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Real-time learning about change communication

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

A change in pandemic response alert levels gave me the chance to deliver some real-time learning about change communication last week.

On Wednesday 23 June, Wellingtonians woke to the news that a visitor to the city had tested positive for Covid-19 on their return to Sydney. Whatever was planned for the coming days was likely to be changed in some way.

My plan was to facilitate a two-day leadership workshop to a group of people who were travelling from around New Zealand. They’d been planning for an early start, one night away, and another long day to get back home.

Suddenly, it became possible that the trip home would be delayed, difficult, or both. In terms of ‘fight or flight’ response, immediate flight seemed an appealing option.

In the end, we were able to stick to the original plan, and they slept in their own beds on Thursday night. But we all left with fresh insights on change communication, whether the change is planned or unexpected.

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Good change communication overcomes uncertainty. Image: Ross Findon via Unsplash

. These are the takeaways from the experience.

  • Accept that uncertainty triggers strong emotions

  • Provide reassurance

  • Recognise that reassurance from the top is most powerful

  • Make messages timely and specific

  • Maintain your systems

  • Challenge your assumptions

  • Generate options

Accept that uncertainty triggers strong emotions

I’ll fast forward to the next day, day two of our workshop, which we started with a debrief. We put together a timeline of the previous day’s events: news stories, word-of-mouth messages, internal emails, phone-calls, and face-to-face updates from the crisis management team.

Then we added the emotions we’d experienced during the day: the strongest ones were frustration, anxiety, and fear.

When we put the emotions on the timeline, we were acknowledging together that the uncertainty had triggered strong emotions. And these emotions hampered concentration and impacted decision making.

Which is not to say we’d spent the Wednesday saying “I’m frustrated, how about you?”

People did a great job of being in the moment—accepting their personal emotions and not letting them derail the day. You won’t get that degree of self-control in every situation.

Provide reassurance

In the first phase of the pandemic, a specific member of the executive team had made all the announcements about the organisation’s response to changing alert levels. So that’s what people expected on Wednesday. And lo, an email to all staff from that executive member early on Wednesday gave reassurance that this system was clicking in to place again. People talked about it as ‘just like last time’.

We also reassured ourselves by setting some milestones and delegating some responsibilities. These low-level decisions demonstrated that we had a plan. We agreed that we would check phones in breaks, watch the media briefing together, and nominate someone to monitor announcements from senior leaders.

Recognise that reassurance from the top is most powerful

Reassurance from ‘above’ was clearly the most powerful. In total, three messages came from the executive through the day, two in the morning and one after the media conference. The first two both did their job: the first essentially said “your leaders know about the situation”, the second said “we’ll put out a response after the government announcement’. Together, they established a pattern and provided a sense of certainty. But the third one came over two hours after the media conference.

While it probably gave the most reassurance to the largest number of staff, the group I was with were not reassured at all. They had been waiting for this as the definitive word, but it did not acknowledge their specific situation so actually generated more uncertainty (see Be timely and specific).

The principle of top-down reassurance was also evident in the response to the cast list at the 1pm media conference. Seeing the Minister for COVID-19 response, Chris Hipkins, rather than the Prime Minister reassured the group (and perhaps the country?) the situation wasn’t too bad.

Makes messages timely and specific

Our debrief identified the hardest part of the day as the time between the media conference and the third email. By then, the group knew there was to be an alert level change, but they didn’t know what was planned for or expected of them. The third email didn’t help, both because of the perception that it took too long to arrive and because of the lack of specific information.

This is a large organisation with several thousand employees in multiple locations. Writing a single message that speaks to all is a hard ask. Scenario planning is key to drafting these sorts of messages, because they enable you to pull together content that will speak to as many people as possible.

And in the best of all possible worlds, the message would come together quickly. For this group, some of whom were ready to fly from the perceived danger, the message was too slow.

We got specific information later in the day, with a face-to-face update from two members of the crisis communication team. This was a turning point for the group. The message was coming from ‘above’ and it was specific to them. The update confirmed that their situation had been considered and that they were able to continue with the workshop. The level of certainty and confidence in the group increased.

The debrief also revealed that this was a turning point from frustration to irritation. Why had it taken so long for the crisis communication team to get into the room and deliver the message?

Maintain your systems

The people I was with are part of nationwide organisation. Travel is managed centrally, so it seemed safe to assume that there would be a central record of who was travelling for work and where they were staying.

In reality, the various people who came to speak to the group or who phoned from travel gave the impression that it had taken some time to pull together these details.

And some members of the group confessed their own attention to detail and record keeping might have made it hard for others to know their schedule and location.

This is the nuts and bolts of communication: creating and maintaining fit-for-purpose records and systems for contacting people quickly. It’s something you can (and should) attend to today if you suspect it is compromised in any way.

Challenge your assumptions

The situation gave scope for assumptions. The most widely held was that the systems that had operated during previous alert level changes would kick in to place—which they did.

But divergent assumptions also emerged. Some assumed they would immediately be recalled to their usual location. Some assumed people outside Wellington wouldn’t care about the situation in Wellington. Others assumed variously that travel plans could or couldn’t be changed.

They had delegated leadership to someone else in their planned absence. Some assumed that their teams would have little interest in what was happening to them—out of sight, out of mind.

The range of assumptions that emerged from our conversations reinforced that it is always better to ask questions.

Generate options

The period of greatest uncertainty was between the Ministerial announcement that Wellington would move to level 2 and the update from the crisis management team decoding the executive email. That was when we generated options for ourselves.

We came up with four: the status quo, complete cancellation, moving the second day to online delivery, and adding an extra day to the next workshop.

The main message from the crisis management team was that the status quo was the best option. But it was clear that people also had the option of not taking part.

The two days were an interesting experience for me. Wednesday highlighted how much I had to, as a facilitator, negotiate with people for their time and attention. In predictable and psychologically safe environments, that negotiation is barely noticeable. In an unpredictable environment, I used negotiation to maintain psychological safety. And I got a great opportunity to reflect on my past practice as a communications professional.


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