The idea of communicating only facts during change
Communicating Change is a 1994 book setting out a theory so logical and yet so terrifying that I shoehorned it into pretty much every business school assignment I wrote.
Its authors launch their related Harvard Business Review article with: ‘Most advice given to executives about communicating change is wrong’.
TJ and Sandar Larkin’s alternative is simple. What if leaders of large organisations told all staff everything during major change?
And what if they did it not through a lot of corporate visioning but in a single-page memo, issued to line managers, listing SMART bulletpoints of what was to be done? As they put it: ‘Communicate only facts; stop communicating values’.
The Larkins certainly had a point. Indeed, it’s a recognised organisational approach to communicate change through line managers, whom employees know and trust.
But the urge to wrap change in values, as the Larkins argued 27 years ago, remains irresistible to some organisational executives.
Indeed, with the current business management focus on visioning, storytelling and ‘the journey’, comms usually remain steeped in values.
The Larkins argue that objective measures demonstrate values far more clearly than words ever can. They write that almost 70% of companies consider mission and values their number one communication priorities.
Yet the Larkins argue that this immediately makes staff suspicious - particularly in times of strategic change. Actions, rather than words, should inform values.
There’s little doubt that over-communication is preferable to under-communication during times of change.
But would employees in 2021 really want their internal comms served up quite so bluntly?
Meanwhile, would you, as leader of a large organisation, feel confident in presenting a list of organisational needs (in the fewest words possible) to your line managers to then explain and discuss with their reports?
Most contemporary leaders would play it safe - particularly when delivering bad news. They would soften the message. Plus it’s not 1994 anymore.
But search out TJ’s ‘Pillars of Excellence’ on YouTube. If the purpose of communication is create understanding then the Larkins’ approach is a pretty logical one.
This article first appeared in the November/December 2021 edition of Niche magazine.