Change Attitude or Changing Attitudes
Technological advances, social movements, demographic shifts, and health crises made the past couple of years extra challenging. Organizations nowadays cannot rely on certainty because the world has become VUCA-D; volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and digital. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow or the day after, so all we can do is make assumptions when it comes to predicting the ever-changing future.
Because of these continually changing surroundings, organizations need to adapt fast. However, this is easier said than done. Research states that 70% of organizational change fails (1), although this is also refuted. Often, change does not happen as it is intended and that opens a whole other debate on the plannability of strategic changes.
The failure or success of organizational change is usually assessed by measuring the attitude individuals hold against change (2). Attitudes can be cognitive, affective, and behavioral. It’s important to realize that these different types of attitudes might differ not only between but also within individuals. People’s thoughts about change (cognitive) may conflict with how they feel about it (affective) and how they act on it (behavioral). Attitudes towards change, on all three dimensions, influence the antecedents of change (i.e., whether it is accepted or not) (2).
For me, focussing on the attitudes towards change is not sufficient. I guess change is more about "changing attitudes" than it is about "change attitudes". Therefore I believe people are willing to go for an espoused future. Questions like "what's in it for me", or "why is this important" surface. They all revolve around purpose and meaningfulness.David Ducheyne
Even more important to capture is the reason why organisational change fails. If we know what causes failure, we are able to anticipate it. Luckily, a lot of research has been done on this topic (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc.). But let’s reverse and check the single most important success factor: change communication.
Communication has been identified to be one of the most important indicators of change success; it is vital to develop change readiness, to reduce ambiguity, and to obtain commitment (9, 10). Researchers have found that dialogic communication results in less resistance towards change (8). Knowing this, it should be no surprise that when a change implementation plan fails, there’s a 70% chance it’s because of (a lack of) communication (11). Communication is, in other words, the first and last step when it comes to successfully implementing change.
In Latin, to communicate means to ‘to share’ or ‘to impart’. It refers to ‘exchanging goods within a community’. It’s more than just distributing information. It’s larger, it’s about more than delivering a message. Two decades ago, Kent and Taylor researched and published five principles when it comes to dialogic communication (12). Their theory is one of the most cited and popular ones in history and it has been transferred to various domains such as marketing, management, and organisational communication (13). In the past few years, social media and big data have impacted the communication landscape intensively but the dialogic communication theory withstood. That’s why it’s interesting to revisit these principles once again, to help ensure successful change implementations in the future.
What are the elements for successful change communication?
How to make Change Communication work?
#1 Make sure communication is two-way (Mutuality)
First of all, there is the concept of mutuality. In a two-way conversation, all members are equal and therefore everyone should be humble about their position. Participants are ‘people’ and not pawns in the change process. A dialogue is not about winning, losing, or compromising. Collaboration and contribution should be the main concern. Remember that no one possesses the sole truth, it’s all about openly sharing each and everyone’s point of view without judging.
All too often, people are told they have to change, that change is needed. But they have had no say in it. They are supposed to listen and execute.
Leaders should avoid trying to convince people. Convincing others is in some ways violent because the other one needs to give in. An open dialogue means that the outcome is not predetermined and that people are allowed to give feedback, input. Leaders should take into consideration that their team members might know better.David Ducheyne
Instead of “convincing” people we need to make a shift to “having an impact” on people. Ideally, a sustainable impact. This requires genuine interest and a curious attitude of all parties. Leaders need to listen, explore and sometimes even challenge what matters to the other person. In other words, the goal of communication is to co-create, rather than to convince.Karl Van Hoey
#2 Stay close (Propinquity)
Propinquity stands for the distance in time or space when it comes to, in this case, communication. It is important to speak on events when they are happening or even before, and not after the decision-making. Communication only succeeds when all parties are engaged, so that all perspectives are known ahead of time. Again, being close and listening to each other enhances organisational effectiveness.
Managers spend a lot of time designing a strategy before communicating it. But actually, they should not think everything through. Gone are the days that a strategy was fully defined. Facilitation methods, like ‘strategic doing’, help organisations to combine strategic thinking and action and involve people by installing powerful communication patterns.David Ducheyne
We should not rely on surveys only but organise conversations around topics that matter. That takes time. But the time we think to win by listening superficially is lost in all misunderstandings, regrets and resistance that surface afterwards.David Ducheyne
#3 Listen carefully (Empathy)
Empathy helps to soften people who are resistant towards change. Empathy requires trust. So, it’s important to build an environment of support and trust to allow for sometimes difficult conversations. Dialogue requires the “capacity to listen without anticipating, interfering, competing, refuting, or warping meanings into preconceived interpretations” (14).
