Just when you think your organization is stable comes another round of changes. It's not even the middle of June and yet already this month HSBC, Sikorsky Aircraft and J. Crew have announced they're restructuring and laying people off.

Unfortunately, this type of change has become constant. Every time I go out and talk to company leaders, they've got change on their minds. For example, at a recent conference, leaders shared concerns like these:

  • "We face constant change at both facility and corporate levels. How can we keep employees focused, despite all the change?"
  • "Our company is trying to get employees engaged to change the culture."
  • "I need some new ideas for communication that helps employees understand why change is being made."

Most organizations have undergone such relentless change--not only layoffs, new strategies, revamped policies, improvement initiatives--that employees are fatigued.

How can you manage your next wave of change to engage employees, despite the obstacles? What's needed is a fresh approach to change communication. Here are five suggestions:

  1. Simplify your messages. This is no time for packaging, sugar-coating or corporate-speak: To engage skeptical employees, you have to give them the straight story. That means avoiding clichs or slogans, using language that's easily understood by all workers--no matter what job they do or where they work--and encouraging leaders to reinforce messages in their own words.
  2. Answer these essential questions: "What does this mean to me?" and "What do I need to do differently?" When I ask employees about the way change is introduced, their biggest complaint is that communication is not explicit enough. "Too often, the focus is on the big picture: what's happening at an organization-wide level," said one employee I interviewed. "That's interesting, but what I really want to know is how I'm affected. And if you expect me to take action, you need to make that clear."
  3. Reduce your dependence on email. At most organizations, "sending an email" is the default communication method. But overusing email results in overload that encourages employees to routinely delete even important messages. Instead of automatically hitting the send button, take a balanced approach to communication, using each tool for the job it does best. For example, although bulletin boards and posters may seem old-fashioned, they're still a valuable way to reinforce key messages where employees congregate, like at the time clock or lunchroom.. And for significant change, nothing works as well as dialogue: town hall forums, small group gatherings or even virtual sessions like web meetings.
  4. Set high expectations for managers--and help them meet those expectations. The more change-weary your organization, the more important middle managers become. Managers translate what change means to their team, and help their folks know what to do today to support change. To fulfill their role, managers need three things: A) Clear expectations about their role; B) An opportunity to learn what's changing, preferably through dialogue-based interactive meetings; and C) Help with communication, through skills development and tools like FAQs.
  5. Don't communicate too much too soon. It's important to give employees a heads-up that change is coming, but many organizations make the mistake of over-communicating well before change actually occurs. That makes it more likely that people will tune out just when they need to pay attention. Better to wait until just before employees have to take action to time your communication.

There's no doubt that communicating change is a challenge. But by breaking out of the box and employing new approaches, you can cut through the clutter to use communication to support effective change.