Can a manager be too transparent about change?

04 June 2019 -

Business meetingCommunicating effectively is a core part of the change management process

The ability to manage change successfully in any context has become a must-have skill set for any CMI member, whatever their industry or role. Organisations that cannot change quickly or easily in today’s fast-paced, digital economy? They fail.

Not everyone agrees on the essential factors behind effective change programmes, but there is consensus that clear communication between employer and employees is critical if transformation is to stand any chance of achieving buy-in.

Keeping employees informed is something that managers have to do throughout every step of the change process. A McKinsey study has found that continual communication is a leading factor in a transformation’s success.

But how much of the story should a leader communicate?

Leaders and managers are encouraged by change experts to be transparent. CMI Professional Standards – which help managers and leaders to benchmark and develop their skills – state that using transparent communications is a core part of personal effectiveness.

Transparent leadership, we’re told, is the key to fostering a culture of trust between leaders and their employees. Employees who are kept in the loop and understand their role in the overarching purpose and goals of the company are, understandably, more likely to put their trust in their employer according to CMI research The What, The Why and The How of Purpose.

When employees don’t understand why changes are happening, it can be a barrier to creating ownership and commitment and can even result in resistance or outright rebellion. Employees’ resistance to change is a leading factor for why so many change transformations fail.

But here comes the caveat: there are almost always elements of a change programme that cannot be shared freely, whether for compliance or regulatory reasons or because of commercial sensitivities that could be exploited by your competitors.

The good news? Your employees get that. Most will understand that business sometimes precludes the ability to be completely transparent. They can accept that they might not be privy to every detail of the strategic plan behind the change.

What employees really want is honesty, argues Elizabeth Baskin, CEO of Tribe, an internal communications agency and author. “They can deal with not having all the answers; they can understand that not all information will be available immediately – as long as management is honest about that. It’s perfectly acceptable for management to say that they can’t share certain information at this time.”

Employees particularly want honesty, she says, when it comes to bad news. The instinct to withhold information regarding negative impacts on the workforce should be resisted, as should the temptation to sugar-coat the negative news with an artificially positive spin. In Tribe’s research on employee preferences in change management communications, Baskin says she heard comments like “stop softening the blow when it comes to negative news”; “be honest about the worst”; and “stop putting a spin on everything.”

Often, it’s uncertainty rather than change that really worries employees. By providing as much information as possible, managers can quash inaccurate rumours as soon as they arise.

Be honest too in your assessment of progress. If there’s a real divergence between the planned goals and actual outcomes, admit this and take corrective action without delay. Be open about failure and involve employees in setting new targets or devising new measures.

Of course, it’s only natural to be concerned that you might lose buy-in and engagement when you are honest about bad news. The reality? Engagement and trust in leadership tends to rise when leaders have the guts to be straight with their employees.

Just as importantly, when leaders are open and honest about company problems, employees can help find solutions. Two heads are always better than one.

The CMI has various resources for managing the change process. More tailored checklists, working modules and case studies are available to members through Management Direct.

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