4 Keys to Combating Organizational Change Rumors

2 kids are using tin cans to talk together illustrating that communication problems can hurt change management

One thing we know for sure from change management training and consulting, change is difficult.

Employees tend to hang on to what they know how to do and they resist, often out of fear of failure or incorrect assumptions, adjusting to the new behaviors or circumstances. And what allows these fears to take hold and sabotage any change initiative?

Often it is ugly rumors that are allowed to circulate and reinforce the negative emotions.  We define change rumors as unverified information (not opinions) that are in circulation among your key stakeholders that answer significant questions that people want answered.  Rumors basically fill in the gaps and help people understand an unclear situation.  And when it comes to change rumors, the information is almost always negative.

Just as these kids with tin cans will have to learn to be really clear with their communications if they want to be fully understood, so do business leaders need to learn how to manage communications if they want their change plans to be fully implemented.

Unfortunately when it comes to major organizational change, rumors begin almost immediately after (if not before) the change is announced. From person to person, unverified but compelling statements are passed along. And the untruths build as worker’s fears and insecurities grow. Employees naturally worry about how the change will negatively affect them. Will I lose my job? Is the company going under? Will I be able to switch to a new way of doing things without losing status and pay?

When it comes to effectively managing organizational change, it is critical to stop unsubstantiated rumors in their tracks. Here are four keys to combatting workplace rumors effectively and giving your change program a chance:

  1. Say it clearly, consistently, repeatedly and confidently.
    People spread rumors during change when there is uncertainty. Make sure your message about organizational change is understood by all. And make sure they hear it again and again. It will take time for it to sink in and for employees to adjust to the proposed new way. They will want to know the rationale for the change, be persuaded that it is in their best interests and think through just how they are going to fit in.
  2. Never shirk questions.
    People spread rumors during change when they feel anxiety. Oftentimes uncertainty (see #1 above) raises anxiety.  And anxious people tend to create and spread rumors as they try to make sense of the change and what it means to them and their future.  Be sure as business leader that you and your frontline managers are available to answer questions about the organizational change. Be open and honest in your replies. If you don’t know the answer, say so. Tell people what you know, what you do not know and when you will be able to fill in the gaps.As much as you expect the change to be for the better, acknowledge that there is always some uncertainty to the future. If you dodge questions from stakeholders, they will most likely fill in the blanks with unhelpful rumors.
  3. Provide the facts.
    People spread rumors during change when the available information is fuzzy and the potential impact of the change is important. Provide all relevant facts that prove the rumors are untrue. Find out who is spreading the rumors and, if you can, why. We know about fear and anxiety around change being a cause. But people spread rumors for other reasons too—they simply believe the rumor or it helps their self-image or status within the company. When you can share the facts that prove the rumor wrong, you may have found an ally who can influence employees in a more positive direction.
  4. Get ahead of any “false facts.”
    A well-planned change initiative can include a way for affected employees to check the facts right from the start. Rather than let whispers and social media propel false information, use your intranet to be a source of the real facts. Provide a resource for employees to research a rumor before passing it on.

Effective change management training and consulting relies to a great degree upon managing the communication around change. Anticipate rumors and be ready to counter them in a straightforward manner with the facts.

To learn more about organizational change, download The 5 New Lenses of Change Leadership Whitepaper

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