What You’re Communicating By Not Communicating

Aug 07, 2012 2 Comments by

Change Agent Tip #40: Don’t Wait. Communicate.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the value of communicating with stakeholders when you’re implementing change.  “Failure to Communicate” is consistently listed as one of the top causes of lackluster change results even though common logic, past experience and routine risk management would tell us to err on the side of over-communication.

Rumor has it there’s a big change coming! What have you heard?

Over the next few posts, I want to make the point that NOT communicating doesn’t result in a neutral situation in regard to your change… People crave information – especially about pending changes.

So unless you’re actively and intentionally communicating details about your upcoming change to your stakeholder community, you are falling further behind with each passing day in the war to win them over.

We’ve All Heard It: To drive home my premise, I’ll share some feedback that I’ve gathered over the years during my interactions with thousands of stakeholders involved in change situations. Some of these examples may sound familiar if you’ve been asked to adapt to a change within your organization. I call this list of unintended messages by a sad-but-true title: “What You’re Communicating By Not Communicating.”

The first three messages are related to how people react during times of change in the absence of adequate information. When you’re not actively engaging in an effective communication dialogue with your stakeholders, you’re really telling them:

  1. “This change is not a priority.”
  2. “Use the rumor mill.”
  3. “Fill in the blanks for yourself.

Let’s take a closer look at how each of these inadvertent messages might be interpreted by stakeholders and consider what assumptions people may draw from them.

“This change is not a priority.”

Interpretation: The reason you haven’t heard much is because there isn’t much you need to know. You’ll hear more news about other things that are more important to us. Those things are our true priorities and they should be important to you as well.

For example, the quarterly numbers and the next big company event are what’s important right now. We’ll let you know if priorities change.

Stakeholder Assumption: This change is way down on the list of concerns and the average person shouldn’t be spending time worrying about it or preparing for it.

By not communicating, you’re also telling them:

“Use the rumor mill.”

Interpretation: If you feel a need to learn more, just hang around the water cooler. 

Someone will come along to help you get the information you need, or at least they might be willing to listen to your concerns. Ask around. Your friends and co-workers may have the “inside scoop” or a personal theory about what’s going to happen. 

Also, feel free to share your own fears, proposals and criticisms about our future direction. After all, there is no rumor mill without some good, meaty gossip!

OBTW: If you hear anything, could you do us a favor and pass it along?

Stakeholder Assumption: No one knows anything more about the change than anyone else – so asking around is the best way to get information – even if what you hear may not be accurate.

Unfortunately, another message you send by not communicating is:

“Fill in the blanks for yourself.”

Interpretation: It’s impossible for us to know what you’re thinking, so it’s hard to anticipate your questions. You’ll need to make a few assumptions and take a few guesses. …and just like with the rumor mill above, we hope you’ll share your favorite blank-fillers with your peers – it’s almost as good as actually knowing what’s going on!

Stakeholder Assumption: If you find yourself lacking factual data, go ahead and fill in the gaps as needed with the information you gathered from co-workers or your best guesses based on personal experience.

OK… that’s enough sarcasm for today. Let’s spend a minute or two on solutions.

Addressing the Gap: Instead of silently sending the three messages above, I encourage Change Agents to actively communicate as their change is designed and rolled out. Here are a few ways to start the process of improving stakeholder communication:

1. Plan: Address communication as you plan for the other activities of your change project. That means you’ll need to account for timing, resources and who has accountability to get the communication work done.

2. Track: Report on the progress of communication activities just as you would report on the other “work” of the change project such as training, technology implementation, transitioning of staff or other execution steps of the rollout.

3. Engage: Directly involve your leaders in defining and delivering key messages about your change. Your sponsors probably have an opinion about the change, but you may need to drag it out of them. You may also find them hesitant to take a stand in front of their people, so you may need to be very persistent. Instead of letting them off the hook, insist that they become part of the solution.

Bottom Line: Don’t fall into the trap of non-communication. The rumor mill is active in every organization – even if Change Agents and leaders deny it or consciously choose to ignore it. Have the team and your leaders define and demonstrate the priority of the change. Insist that they fill in the blanks for their folks and flood the rumor mill with accurate information.

It sure beats the consequences of what you’re communicating by not communicating.

– Steve

Question for Chatter:

  • Sometimes there’s no message to send regarding your change because nothing has happened recently…. What do you communicate if there is no news to report?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

2 Responses to “What You’re Communicating By Not Communicating”

  1. People react to change based on their individual needs and values. says:

    […] “What You’re Communicating by Not Communicating“ […]

  2. Making Sense of Silence | theBigRocks of Change says:

    […] Subscribe ← What You’re Communicating By Not Communicating […]

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