The Most Common Mistakes Leaders Make When Communicating Change

June 19, 2017

When communicating change, leaders should avoid making these six mistakes by being as honest and open as possible.

Recently, we interviewed leadership experts and asked them to identify the skills managers will need to master the most over the next five years. Their resounding answer: change management.

That’s because almost no one can predict exactly how the future will unfold, other than that there will be change. With AI, new technologies coming out daily and political unrest, along with a thousand other factors, the next five years will be highly fluid.

That puts a lot of pressure on leaders, because the hardest time to lead is during times of change. Change is often met with angst by workers, and that angst can lead to disengagement, low performance and high turnover, if not handled correctly.

In that vein, what are the most common mistakes leaders make communicating change? And what should they do instead?

In their LinkedIn Learning course Communicating in Times of Change, LinkedIn Learning Instructors Tatiana Kolovou and Brenda Bailey-Hughes dive into this exact issue. Here are six of the most common mistakes leaders make communicating change, and what they should do instead, according to Kolovou and Bailey-Hughes.

1. Being defensive when employees respond negatively to change.

The problem: Our brains are hardwired to become defensive when people respond negatively to us. Unfortunately, our brains also tend to resist change.

Putting the two together, employees tend to resist changes annonuced by management. And, management's natural reaction to that resistance is to become defensive.

That’s the absolute worst thing you can do when communicating change. It gives the impression you don’t care about what your employees have to say and they just need to deal with it, or else.

What managers should do instead: Not only should you expect a negative reaction when announcing change, you should welcome it. It’s better to get employees’ concerns out as quickly as possible, so you can consider them.

Fight your urge to respond to negative reactions in the moment. There might very well be merit in what your employees have to say. Instead, really listen to their concerns – by doing so, you can more likely create a solution that works for everyone and dispell any myths.

2. Not recognizing the concern behind questions.

The problem: A big part of effectively communicating change is allowing open forums where employees are allowed to ask questions. This is great, but a common mistake is that leaders sometimes answer the question, instead of the concern behind the question.

What managers should do instead: Many times people won’t communicate what’s actually bothering them. Instead, they’ll bring up a bunch of other issues, which support their opinion.

For example, say you are changing the way your sales people are getting paid to incentivize new business over existing business. A sales person who relies a lot on existing business will likely point out a thousand problems with this approach through their questions.

That’s were you, as the leader, need to recognize the concern behind their questions and address it. Listen for hidden intent and talk directly to the real worry the person has.

3. Giving intentionally vague reasons for a change.

The problem: Say your CTO is fired for sexual harassment. Most companies would rather just send an email that the CTO was fired for personal reasons and move on.

Not a good move. All that’s going to do is cause rampant speculation and gossip among your employees, along with legitimate concerns about what you are doing in response.

What managers should do instead: Yes, these conversations can be uncomfortable. But it’s better to be honest about them, as opposed to trying to sweep things under the rug.

Say you fired your CTO for sexual harassment, tell your employees that. And then discuss your efforts to ensure your employees are protected moving forward. That helps build a culture of trust and transparency.

4. Communicating change via one channel.

The problem: Let’s say you are making a change to your company’s healthcare plan that’ll affect all employees. You might have a go-to company newsletter, so you put the change announcement in there.

That’s enough, right?

No. Chances are, a good portion of your employees will miss the news and hear about it from others with less-than-accurate information, if at all. Which has the potential to lead to real angst among your people.

What managers should do instead: In times of change, it’s far better to over-communicate than under-communicate in as many channels as you can.

So send out an email. Hold workshops where people can come and ask questions. Put fliers throughout the office. The more you can get it out, the better.

You might hold these workshops and barely anyone shows up. That’s okay – just the fact you're having them goes a long way and makes the change go smoother.

5. Putting too much emphasis on being strong, instead of being real.

The problem: In times of change, leaders generally want to act strong. And, to many leaders, that means never admitting any vulnerability and robotically repeating the organization’s talking points.

Again, this creates a culture of distrust.

What managers should do instead: Revealing your own initial concerns over the change is powerful. For example, if you yourself was taken aback by the change and it took a couple of days to come to grips with it, it’s okay to admit that to your employees.

First off, hopefully you are now bought in on this change, and therefore makes your argument for the change much more persuasive. But, more than that, it also emphasizes a culture of trust and transparency, as opposed it feeling like corporate is throwing down mandates the minions have to follow.

6. Shying away from uncomfortable truths.

You want to frame your change positively. But, sometimes that better direction has consequences, including the loss of jobs.

Say your company is changing strategy, which is crucial for its success. Yet, that change of strategy means layoffs for some people in your organization.

When announcing this change, many organizations tend to omit or be intentionally vague about the layoffs. News flash – people will find out about them, so all you’ve done is ruined the excitement people would have over this new strategy with your inauthentic announcement.

What managers should do instead: Using the same example, be real when announcing this change – yes, it will mean layoffs. But it’s also crucial to the future of the business.

Layoffs are always going to cause some amount of angst among your people, but being truthful and authentic in your opening announcement makes it a far easier pill to swallow. If people are going to lose their jobs, they are going to lose their job – but they’ll respect you a lot more if you are straight up with them about it.

The takeaway

Ultimately, effectively communicating change comes down to telling the truth and listening to employees. When announcing change, the tendency is to do the exact opposite – to either skim over it or to tell employees the change is happening, deal with it.

Yes, it would be great if employees just accepted change and moved on. But that’s not reality. The good news though is that change is a great opportunity. By being open and listening to people during a time of change, you have the potential to build a lasting relationship with your employees.

This article merely scratches the surface on how leaders should handle change. To learn more, watch Kolovou and Bailey-Hughes’ full course on communicating during times of change.