The Change Management Dilemma series is an assortment of blog posts and discussions meant to inform people of the various dichotomies and issues that are inherently present within organizational change. Today, we will discuss communications.

In The Change Management Dilemma #1, we discussed the balance between organizational communications being too serious (and uninspiring), or too familiar (and unimpactful).

Ultimately, the conclusion we found was the proper balance and delegation of duties between executives and managers/supervisors within an organization. Put simply, executive sponsors for change must be present to enforce the necessity of change and provide vision, but never to halt productivity due to the fear of executive power.

In this installment of the series, I plan on sharing the ways in which you can balance the dichotomy between communicating too much or too little during times of organizational change. Yes, there is such a thing as too much communication, as I am about to explain!

Communication

Communication is the vital, unending, and necessary part of work-life. Communication becomes doubly important during times of organizational change in which the organization is vulnerable. Communications are necessary to instill the five forces of ADKAR that are so relevant to behavioral change within an individual and organization.

ADKAR is a set of behavioral change principles and characteristics that must be instilled among the people of an organization before they can effectively create change. ADKAR stands for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. Today, we will discuss communication in terms of an organizations ability to instill these important principles.

Organizational Communicative Freedom

Communicative Freedom: the "psychological safety" or vulnerability that occurs within the culture of an organization when communicating difficult topics.
Communicative Freedom: the “psychological safety” or vulnerability that occurs within the culture of an organization when communicating difficult topics.

I’d like to explain a concept I have been working on regarding theoretical behavior in an organization as it relates to communication. That concept is what I call Organizational Communicative Freedom. And it comprises multiple parts, all of which function to describe the nature of communications as seen internally throughout an organization.

Ultimately, Organizational Communicative Freedom describes the ability of employees to maintain comfort and psychological safety when discussing difficult or controversial topics. It is the mark of trust to know that you can communicate anything, even bad news, and not be held personally accountable for being the “messenger.”

That being said, there are also instances in which a person is the cause of bad news, which begs the question, “How comfortable are they to admit their mistakes?” This is a sign of what is called a “growth mindset” by Ryan Gottfredson in his book, Success Mindsets.

Organizational Communicative Freedom is the theoretical topic that describes the behavioral “growth mindset” of your organizations culture. All in all, how personally responsible and accountable are the employees within your organization?

Organizations that derive an internal “growth mindset” seek to enforce risk-taking, trial by error, and, ultimately, the willingness to learn and avoid a “fixed mindset” (the counterpart to growth mindsets).

So, what does this have to do with organizational change? The answer lies in the fluidity of communication within your organization!

For example, let’s say an employee who faces a small technical problem, which can be remedied by a direct supervisor, instead decides to report to the district manager for help. Communication fluidity, in this case, results in the comfort of the individual to skip organizational levels.

The Dichotomy of Communications

This is the dichotomy. There are instances in which senior management should and should not be immediately notified of issues that may be solved by other people within an organization.

A critical piece of information that misses a deadline, or is lost in translation through continuous “touches” of communication, will not help a manager’s decision-making ability.

That being said, too much information that has little to do with the senior manager’s roles or duties becomes noise and time-restrictive for the manager. It might actually hinder or bury information that is truly useful.

Here is the crux of the issue at hand. Too much communicative freedom could result in information overload and the inability to sort the useful information from the not useful information. But, too little communicative freedom risks degrading the trust and commitment from teams, as well as the time that managers have to make thoughtful decisions based on relevant information.

The reason that little communicative freedom results in distrust is the very same reason why organizations provide open-door policies. If an employee has grounded reasons to complain about his supervisor or managers’ behaviors, little communicative freedom doesn’t help that individual. It will make them feel stuck, unmotivated, unheard, and willing to leave the organization.

How to balance Communications in Times of Change

No person knows everything, but it is the job of senior leaders in the organization to gather data, analyze and direct the path of the organization for the future. Therefore the balancing act between useless and useful information is a fine one, and one that must be adapted to in states of change.

Due to the nature of senior leaders to gather the information that has compiled over managerial levels, we are left to assume that the operational level of an organization (low-level employees) are the ones who actually experience the full brunt of internal organization issues in change before they are filtered through the minds of managers.

This is an important concept to keep in mind. Issues and information are FILTERED before reaching senior leaders. This is entirely the reason why Communicative Freedom demonstrates the growth culture of your organization. As a senior leader, the information you use to make decisions will be filtered through the mindsets, and egos, of others.

Let’s ask the rhetorical question here, “Do you want information supplied by a person with a ‘fixed’ mindset?” Likely not. That being said, this is why issues that arise, without communicative freedom in play, can be detrimental to organizational health.

Operations: The Backbone of Organizational Health

The structure behind operations is the basis behind an organizations ability to implement change.
The structure behind operations is the basis behind an organizations ability to implement change.

The balance here lies within the operational tier of the organization. In fact, It is ironic that some of the mort important and valuable aspects of your organization’s ability to perform are tied directly to the lowest tier in organizational life. This is why good employees are the foundation of good business.

Here are just a few examples.

The people in charge of customer satisfaction and service are, more often than not, operational employees due to the face-time they have with customers.

In terms of communication, your employees may be faced with the difficult task of relaying vital information above and beyond the knowledge of their direct supervisor or manager. Senior leaders cannot know everything that there is to know within an organization, but collectively, your employees do.

This has led some companies like Costco to instill open-door policies that are up to the discretion of employees to utilize. Costco has had good success in gaining a culture of trust and commitment.

The best way to find the natural balance of communicative freedom within your organization is by employing “growth mindset” people, and regulating the nature of information that becomes mission-critical.

Costco’s open-door policy clearly states the intended purpose of its open-door policies, which is to give employees a place to go to report troubling issues or provide feedback and suggestions to make work-life more efficient or effective. This makes it obvious when and when not to skip organizational tiers of management.

Communications are often increased with the goals of creating awareness, desire, and knowledge (ADK in ADKAR) meant to “unfreeze” the organization so that it can be changed from its current state. In this situation, communications systems are often volatile and unfamiliar due to the shifting of processes.

It is important to keep in mind the duties of organizational leadership and management/supervisors during this time. Leaders are needed to enforce and communicate the need for change in a way that aligns with organizational vision and values. Managers and supervisors, on the other hand, are present to ensure that accountability measures are in place.

The best thing an organization can do to their communication systems during times of change is make them two-sided, that is, offer communication paths that work both top-down and bottom-up. Doing so, with some strategic suggestions for it’s usage, is a great way to become knowledgeable on the factors of change throughout every organizational level.

Often, in an attempt to save face or look good, fixed mindset managers may minimize or hide issues that are relevant to decision making during times of change. Proper two way communications can help mitigate this possibility and give senior leaders the full and unfiltered scope of organizational performance.

Conclusion

Ultimately, communication systems are going to be ramped up in times of change to promote awareness, desire, and knowledge within your employees. However, it is important to keep in mind that there should be systems in place to protect the time and sanity of senior leaders who may be faced with irrelevant-information overload!

Consider implementing a communication system in which measure are in place to provide employees communicative freedom during times of change, but only under critical conditions. As the sponsor/leader for change, you can decide what those critical conditions are and put them into the operating procedures.

The benefit of instilling this communication system is in its inherent use even after the change has occurred. Costco keeps its open-door policy year-round! And your organization can capitalize on the fluidity of people during times of change to instill systems that can be used continuously.

Thank you for reading!

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-Austin Denison