Making Sense of Silence

Aug 25, 2012 No Comments by

In my last post, I described what often happens when Change Agents and Sponsors of Change fail to communicate with their stakeholders.

I suggested that people could interpret a lack of communication in one of several negative ways. They might think you’re telling them:

1. “This change is simply not a priority.” – After all, if it were really important, they would be telling us about it, right?

2. “Use the rumor mill.” – Your buddies around the water cooler have more news about the future and they probably have a few good ideas about how to handle the upcoming change.

3. “Fill in the blanks for yourself.” – If you have had a hard time getting enough information, just cobble together what you can and close any gaps with your own worst fears, previous experiences or any information you can find.

I also suggested ways to avoid these mistakes.

For details, read my previous post:

What You’re Communicating by Not Communicating.

It’s Not Always “All or Nothing”: In the case of high-risk change, communication gaps can cause total failure. But utter disaster isn’t the only negative outcome to worry about. Some changes will still limp along to tepid results in spite of poor levels of information exchange.

Missed communication opportunities chip away at your chances of full success by making change adoption take longer. And even if stakeholders eventually make it through the transition on their own, chances are good that the change may not realize its full potential if people waste time and resources hunting for information or guessing about expectations.

Change Agent Tip #41: Communicate Change Alignment!

Today I have three additions to our list of inadvertent messages that result from a lack of stakeholder communication. They center around the perception that your organization is not aligned on the purpose, process and goals of your change.

I’ve heard these common stakeholder interpretations of change alignment silence:

4 – “Our Upper Management Just Isn’t On the Same Page.”  In other words: “The executive team is very busy and has not formed an opinion about the change yet.”

Silence indicates that while the change might be critical to some leaders, it’s not of equal importance to all of them. At the very least, it tells people that the leadership team really doesn’t have a single, aligned opinion about it.

5 – “My Direct Supervisor is Out of the Loop.”  – Or stated another way: “Your boss is waiting to hear from his/her boss before taking a stand either way about the big change.”

It could also mean that the supervisor doesn’t really have enough information yet to make the call, so they shouldn’t be bothered with questions about the change.

6 – “We’re Still Not Sure What We’re Doing.” “We’re not sure we’ll do what we’re thinking of doing if we decide to do anything. We might do something once we decide to make that decision. Either way, we’ll definitely let you know… maybe.”

As a leadership/sponsorship team, the bottom line when it comes to change alignment is that you should never assume people know what you’re going to do. People don’t always guess correctly about how the change process will unfold or how the organization will recognize that the change was successful.

Here’s how I recommend leadership teams avoid the risk of mistaken messages around alignment:

A. Get on the Same Page.  Formally lay out what the change is going to accomplish and how it will be rolled out. Don’t assume the leadership team knows these details and don’t assume that they don’t have an opinion. It’s always better to iron out differences of opinion within the leadership team prior to announcing plans and goals to your stakeholders.

B. Stay on the Same Page.  Constantly verify the leadership team is still aligned as the change rolls out – even as prevailing conditions change and the team is forced to adjust goals, reset expectations or adapt the change to a new reality.

C. Tell the World You’re on the Same Page. Get the message out there by documenting the “who, what, when, where and why” of your change and pushing these messages through as many communication channels as you can in advance of the change taking effect.

D. Don’t Duck Questions: Have members of the leadership team aggressively seek questions about the nuances of the change and answer them when asked.

Have them report back to the group what they’re hearing on the street to build a stronger communication capability within and across the change leadership team.

Summary: Ignoring stakeholder communication can unintentionally send some very negative messages to stakeholders of change. That’s why I advocate the need for an aggressive stakeholder communication approach.

In fact, I often share this rule of thumb with my clients: “You’ll know you’ve done enough communication when they tell you they’ve heard enough.”

Needless to say, in my experience, a stakeholder self-reporting that they’ve had too much communication about an upcoming change has been a rare occurrence.

– Steve

Question for Chatter:

  • What problems could we predict if one part of the organization is getting overrun with communication about an upcoming change while another area is getting starved for information?


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

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