9 of 10 employees say they want to hear about potentially unpopular changes directly from their supervisor.

Here are four more mistakes that executives should avoid when communicating change:

1. Going the direct route. These CEOs naturally want to talk directly to the front-line employees, usually supported by the advice of senior HR executives and consultants. Unfortunately, it is a mistake, because it can be viewed as merely a symbolic move. Second, and more damaging, these campaigns can weaken the relationship between front-line workers and supervisors. Workers want to work for someone who is connected and has a degree of power within the organization.

2. Informing everyone at once. These CEOs believe supervisors should sit shoulder-to-shoulder with front-line employees to hear the big news. This is a mistaken strategy because it is evidence of senior management’s failure to recognize the supervisor’s status. This reduces the supervisor’s perceived power and weakens his or her effectiveness as a force of change.

3. Using ink by the barrel. These executives think the solution is more employee reports, posters, news bulletins, video scripts, team briefing outlines, brochures and guidebooks. This too is the wrong approach, because the most effective communication is the type that happens face-to-face between a supervisor and front-line employees. Energy and resources should instead be directed toward producing supervisor briefing cards which will arm them to answer the key questions that are in the minds of employees.

4. There is no story. Storytelling helps persuade on an emotional level, and stories are the building blocks of company culture. If there is already a true story to tell about how the change will benefit the company, so much the better. If not, at least give supervisors a narrative to tell about how success can be achieved in the future. Don’t count on the listeners to get the message. The storyteller’s job is to tell them what the story means.

When the future of the firm is on the line, ultimately it is the CEO’s job to make sure change is communicated the best way possible. While other forms of communications should not be abolished, the emphasis should be on making supervisors privileged receivers of information. The strategy is to empower the supervisors. After the employees get the skinny from the supervisors, then the CEO can talk to all to reinforce the message.

Henry DeVries is CEO of Indie Books International and the author of “Marketing with a Book” and “Persuade with a Story.” He teaches sales and business development professionals how to build an inventory of persuasive stories. Visit for more info.