Communicate for ownership in change

Jonathan Mills
3 min readMar 18, 2023

“If you are entrusted with bringing about change, you likely possess the knowledge needed to advance the organisation, and you might have a plan-but knowledge is not enough. You have to bring yourself to each interaction in a deeply authentic way. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” (Doug Conant)

The 21 stCentury, with all its issues (pandemics, wars, floods, and other natural disasters), has impacted the way businesses operate. Businesses are having to be flexible, even fundamentally changing their structures, approaches and strategies to stay afloat and then get ahead. These change initiatives require “buy-in” from employees — employees that own the necessary changes and indeed lead them forward. Overcoming staff resistance to change requires a huge communication effort from leadership to get as many people as possible acting to make the new vision a reality.

When a large-scale change initiative is communicated, the typical responses from employees are:

  • What is going to happen to me, to my position?
  • How will this change affect what I do?
  • Can I trust management to deal with all of us fairly?
  • Will my team still have a role to play?
  • Are some of us going to be retrenched?

Change produces anxiety and confusion — leaders should never ignore the emotional upheaval that change introduces and rather address these emotions constantly. Change communication is more than data transfer of information around new structures or approaches — it should include communication that “addresses anxieties, that accepts staff anger, that is credible in a very gut level sense, and that evokes faith in the vision” (John Kotter: The Heart of Change).

For leaders, speaking about the change with conviction is important, but addressing concerns without becoming defensive is more important. Employees need to see that their leaders:

  • Are responsive to concerns — ignoring issues demonstrates indifference and a lack of care. All leaders should openly acknowledge the difficulties and empathise with employees without any judgement.
  • Are confident and have faith in the planned changes — conviction in communication regarding the way ahead provides some security for employees (we are in good hands). Strong, but empathic, leadership evokes trust.
  • Handle tough questions without becoming defensive — leaders need to demonstrate that the necessary changes are good for both the organisation and its employees.

To achieve a sense of ownership in employees in the change process, communication strategies should include the following factors:

  • Keeping conversations simple and heartfelt — not complex and technocratic.
  • Addressing feelings and emotions that distract from the needed change — feelings are real and leaders should always deal with emotions and empathise with their people.
  • Getting rid of any “garbage” in current communication channels to enable the effectiveness of the important change messages.
  • Using new technologies to assist employees with “seeing” the vision (videos, intranet, screensavers, etc.)
  • Setting an example of the new expected behaviours — during change processes, leaders are “watched” by employees, all of whom want to see actual indications that the change is taking root in the behaviour of their leaders.
  • Creating places or safety and trust where employees can air their views and express their concerns without fear of retribution.

Ineffective change communication leads to distrust, further anxiety and even rebellion. Leaders should avoid the following:

  • Under communicating the change initiative — this happens frequently where managers assume that they have communicated the change principles well enough and leave the employees to flounder.
  • Communicating as though they are only transferring information — there needs to be high levels of conviction if employees are to follow the change leaders and implement the new expected behaviours.
  • Inadvertently fostering cynicism by not walking the talk — leadership example is paramount to showing the way and developing hope and trust in the way ahead.

Business leadership must communicate for ownership in change. Soliciting “buy-in” from employees is a leader’s most important communication goal in any change initiative. When buy-in is achieved, the change initiative gains momentum, and the desired outcomes are realised.

Originally published at https://www.stretchforgrowth.com on March 18, 2023.

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Jonathan Mills

Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.