Do you ever feel like you’re constantly communicating to your employees, but they are not listening?
Dr. Dawn-Marie Turner
You’ve sent a dozen emails about the upcoming change, or at least it feels like a dozen, and your employees act like they don’t know anything about it.
You told them to contact you if they have questions or concerns and no one did. So, you assume everyone is fine with new chairs, or software, or moving buildings, or whatever your change is. Then you start to implement your change only to be hit with a huge backlash from your employees.
You’re met with, “Why is this happening?” “I didn’t know about this!” “I don’t care that I’ve had
to keep a pot on my desk because the roof leaks, I’m not moving.”
You come to the only logical conclusion. My employees are resistant to change.
What if they’re listening? What if they aren’t resistant to change?
The problem isn’t that they aren’t listening or that they are resistant to change. The problem is the way you’re communicating.
Email has gained a reputation for being an efficient and effective way of communicating. A reputation it doesn’t deserve. Did you know? Email takes more effort and decreases communication.
Email is one of the fastest and easiest ways to stifle innovation. It decreases employee engagement. Email sabotages your change efforts. Yet in most organizations it is the default mode of communication.
Email Only Gives the Illusion of Communication
When you send an email, you believe you have communicated. In reality, all you have done is sent out information. Whether you have communicated will depend on the receiver’s interpretation of the information in the email you sent. In Managing, Henry Mintzberg states, “…the danger of email is that it may give a manager the illusion of being in touch while the only thing being touched is the keyboard.”
What you have sent might be misinterpreted by your readers. The wrong interpretation of a key message will be the difference between acceptance of the change or the backlash that you’ll label as resistance.
Email Short Circuits the Communication Process Sabotaging your Change Efforts
Communication requires a minimum of two people and two separate but inter-related actions. First, it requires at least one person to initiate the sharing of information with another person or persons. Second, communication requires people to receive, interpret, and internalize the information.
Whether your communication supports or derails your change efforts depends on the results of these two actions.
The problem with email is it short circuits the second action. When you send an email, there is no way for you to know how your information, your message or its intent will be received and interpreted. Without this knowledge, the email that was meant to help opens the door for rumour and innuendo. This, in turn, enables an unhealthy grapevine. Your risk of change failure increases, and innovation and motivation decreases.
There are two ways email sabotages organizational change. First, it’s one-way. There is no way to adjust the flow, content, or even the tone of information during its transmission or receipt. You are restricted to your words.
Second, email sabotages change because it excludes the recipient as an active participant in the communication. When you send an email you assume the recipient will interpret your message as you intended. This assumption ignores the context in which the recipient is reading your email.
Participants in the Living and Leading Change Certificate Course always push back when I describe the recipient as not being an active participant in email communication. The participants’ rationale is that they always ask the recipients to send comments or ask questions if they don’t understand.
Their rationale overlooks two very important things. First, the recipients may not know they don’t understand or have concerns. However, that doesn’t mean they have interpreted the email as you intended. Second, if they do have questions or concerns research has shown they are more likely to seek clarification from people in close geographical proximity.
Think about it for a minute. You get an email from your boss and you wonder what it really means. The most likely scenario is you will turn to one or more of the people sitting close to you to ask what they think it means. The result is the interpretation of your message, and the impact of that interpretation, is being done without you being present.
What does this mean for your email? It means that when your employees receive your email, it will be the people geographically close to them that will help them interpret and make sense of it. If your employees are satisfied with the interpretation provided by the people physically close to them, it’s unlikely they will respond or ask you for any further clarification.
You just lost the ability to influence the message and the messenger. You are put into the uncomfortable and difficult situation of having to react instead of interact with your own message.
Three Actions to Use Email to Support and Enable Change
I am not suggesting you do away with email completely. That’s not reasonable or feasible in today’s world. Instead, I am suggesting three things you can do to use email to support and enable healthy organizational change.
- Adopt a change-recipient centric approach to change. A change-recipient centric approach is participative, conversational and strength based. Leaders using this type of approach to create the structure and environment to encourage active involvement in the change process.
- Adopt conversation as the primary way of introducing new ideas and changes to the organization. Conversation is one of the most powerful, yet underused, methods of communication by leaders. Ironically, it is the method your employees will use to understand and make sense of your email.
- Use email to reinforce, provide additional details, or document ideas if needed. The next time you are about to send an email to announce something new, or resolve an issue, stop and think — would a conversation be quicker? You might surprise yourself with the answer.
There is something out there that’s been around longer than email that’s infinitely better.
A senior executive relayed this story after we talked about the pitfalls of email during change. He had been dealing with a tricky and contentious issue among a group of partners. He was busy, so to deal with the issue he sent an email.
Four months later, and countless hours spent composing and exchanging emails, he found the issue was getting worse instead of better. He decided to host a conversation with the partners. The issue was resolved in about 45 minutes. He used email to follow-up, confirm key points, and document the decisions made during the conversation. As he stated when he told me the story, “why didn’t I do that in the first place, I could have saved myself so much time and grief.”
Before email — yes there was a time when email wasn’t the default form of communicating — we used the telephone when we wanted a quick response. What can be done in one telephone call often takes six or more emails and still doesn’t get the job done. We now have even more options, e.g., Skype, Facetime, and video conferencing to have a conversation.
There is a place for email during change. It is and should be a part of your communication strategy. It just shouldn’t be your only or primary communication strategy.
Helping you move change from a liability to an asset.