A Three-Step Guide to Communicating Change

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Drawing sketchIf you’re a leader, chances are you like to create change. Casting vision—dreaming of a better future—is simply a part of leading a team, organization, or local church.

The thing is, a lot of people don’t like change.

Or at least, they think they don’t like change.

To most people, change is scary. And if you’re leading an organization, there have likely been times when you’ve been frustrated by people who seem to cling to the past instead of dreaming of a better future. When we experience push back when we try to incite change, we often blame people for not wanting change.

Maybe that’s the wrong approach. Because in reality, it’s often our fault as leaders that people resist change, not those who seem to be opposing our ideas. Sure, there will always be people who are diametrically opposed to any change, just because that’s what they do. But that’s not how most people are. In fact, most people are actually open to change.

So why do you seem to get so much resistance when you suggest change?

To put it bluntly: you might be doing it wrong.

Chances are, when you’ve tried to enact change in an organization or a team, it was a good idea. You likely thought it out, sought input, spent time in prayer.

Then you announced the change. And you didn’t get the response you hoped for.

When a leader receives a lot of pushback about a proposed change (assuming it’s a good idea and a change for the better), here’s the reason that’s usually in play: The leader announced the what before the why.

When you decide that a change is needed in your organization, you’ve probably spent hours reading about it, researching it, praying about it, talking with trusted staff members and board members about it. In short, you’ve become convinced a change is needed because you know why a change is needed. But here’s the mistake leaders usually make when announcing the change: when it comes time to pull the trigger, we only announce the what—the change that we’re proposing—and we neglect to talk about the why.

The why is the most important part of announcing change. The why creates tension and discontent. The why reveals the need behind the change. Nobody (well, very few people) like change for change’s sake. But when there’s a compelling reason to change, we are willing to experience the discomfort of change because there is a compelling, necessary, and urgent why behind it.

So when you announce what you are going to change before explaining the why behind it, it shouldn’t surprise you that very few people get on board with your change.

So how should a leader announce change? Here are three simple steps to effectively communicating change:

1) Create tension with a compelling why.

The first step is to describe why doing something different is better than staying the same. If you can’t communicate why the change is needed in just one, clear sentence, then you don’t have a compelling reason. The resistance to change is often an emotional response, not an intellectual one. So a lot of communicating the why involves appealing to people’s emotions. Tell stories. Illustrate the problem with interesting data (communicated visually for those who have panic attacks when they think about their high school math class). Paint a picture of a better future that is possible only with the change you want to lead your organization to make.

2) Explain how the why can be tackled by clearly communicated what.

After you’ve convinced people why a change is needed, you still need to offer a compelling solution. The mistake many leaders make here is complicating the solution. Your plan may have several steps and moving parts; now is not the time to dive into all of them. Like the why, your what should be communicated in one, clear sentence. That doesn’t mean that your plan is easy or simple. Communicating your plan in one sentence makes it understandable by everyone. Don’t invite unnecessary resistance by appearing to be unclear about your plan. Planting five churches in five years is not easy, but “Our church will start five new Christ-centered churches in five years to impact communities outside our own” is easy to understand. Another example: “Because we see that discipleship happens best in small circles of friendships, we will pour as many resources as we can into making sure every person can easily and quickly join a small group.” That sounds a lot better than, “We are going to rework our budget, hire a small groups pastor, build a “Small Groups” booth for Sunday mornings, and end our Wednesday night adult education classes to increase our small group attendance among adults,” doesn’t it?

3) Answer questions about the how as the need arises.

If you’ve given people a compelling why and a clear what, most people at this point will be willing to support you in your change, especially if you’ve built plenty of relational capital with the people you lead. But some people will have questions about how your what will come about. So as questions are asked about how your organization will accomplish the change, answer them. Transparency almost always encourages buy-in. The thing to keep in mind is to just answer questions as simply as you can rather than diving into all kinds of information the asker may not have wanted to know. Many people don’t need to know everything about your plan; they just want to know that you have a plan. Be honest about the parts of the plan that you’ve worked out, and the parts that are still in process. And don’t forget that some people who ask how questions are really just unconvinced about the why, so take every opportunity to go back to the why. As Bill Hybels says, “Vision leaks.” Take time to refill people’s vision bucket every opportunity you get.

Of course, leading change in any context will invite resistance. And not all resistance is bad. But don’t invite resistance to a great idea by not communicating the whywhat, and how well.

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