Digital & Social Media

The Fundamental Flaw of Traditional Employee Communications

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Almost every change initiative fails.

A depressing statement, yes. However, there’s hope. How you integrate formal and informal communications can help you be one of the few who succeeds.

In 1996, John Kotter published Leading Change, considered by many to be the seminal work on change management. Yet despite vast forests of books and articles on the subject over the past 20 years, more than 75 percent of all change initiatives still fail – not because the strategy or process was flawed, but because employees resisted change.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Employees hate change. They start asking questions like, “Who will I report to? Will I still have a job? Why do we have to change?” And until you can credibly communicate the need for change to skeptical employees, your chances of aligning behavior and everyday actions to deliver change are almost nonexistent.

Because, as Kotter himself recognized, organizational change can only truly occur when individuals begin working in new ways: adhering to new processes, displaying new behaviors and adopting new values.

More than 75 percent of all change initiatives still fail – not because the strategy or process was flawed, but because employees resisted change.

So my question is this. If it’s so obvious, and has been for a number of years, why is the failure rate still so astonishingly high?

It’s because the traditional approach to employee communications is fundamentally flawed. For a long time, companies have communicated to employees almost exclusively through the formal organizational structure – announcing change from the top down and expecting it to cascade through the company.

The fact is, behavior is rarely shaped by formal communications. It’s reinforced and sustained within the informal organization through daily peer-to-peer interactions. Through established rituals and shared values defined not by a corporate poster on the wall, but by the often random and ambiguous inter-office relationships between employees themselves.

And when employees get the latest email from the CEO, or attend an upbeat town hall, the first thing they do is check in with informal influencers – individuals who other employees respect, turn to for advice and information on what’s really happening inside a company.

Don’t get me wrong. Formal communications are still important. They outline the purpose of an organization and lay out a roadmap for change. But to succeed, companies need to integrate and align formal and informal communications, thus creating a structured framework for change of the formal organization while leveraging the emotional power of the informal organization. This two-prong approach harnesses the authentic voice of informal influencers to help win the hearts and minds of employees, and builds a broad consensus across all levels of the organization.

Some change initiatives will continue to fail. But by evolving the traditional approach, failed initiatives could go from the vast majority to – ideally – the vast minority.

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About the author

Paul Vosloo

Paul Vosloo specializes in internal communications and employee change management, helping employees understand and support business strategies and transformations, including rebranding and repositioning, culture change, and mergers and acquisitions. Working with several multinationals from a wide range of sectors, he has held roles in London, Warsaw, Hong Kong and New York. Vosloo, a screenwriter and storyteller, wrote After.Life, a film starring Liam Neeson and Christina Ricci, as well as feature screenplays for Fox Searchlight and Paramount Pictures.

A FleishmanHillard employee.