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Every change wants impacted people to pay attention. But with so many competing messages, sometimes they all get ignored

Get reluctant people to pay attention to change communications

     Every change leader and change manager struggles with stakeholders not paying attention to change communications.[1] It is a problem no matter how you slice it.

  • If you’re not communicating enough, shame on you (says best practice).
  • If you’re communicating too much, shame on you (say the psychologists and those who “see” information overload).
  • If you’re communicating in a style or way or with language unsuited to any of the hundreds of individuals that might be stakeholders, you’re obviously not trying hard enough.
  • If you’re…

Oh, you get the point.

People ignore change communications for many reasons. There are ways to get them to pay attention.

     Let’s first explore how and why communications get ignored. Then we can observe some ways recommended to alleviate the situation. Along the way we can explore the most vexing conundrum and a few less orthodox options.

Why employees might evade, avoid, or ignore a communication

     Employees might ignore communications about changes that affect them for any number of reasons. Here are a few.

1. Lack of clarity: Employees may ignore communication they don’t understand. If the message is unclear, complicated, or confusing, employees may tune out or disregard the message. A study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology found employees more likely to accept and support organizational change when communication is clear, timely, and tailored to their needs.

2. Information overload: Employees may ignore communication if they receive too much information, too frequently. Overwhelmed people tend to tune out.

3. Lack of relevance: Employees may ignore communication if they don’t see how it affects them personally. Messages that seem irrelevant to their job may be triaged out.

4. Skepticism: Employees may ignore communication if they are skeptical of the change or the motives behind it. Distrust of management or the organization can lead to lowered credibility.[2] Another study in the Journal of Business and Psychology found that employees are more likely to ignore or resist change when they perceive it as unfair or inconsistent with the organization’s values.

5. Fear or anxiety: Employees may ignore communication if they are anxious or fearful of the change. A major change such as layoffs or restructuring may render employees too anxious to process the information. A study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that employees are more likely to resist change when they perceive it as a threat to their job security or status.

People make time for and pay attention to communication that interests them

     People will pay attention to what interests them, even in the midst of a lot of communication. Even if interested, people can still become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information they receive. “Information overload” as a reason why employees might ignore communications about changes that affect them remains valid in some cases.

     An organization communicating about several changes through a variety of channels at a high frequency—on top of all the other corporate communications—risks employees feeling inundated with information. That makes it difficult for them to identify and prioritize what is (most) important.

     Moreover, employees experiencing significant changes or disruptions to their work and/or personal lives probably have less mental bandwidth available to process and engage with change communication. Commonly called change fatigue, these situations may make employees less able to pay attention to communication, even if it is relevant and interesting.

     That being said, organizations have to deliver communication about changes. Optimally in a way that is clear, relevant, and tailored to employees’ needs. That would help ensure employees can engage with the information and take appropriate action in response to the changes.

     Quite a Catch-22.

Make communication as direct and personal as possible

     Take steps to ensure that communication is clear, relevant, and delivered in a timely manner. Avoid irrelevant, infrequent vagaries! Communication should also be tailored to the audience and delivered through multiple channels to ensure employees receive the message in a way that is most effective for them. It’s also important to address concerns or questions employees may have and provide the support and resources they need to manage the change.

     Communicating effectively with a large, diverse group while making the communication personally relevant can be challenging, but there are some strategies that can help.

  1. Tailor the message to different audiences: Forget individually bespoke, relevant communication. You have no time for that. To make the communication personally relevant for a diverse group, however, tailor the message to different audience clusters. For example, if the communication is about a change in benefits, the message could be tailored to different groups based on their specific benefits and how the change will affect them.
  2. Focus on the benefits: When communicating about a change, it can be helpful to focus on the benefits that the change will bring to employees. At the very least open and close with benefits to surround the (negative) impact with positives. By highlighting positive outcomes and how it will improve their work lives, the change communication can become more personally relevant and motivating.
  3. Use employee feedback: Gathering employee feedback can help communicators understand what employees need to know and what they care about. This, of course, is not strictly communicating the change. But by reversing the information flow and using the feedback to shape subsequent communication, the employee is more invested in the conversation and the message more personally relevant and meaningful.
  4. Make it interactive: Q&A sessions, focus groups, and even internal “social” media can similarly engage employees and help make communication personally relevant. Employees who engage with questions and concerns, may feel heard and understood. Moreover, they are not ignoring.
  5. Use storytelling: I can’t say it often enough. Tell a story! Anecdotes make the story—and the information in it—personally relevant. Stories, well told, are more relatable and engaging. They are more memorable and subversively convey what a dull, tedious recitation of “just the facts” simply cannot.

ADKAR or AIDA: for communication it’s not a choice

     All this can be done. Making a message to a group seem like a personal engagement is the dominion of advertising and sales. Their various techniques have been honed over decades. It would be hardly a tasting to speak to any few of them in the space available.

     Marketing has, however, lived by a simple acronym: AIDA. Used right, just like the opera, your communications will sing. AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. The purpose of these steps—and they are an ordered series—should be self-evident. Note that different from ADKAR, AIDA is agnostic to the communication purpose.

     In all, making a communication personally relevant while communicating with a larger group requires a thoughtful approach, taking into account diverse audience needs and interests. The techniques noted above, among others, can help ensure the message is engaging and meaningful to most if not every individual employee.

Bonus supplement

”Gamification” is a hard-to-ignore 21st-century alternative

     Gamification can also be an effective way to engage employees in communication about changes. It involves using game elements, such as competition, points, and rewards, to make the communication more interactive and engaging.

     When used effectively, gamification can help employees (almost anyone, actually) become more invested in the change and increase their motivation to participate in the process. For example, the change manager could create a game where employees earn points for completing tasks related to the change, such as attending a training session, completing a survey, and so forth. If “bragging rights” are inadequate, the points could be redeemable for rewards, such as company swag or gift cards.

     Research has shown gamification can be effective in many contexts. In the context of change management, gamification can help employees better understand the change, stay motivated, and feel a sense of accomplishment as they navigate the change process. For best performance, game points must be tied to actions and active information intake and processing. Design game elements thoughtfully, focusing on the specific audience needs in conjunction with other communication strategies.

     That being said, gamification is not a panacea for communication challenges. clear and timely messaging, interactive forums, and training sessions. It can be an effective way to engage employees in communication about changes, particularly when the change is significant or potentially disruptive.

     The Change Playbook is loaded with practical tips and pragmatic guidance for all aspects of making change happen. Check it out. Subscribe to be notified about new posts and fresh content. Institute X is a transformation leadership consultancy and transformation/change leader coaching firm. One of its online presences is The Change Playbook.

[1]    Either they actually struggle with it or have hear it’s an issue and make it a convenient excuse for poor execution.

[2]   Distrust of the organization and management may be a real factor, but it is well beyond this subject.

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