Communicating to Create Buy-In for Change

By Pamela Babcock Dec 5, 2008

​NEW YORK—Effective communication strategies can double employees’ degree of acceptance of change, according to one expert.

Speaking at a change management conference presented by The Conference Board on Nov. 18, Phillip G. Clampitt, the Hendrickson Professor of Business at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay, told attendees about a company he worked with that doubled its employees’ rate of acceptance of a new health care plan.

He presented a case study from Boldt, a privately-held Appleton, Wis., construction and consulting firm he worked with several years ago. Faced with rising health care costs, Boldt wanted to craft a plan to get employees to convert from a traditional health care plan to a health savings account (HSA).

Plan Went Beyond Just Tactics

Clampitt said that too often, companies focus solely on tactics such as channels, messages and timing while failing to do a contextual analysis and consider the audience.

“Strategy is about making choices—what we are going to talk about and what we’re not going to talk about and aligning those choices in a certain way,” Clampitt said.

At Boldt, Clampitt considered the following factors: employees considered the company a “great place to work,” the CEO and president were committed to effective communication, the company had recently launched a wellness initiative, and employees were dispersed around the U.S.

Analysis showed resistance would likely be low for younger employees, medium for middle-aged employees, and medium to high for older employees and family members. Clampitt considered the communication preferences for each group, what group members knew or thought they knew about an HSA, and what their potential concerns might be, and developed communication objectives for each group.

The team narrowed communication to three messages and images, then set up communicator roles, channels and timetables. Instead of comparing the HSA to the employees’ current plan, they compared it to what other companies were doing in regard to HSAs.

“If you can manage the comparison level, you win,” Clampitt said, adding that the company doubled the projected HSA sign-up rate to about 40 percent of employees.

Too Much or Too Little?

Clampitt stressed the importance of choosing the right message strategy and highlighted five methodologies—from those that provide the greatest amount of information to those that provide the least.

  • “Spray & Pray.” Managers shower employees with information, hoping employees can sort significant from insignificant. The thinking is that more information equates to better communication and decision-making.
  • “Tell & Sell.” Managers communicate a more limited set of messages, starting with key issues, then sell employees on the wisdom of their approach. Employees are passive receivers and feedback is not necessary.
  • “Underscore & Explore.” Managers develop a few core messages clearly linked to organizational success and employees explore implications “in a disciplined way.” Managers listen for potential misunderstandings and obstacles. Clampitt said that in most cases, this is the most effective strategy.
  • “Identify & Reply.” Executives identify key employee concerns and reply to those issues. This strategy emphasizes listening to employees; they set the agenda, while executives respond to rumors and innuendos.
  • “Withhold & Uphold.” Executives withhold information until necessary; when confronted by rumors, they uphold the party line. Secrecy and control are implicit. The assumption is “employees are not sophisticated enough to grasp the big picture.”

Other Lessons Learned

Clampitt also advised employers to:

  • Robustly communicate the core message. Tell people the decision, how and why it was made, and what some rejected alternatives were. Explain how the decision fits into the organizational mission and vision and how it impacts the organization and employees.
  • Recognize that in most cases, dialogue trumps “information dumps.” Dialogue provides the basis for deep understanding, “buy-in” and alignment. But Clampitt added that it takes more time and energy, requires using proper channels and means confronting “discussion-terminating retorts” such as someone cutting the conversation short by saying something like “that dog won’t hunt” or “here we go again.”

Dialogue also requires understanding how employees interpret the situation from their own perspective. For example, during a union negotiation, there can be many views on the outcome ranging from “the union sold us out,” to “why doesn’t management cut back first?” to “it’s the best we could hope for.”

“Buy-in occurs when ‘sense-making’ occurs,” Clampitt said.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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