Be Honest About Change

You Don’t Win
Hearts and
Minds with Sunshine

Originally published to LinkedIn

Many years ago, I was on the “impacted audience” side of an acquisition. Like any other transformational change, an acquisition comes with its own anxiety curve. I still remember the day we all sat in the conference room to hear the announcement from our company founder that we’d been acquired. Even though it was a company that we were familiar with, and had partnered with several times, something felt off.

Maybe it was because a VP from the new company had come to speak that day, dressed in a suit, as we sat in our typical casual attire (we’re talking jeans and flip flops here, people). Maybe it was that the faces of our leadership team on that day appeared less than enthusiastic. The thing that really served as a prologue to my experience with this transition was a single question. We were given the chance to anonymously write questions on an index card for the VP to answer. I asked, “What will be the significant changes that we’ll experience?” I still remember his response:

“A few things will change, but most things will stay the same. You’re not going to experience a lot of change in the way you all work.”

You know what else I still vividly recall? The knot that response put in the pit of my stomach. The “ruh-roh” Scooby Doo voice echoing in my head.

You know the rest of this story: A few things stayed the same, and most things changed (including the culture, the morale, and the people). To this day, I believe that some of that anxiety could’ve been avoided with some straight talk. He could’ve said, “Hey gang, our cultures are different, and some things are going to change in ways that might be meaningful. Let’s talk about what some of those things are.”

The grapevine is a powerful thing.

On the day of our acquisition announcement, most of us had already figured out the purpose of the “all hands meeting,” and discussed the cons of this change during a side-office huddle long before the founder spoke his first word.

So when you announce a transformational change, know that people are likely already talking, and they aren’t all saying good things. You can’t ignore a grapevine, or it will grow and wind itself around everything in its path. What can you do? Acknowledge which concerns are valid, balance them against those that are not, and provide a view into how you’re planning to address those concerns.

What causes leaders to hesitate in sharing information and let the grapevine go untrimmed for so long?

1. “We don’t have all the answers yet.”

It’s true that some people don’t do well in the gray space. You know what does grow in darkness? The grapevine (figuratively—I don’t want to hear from horticulturists telling me grapes need sun!). The good thing is, you don’t need to know all the answers. You just need to establish a tone of openness and demonstrate that you are aware of the real challenges, and that your head isn’t in the sand.

2. “The change really isn’t that significant.”

Based on the information you have, you are very confident that the impact of what’s coming will be minimal, so you wait to communicate it. Unfortunately, the rest of the organization is likely not privy to the background and planning information you have. In the absence of it, they’re creating (and sharing) their own reality. Waiting too long to get your voice out there reduces your ability to counter assumptions with facts. Oversimplification is the enemy.

3. “The change is happening regardless, so there’s no reason to debate what we should or shouldn’t be doing.”

There’s so much wrong with this, I can’t address it in one article. So, I’ll just say this—when you go to the doctor, she’s going to stick the needle in your arm regardless, because you need it. Wouldn’t you at least like to know what’s in the syringe, and have a chance to ask a few questions about the possible side effects? Don’t dismiss people’s legitimate concerns with an “it’s happening anyway” attitude.

Don’t blow sunshine up people’s pants.

Come closer. Let’s be completely honest with each other—nobody believes your rainbows and jazz hands. Honesty and transparency are the keys to adoption. People will engage with transformational change and trust the process when they feel confident they’re getting a realistic view of what’s ahead.

Even if you don’t know all the answers yet, at least be open that you recognize the challenges, you’ve heard people’s concerns, and you’re seriously taking those things into consideration. That’s leadership, that builds confidence, and that helps to drive adoption.

What might this sound like?

“We’re struggling to keep up in the market right now, and that’s motivating us to realign a lot of our production processes. Some of your work will be affected in these ways… some positions will be reassigned… we’re working hard to minimize the impact of that, but it’s challenging to think through and plan. We’ll share as much as we can as soon as we can.”

Do I feel more secure about my job because of this statement? Maybe not. But, do I get the feeling that my leaders are being open with me and taking important things into consideration? Yes.

Here’s another one:

“Not every part of the new system is as intuitive as we’d like it to be, and we know it will be difficult to work in for a little while after we roll it out. But, we’re putting resources into training that will target those more difficult parts of the system and help you get prepared.”

Often, this message sounds more like, “This new system will be great. It’s user-friendly, intuitive, and will have a cleaner interface than our current system.” (Never mind that the build and testing haven’t been completed yet.) That message might sound nicer, but what happens when people get a system that isn’t as “etch a sketch” easy as their leaders made it sound? They get frustrated and find workarounds. People don’t adopt, and leaders blame change management. (Separate soapbox, separate article.)

Straight talk builds trust.

Don’t be afraid to be honest with your team and transparent about the challenges that may come with the change. You can balance this straight talk with the positive reasons behind why you’re bringing transformational change to the organization. Opening the channels of trusting communication paints a realistic picture of what people can expect, and builds their confidence that you’ll prepare them for what’s ahead.

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