Michelle Yanahan on Successfully Communicating Change

Oct 08, 2020


By AMA Staff

AMA’s Ask the Experts Online Virtual Communication series debuted on September 16 with How to Successfully Communicate Change, a subject more relevant than ever in these tumultuous times. The series is an in-depth look at multiple aspects of communicating virtually, discussing best practices from an expert’s point of view. This segment’s guest expert was Michelle Yanahan, organizational change management strategist and facilitator. Dorothy Deming, AMA’s director of education, content and operations, moderated the webcast.

Ms. Deming began the conversation by noting that communication is one of the most important aspects of managing change, and could be even more complicated when teams are working virtually.

Ms. Yanahan responded, “Change is really based on human behavior and those social connections. Both communication and engagement play a critical role in fostering change. Anywhere from seventy-to-ninety percent of communication comes from non-verbal behaviors, which is really hard to cue into when we’re communicating in a virtual setting. I’m speaking about facial expressions, eye contact, body language, tone of voice, choice of words—and we use body language to repeat, contradict, substitute, complement or accent the spoken word. So now that things are virtual, we’re losing some of that non-verbal.”

“The other big challenge I’m seeing in driving change using virtual communication,” Yanahan continued, “is engagement, and how it’s needed for change. Engagement is about trusted relationships we have with others where we’re sharing information, and there’s an emotional component or connection. And when we share information using engagement, it has a lot more bearing on how we become aware, how we understand, and how we’re prepared to [take] action.”

Yanahan used the example of how one might respond when receiving a communication about impending change from someone we’ve never heard of, compared with our reaction when one hears that same information from a trusted colleague with whom there is an emotional connection. “We need to maintain our social connections, despite being in a virtual world,” Yanahan added.

“We need both communication and engagement for change [to occur]. Both of those represent some challenges given where we are, but it’s not impossible.”

Deming observed that building trust is very important in effective virtual communications about change.

“Given where we are, working virtually, it’s a lot easier to resist change, and not go along with things,” said Yanahan. “During this time, we really need to be communicating more in a lot of different ways, and make sure we’re connecting in with that human component.”

Yanahan offered other ideas for successfully communicating change, saying, “For change, we’re always looking to communicate early and often. Repeating key messages is critically important. In normal times, I would say repeating messages five-to-seven times in a variety of ways is kind of my standard. But I think given where we are, and since people are feeling isolated and need that social connection, I would say key messages need to be repeated more often than that, and reinforced and encouraged, and using different ways of communication. Use some variety, some creativity.”

Yanahan advised that it’s particularly important in these times to use other communication methods besides email, which has greatly increased for people working in the virtual space without the benefit of in-person connections.

Yanahan suggests asking, “How do we build more regular ways for open communication?” She adds, “Productivity goes with that.” In terms of communicating change in particular, she added, “One of the most undervalued tips is this idea of actively listening to what people are saying, cueing in, drowning out the other things around us, which now is quite difficult to do [if working from home]. Tune in to what they’re saying prior to jumping ahead with your next thought.”

Given the absence of visual cues, Yanahan also said, “It’s important that we’re asking probing questions of people, reaching out to the individuals by name, making sure they’re hearing us and understanding, that they’re building energy, enthusiasm, excitement and curiosity around the change, and know we’re helping them, supporting them. And we want to open dialogue.”

Probing questions are also important to assess change resistance, Yanahan suggested, and she emphasized the value of finding opportunities for more one-on-one and small group communications.

Yanahan strongly believes in emphasizing the positives. “All too often, when people are going through change, organizations don’t emphasize the positives until the end of the initiative,” she said. “Really, change is about the journey; it’s not a sprint. We really need to be recognizing, rewarding, reinforcing, encouraging people along the journey—not just when some large milestone is reached. People need to know that their efforts are being realized.”

“The final tip for communicating change kind of goes back to engagement,” continued Yanahan, and that is “how, in a virtual world, do we create opportunities not only for people to connect and engage together, but to connect and engage together about change? Let’s say we have a new system change [e.g., a new computer system]. Can we give that system to people to play with as a demo? How do we build experiences so people can really feel like they’re touching into the change well before it’s on their desks and they have to use it. It doesn’t have to be on a large scale. Take videos and post them, set time aside with your co-worker to walk through something.”

Yanahan also noted that people are experiencing virtual fatigue. “How do we break through some of that?” she asked. “We need to make it personal. When we’re creating virtual meetings, we need to allow people some personal time to check in with one another. Build and maintain that social connection. Encourage that teamwork and that organizational pull that we’re all in this together. That includes simple things like using people’s names, and allowing some buffer time between virtual meetings.”

Also crucial, added Yanahan, is to “make peoples’ voices heard. Allow people to get involved and engaged. [It’s] so important for change. Continue to build that connection, that emotional engagement. Keep productivity high.”

In addition, Yanahan spoke about the importance of allowing people to be creative in terms of how they express themselves, because, “when you’re sitting in a series of meetings, communicating all day long, you need a little break to laugh, to be silly, and do that emotional connection. It’s just so critical to keep our teams engaged, keep our organizations moving forward. Allow people to be engaged in different ways.”

She also proposed recording important meetings and making them available to staff.

On the subject of best practices, Yanahan said, “Managers and leaders really also need to be communicating ‘the safety net’: How will the employees be supported through change—and by change you can include the COVID transition—[so people know] what they can expect from their manager and leader, how we’re going to ‘up the bar’ to keep our communications strong, where can we find additional support on the change, and also really make the positive reinforcement visible along with the successes we’re having?”

Essential too, according to Yanahan, is “acknowledging the uncertainty. The manager and leader can let the team know that we’re learning as we go, we need to be flexible and adaptable, and we will work the power of working [together] as a team, and that will guide us through. We can take comfort from that. Not everything is changing, and there is structure we can pull from.”

Deming then showed a circular graphic representing the change management process— of which communication is just one component.

Detailing the model, and how it represents the change management process, Yanahan said it begins with the step named “Evaluate Impact.” She explained, “Evaluating impact is the delta between where we are today and where we’re going tomorrow, and it’s understanding the depth and breadth of the change. It then helps us understand the change drivers and impact of the change.”

The next components of the Change Management Process model are: Understanding Barriers to Acceptance, Communicating Change, Managing Resistance, and Gaining Further Buy-in and Commitment.

Yanahan concluded by saying that the model’s final “commitment” step is about “how do we continue to make the change a priority? This is in our leadership communication with our teams.”

In commenting on the circular design of the overall graphic, Yanahan also noted, “The model shows that change is a cycle, and it never really ends.”

View the full program:

How to Successfully Communicate Change.