It’s Not Enough to Cascade Information in Change Communications

Leaders must think of communication as circular: two-way communication and feedback loops between you and each level of the organization.

Traditionally, organizations have “cascaded” change communication, passing information from the highest level to the levels below. But this can quickly become a game of telephone, leading to missed nuance and inaccuracies. And when you’re trying to get everyone on board with a critical change, this can quickly lead to confusion, frustration, and inaction.

Instead of a one-way cascade, then, leaders must think of communication as circular: two-way communication and feedback loops between you and each level of the organization. This is especially true for middle managers, who typically function as the bridge between executives setting the strategy, and those implementing work on the front lines. To make sure everyone’s getting the right message at the right time, consider the following when preparing your next communication around change:

  • Think of how change ripples outward. You may have crafted a story that resonates with you, but it’s unlikely your teams will have the same context or background. Think about your audiences at different levels within the organization: what might they lose or gain? How will they feel about these changes? Then customize your communication while being as positive and transparent as possible.
  • “Circular” should also be “continual.” Create weekly rhythms that allow you to communicate small amounts of information frequently, rather than a one-time “grand reveal.” Emeritus Professor of Information Management at Oxford David Feeny uses the metaphor of dolphins, which surface frequently for small amounts of air, rather than whales, which take in large amounts and then dive. Creating regular habits of circular communication will help you stay self-aware about your relationship to change, what’s going on with your employees, and what the future holds.
  • Start conversations. Presentations are great for initial roll-outs. For circular communication, think of any meetings or gatherings as an opportunity to initiate conversations. Feel free to start with an update of what’s happening, but use a casual style and skip the slides. Then, instead of asking the teams if they have any questions, ask THEM questions. What isn’t clear? What’s tripping them up? What concerns do they have? This will get the conversation flowing, instead of focusing the spotlight on you.
  • Surface your blind spots. The more senior you are, the more blind spots you are likely to have. So when you do share information, ask for feedback, integrate differing opinions, and be open to hearing about potential issues. Actively listen to what challenges managers see with owning this message. Your team knows your business, and they have invaluable input into how this change will be received.
  • Increase transparency. As you surface your blind spots and hear what teams are experiencing, use those learnings to adjust your approach and share with everyone how you’re doing it. This transparency will build trust and respect with teams, and show them that you’re really listening. As a bonus, it’s a great qualitative measure for change–making note of what feedback you integrated, and how the quality of conversations change as you progress.
Published April 11, 2022

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