What We Have Is a Failure to Communicate (Especially When Needed Most)


By John Wright

Whether it’s due to restructuring, industry upheaval or leadership, it seems that change is constant in organizations today. However, while change directly affects employees and ultimately the bottom line, according to a recent survey, less than half of Canadian employees (42 per cent) say that change is communicated well in their workplace. Communication handled poorly affects employee engagement, retention of high performers, creativity and innovation.

Better Workplace Built on Communication

According to the Build a Better Workplace report, a national survey conducted by Canadian Management Centre and Ipsos Reid, that figure is just the tip of the iceberg.  Amongst the majority (58 per cent) of Canadian employees who don’t feel change is well communicated, only 17 per cent support the direction of their organization during times of change and only 26 per cent would recommend their organization to others.

Contrast those figures with employees who feel that change is communicated well in their workplace.  Amongst the 42 per cent, 79 per cent support the direction the organization is going in and 86 per cent would recommend the employer; this definitely helps to attract top talent in today’s competitive business environment.

What these numbers clearly show is the effect of both good and bad internal communication during times of change can have on organizational results. Leadership, both executive and front-line, is the single most important factor impacting employee engagement, especially during organizational transition.


Gen X Marks the Discontent    

Interestingly, among the generations, Gen X is the demographic segment most critical of how well managers handle rumours and messaging: 41 per cent of Gen Xers say their managers do a poor job, as compared to the Canadian average of 34 per cent. This segment also has a lower opinion of how well managers involve employees in solving business problems: 51 per cent, compared to the average of 55 per cent.

Millennials on the other hand are most satisfied with how managers encourage new ideas and promote a culture of creativity and innovation, at 61 per cent, trending above the Canadian average of 58 per cent.

Leadership in Times of Change

Leaders today are faced with an increased urgency to deal with change brought on by economic instability, demographic shifts in the workforce, evolving customer demands and a heightened focus on innovation. These factors are all in turn driving organizations to be more agile, with a recognition that building an engaged workforce relies heavily on leadership behaviour and communication.

Among the other key findings in the survey:

  • When communication of major workplace initiatives is perceived as timely, job satisfaction jumps to 88 per cent, from an average of 68 per cent; however, when it’s not perceived as timely, job satisfaction dips to 45 per cent.
  • Six in 10 Canadian employees feel their manager does a good job keeping them informed about the things they need to know, and this group is also more motivated to excel in the workplace (81 per cent vs. 68 per cent on average). For those who don’t feel their manager keeps them informed, they are less motivated to excel (44 per cent compared to the 68 per cent average).
  • Only 37 per cent of Canadian employees feel their workplace is good at retaining the best staff. This presents a big risk during times of change and competitors can lure top talent away.

Based on these findings, here are CMC’s top three tips for leaders during times of change:

  1. Get in front of it. Effective change leadership is about being proactive. Leaders need to anticipate employee responses to the change and consider what (if any) resistance they may face. From there, leaders can proactively plan strategies to build commitment and buy-in for the change, while maintaining employee engagement.
  2. Help employees understand. Naturally, when change occurs, an employee is going to be asking ‘how is this going to impact me?’ It is the role of the leader to help employees understand the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of change. Leaders need to align on key messages to keep employees informed of what (exactly) is changing, why it’s important and/or necessary to the business, and what the impact will be on them.
  3. Encourage employee involvement. While you need to answer the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the change, it is also important to encourage input from employees on the ‘how’. People want to be asked to provide feedback and they want their ideas to be considered. Involvement is a key component of employee engagement—especially when it comes to change (so they can buy-in faster)—and can often lead to new and creative ideas for how to achieve desired results.

Engaging employees will guarantee success in implementing change. However, communicating that change early and often will increase employee readiness to embrace it.

The Build a Better Workplace survey was completed by 1,200 Canadian employees from Millennials to Traditionalists across 15 diverse sectors – including banking, health and social work and government. In addition, almost 500 human resources professionals were surveyed as part of the research to compare findings. Questions explored employee perceptions of their work environment, their relationship with their boss, whether social media has impacted how companies need to communicate, and how well leaders inspire innovation and creativity. For more information about the report, please visit the website at www.cmcoutperform.com/BABW

John Wright, MBA is the president and managing director of Canadian Management Centre (www.cmcoutperform.com), based in Toronto.

(PeopleTalk Summer 2013)

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