Communicating significant change to employees in your small business

Change is a theme that has run through some of our recent posts, such as this post from Laurie Breitner entitled “Your business model: Could less be more?” and Karen Utgoff’s post on how to sort out the opportunities and threats your business faces that could prompt a need for change. For nearly all small businesses, a time comes when significant change is necessary due to outside circumstances (economic conditions, increased competitions, or technological progress, to name a few possibilities) or internal needs (retirement of an owner, a desire for growth, or a wish to try something new, for example).  How this change is communicated to employees is vital to the success of any new plan that will significantly alter some aspect of your business.

Change makes many people nervous. Some will be slow to accept the notion that things need to change. Ideally, employees will have a chance to play a role in formulating your plan for change. The more ownership they feel of the plan, the more likely they are to accept the need for it.

Of course, such participative planning isn’t always possible. Some decisions belong solely to the business owner. So when plans for big changes must be formulated behind closed doors and then introduced to employees, here are three rules you should follow:

•  Do not delay communicating the news. Once a decision has been made, move forward with communicating it to employees. News – or at least rumors that news is coming – has a way of leaking out whether you want it to or not.

Small businesses are like families, after all. People can sense when something is happening behind closed doors, just like we all instinctively knew when the adults in our family were keeping something from us when we were kids. The rumor mill will kill you if you don’t take control of the situation and let people know exactly what is going to happen as soon as you can.

For some reason, it is human nature always to expect the worst, even when the news is actually going to be good. The longer you delay, waiting for the optimum moment, the more dire the rumors will become. Don’t add this kind of stress to the work environment when it can be voided by taking early action to let people know what’s being planned.

Also, the last thing you want is for someone outside the company to hear the news first and then leak it to an employee. Big companies have sometimes made the mistake of sending out a press release before employees were told important news. They have always paid a price for this because employees seriously resent being the last to know.

• Do not wing it. Precisely because your company is like a family to you, you may be tempted to call a company meeting without thoroughly planning what you’re going to say and how you are going to respond to the inevitable questions that will arise. This is a mistake.

Take time to think through the points you’re going to make about why the change is necessary and what it will entail. Don’t take the approach that people will accept the need for change just because you say so. This comes across as though you’re being a dictator and that simply does not work in today’s work environment.

Also brainstorm all the possible questions that employees might have about how this change affects them both as a group and individually. Consider how you’ll answer these questions. The first question on everyone’s mind will be “How does this affect me and my job?” You may need to have follow-up one-on-one or team meetings with people whose day-to-day routines will be more affected than others.

• Do not think that you only have to tell people once. News of change, particularly big change, can be hard for people to consume. They may not get it the first time; in fact, they almost certainly will not. That may not even get it the second or third time! This is why you have to put in place a plan to communicate your message of change again and again until the change has actually occurred.

This may get frustrating. You understand perfectly what you want to have happen; why can’t they see it? Well, they aren’t getting the picture because they haven’t spent the hours and hours you have contemplating the situation, analyzing the need for change and considering the various alternatives. Be patient with people. If you do a good job making the case for change and you do if consistently, the change you desire will eventually occur.

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