Trust is crucial, especially in times of change. Trust grows if people notice that their leaders are interested in their concerns, and when they experience that leaders are loyal to them. The best leaders initiate change and build trust at the same time.David Ducheyne
When leaders can’t provide solutions, offering a context of trust and empathy does miracles. Trust in leaders grows when they prove that they care about their people, even if there is no immediate solution for problems.Karl Van Hoey
#4 Embrace Vulnerability
Dialogue always involves a certain risk, as opening up to others makes you vulnerable and knowledge makes you powerful. Besides, some participants are sensitive to manipulation and uncertainties, while others might have bad intentions or a double agenda. Making conclusions based on manipulated, incomplete or wrongful information can have serious consequences. But remember, collective vulnerability can also result in a new shared vision. Even though dialogue holds a risk, maybe you risk great reward by opening up.
In summary, people can develop individual resilience in different ways. A few examples have been listed above, such as mastering positive appraisal and coaching both employees and leaders. Training resilience has been proven to be effective as it not only improves individual resilience but also helps to develop mental health and generates subjective well-being in employees (7). Other benefits of resilience training include enhanced psychosocial functioning and improved performance. So as a society, we should really take individual resilience seriously as only resilient individuals can form resilient teams, which contribute to resilient organizations, and resilient organizations create a resilient society.
By opening up, you show your own vulnerability. Others will feel much more comfortable to do the same. When we work with teams on these team dynamics, we notice the development of mutual understanding and willingness to rally around the common purpose or good.Eva De Winter
Again, don’t define everything into detail. Leave a lot open. Strategies can be fuzzy at first. It takes courage for leaders to say that they don’t know what the future holds, but that they want to shape it together with the people involved. The ignorant leader however must have a vision on how to get there and lay out the big picture. Let’s not forget that loyalty is not sufficient to build trust. People expect that their leaders show competence. But competence does not need to be full knowledge. When a boat sails in a storm, the competence of the captain is crucial. But maybe that competence is about leading. The other people hold the technical competence.David Ducheyne
#5 Mine for Dissent to Build Commitment
The last principle is to look for dissenting voices. Conversations should be honest and open to new topics. Everyone should be able to contribute to existing topics and to start new topics. Everyone is entitled to their own interpretation. In real conversations, there is room for dissent. People who are comfortable discussing opposing points of view can be deeply committed. Don’t dismiss their concerns, but acknowledge them; perhaps you’ll learn from them. And by listening to dissenting voices, people experience that debate is possible. People tend to commit when they feel that debate is possible.
We often see dissenting opinions as disturbing because they do not fit into our picture. Yet they demonstrate a great deal of commitment to the organisation. Listening sincerely to the underlying concerns helps us to adjust our own vision.Eva De Winter
Leaders should mine for dissent. If nobody has anything to say, be sure there is something to say. The awkward moments of silence have a meaning. Do people lack the courage to speak up? Is it not safe enough for them? Do they think leaders won't listen? Do they fear repercussions when people voice there opinions. Giving voice to people, also when they have dissenting opinions, strengthens their commitment. There's no point in installing a cognitive monoculture that requires people to comply, obey, follow. I would plead for cognitive diversity to make teams and organizations successful.David Ducheyne
Simply put, research supports the idea that merely distributing information is not a good strategy to guide organisational change. Dialogic communication with attention to these five principles: mutuality, propinquity, empathy, vulnerability and commitment, is considered to be more ethical and effective when it comes to change. When participants are allowed to share perspectives, values, and desires, resistance towards change reduces (15). However, people need to genuinely participate in dialogues in order for communication to be the key solution for resistance to organisational change (8).
When designing change programs, we should not overestimate the power of broadcasts. Town hall meetings, webinars, roadshows, … are of limited value. They are focused on transferring information, but not that great in winning the hearts of the people. Leaders should spend more time on one-on-one conversations or discussions in small groups. Even though this is time-consuming, it’s proven to be more effective.David Ducheyne
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Authors of this blog are Mareline De Schipper, Eva De Winter, David Ducheyne, Philippe Persyn and Karl Van Hoey.
Communication is key in every change approach. We see 5 ways to improve change communication :
- #1 Make sure communication is two-way
- #2 Stay Close
- #3 Show Empathy
- #4 Embrace Vulnerability
- #5 Mine for Dissent to Build Commitment