How to Train Teams to Communicate Change Effectively

Communicating Change

While change can be scary, it’s often inevitable. Oftentimes, just talking about change can send our bodies and minds into a “fight or flight” response. Whether we pick the former or the latter actually has a lot to do with how the change is presented to us. 

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Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

In the workplace, change management usually comes from the top down. Managers and executives are often the messengers of change and have the power to affect how their employees react based on their tone, body language, word choice, and actions. 

As L&D professionals, it’s your job to remind your people leaders of the influence they have over their teams and ensure they know the best way to deliver news in a way that inspires commitment, not panic. 

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In order to teach those skills, you first need to understand how humans react when confronted with change. By looking at top research from the Center for Creative Leadership and Harvard Business Review, we’ve simplified the vast spectrum of human reactions into the three most common ways we react to change. Here they are: 

  1. Resistance – Oftentimes when presented with change, many people directly and openly oppose the situation. Regardless of what the change may be, the underlying message these people receive is often something like, “I’m opposed to this. I don’t want to go where you’re going. This isn’t right.” 
  1. Compliance – On the other hand, some people don’t mind going along for the ride, especially if the change is being voiced by someone with more influence or power within an organization. The underlying message compliant people receive is often something like, “I don’t think this is right, but whatever. I guess you’re the boss…” 

Lastly, and what every manager and company should strive for when introducing change is:

  1. Commitment – Commitment is when both parties are in alignment about a given change and willing to collaborate and move forward on this new trajectory together. The underlying message people that fall into this bucket receive is often something like, “I trust you and understand why we’re doing this. I’m in, how can I help?

Now, the question becomes: As leaders, how do we build commitment, and stay away from resistance and compliance? A lot of that has to do with how managers and people leaders communicate around change and influence others’ responses. 

Let’s look at some of the key leadership behaviors that lead to resistance, compliance, and commitment around change. 

1. Behaviors That Spark Resistance to Change

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Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

When we’re trying to persuade others, there are certain behaviors we might adopt that can actually spark resistance rather than commitment. As you continue to engage in these behaviors, you create more obstacles between you and your goal of achieving your proposed change. The behaviors that spark resistance come in many forms, but they tend to have one thing in common: they are power-based and command and control type behaviors. They could be micro-managing, using punishments as a way to encourage behavior change, not being transparent around change, praising others for their conformity, etc.  

2. Behaviors That Cause Compliance

When we are sparking compliance (rather than commitment) in others, we try to motivate others by using rules-based or process-driven arguments. We use the system as an excuse, relying on phrases like, “This is just how things are done here and have always been done!” This way of thinking is rooted in outdated management principles around existing systems and organizational hierarchy. Others are more likely to comply and acquiesce than being inspired and motivated. 

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Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

3. How to Drive Commitment

Behaviors that inspire commitment generate alignment and motivation in others. So, how can you help managers crack the code of commitment? Start by reflecting on Aristole’s tips for effective communication, or what he called “three persuasive proofs.” He called these logos (or head), pathos (or heart/emotion), and ethos (or gut). Here’s how your managers can ensure they appeal to each of these feelings when communicating change:

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Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash
  1. Head – This represents facts and logic. Address people rationally and intellectually and reference forward reputable facts and figures, so people understand your point of view and why you believe this change needs to occur.
  2. Heart – The next step to earning commitment requires managers to appeal to employee’s emotional side. The leader should appeal to attitudes, values, a common purpose, ideals, and beliefs through inspiration or enthusiasm. 
  3. Gut – Lastly, employees must see a manager as trustworthy in order to believe them. People have fewer reasons to trust someone they just met over someone they have a long, proven track record with. You can’t access their head and the heart without appealing to their gut, as well.

We need to include all three of these elements to successfully and powerfully communicate change proposals. So, what does that look like in practice? You must encourage your managers to be transparent with information, focus on the facts, use a shared purpose to connect with others, focus on how a change will serve others, and align actions and words to build trust.


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How to Train Teams to Communicate Change Effectively