Change can be hard. You may experience this when attempting to break a bad habit or start a better one. Altering your behavior or routines often requires additional effort—at least at first. Organizational change—like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring, and adjustments to organizational processes—is no different.

It’s no wonder then that many organizational change efforts fail. You’re not only trying to evolve your own approaches and habits, but convince others to change their own. This lack of change management skills can make organizational initiatives difficult to execute, so it's important that managers develop the competencies needed to lead their teams through periods of transformation.

In fact, a study by Gartner shows only 34 percent of all change initiatives pursued by businesses end in clear success. On the other hand, 16 percent yield mixed results, which equates to 50 percent of all change initiatives failing.

Communicating Change

Given that organizational change is often difficult to implement, it’s important to consider the management skills required to cultivate success. Effective communication, in particular, plays a vital role in making organizational change possible.

There are two questions you need to address when communicating change:

  1. Do our employees have the motivation to change?
  2. Are our employees equipped with the ability to change?

Both of these pieces are incredibly important. One without the other can jeopardize attempts at organizational change. When communicating change, you should focus on increasing motivation and the company’s ability to adapt.

Related: 5 Tips for Managing Change in the Workplace

Here are four tips to help you create a winning change communication strategy.

4 Steps to Communicate Organizational Change

1. Share a Vision

One of the best things you can do when communicating change is share a vision of how the organization can benefit from the transition. Individuals need to know the change is both good for them and the company overall. A way to craft that vision is by answering these questions:

  • How will the organization operate once the change is made?
  • What will employees experience as a result of making the necessary transitions?
  • Will there be tangible results? What will those results look like?
  • Will there be a sense of accomplishment? What will that feel like?
  • What will the rewards be, both for the individuals and your organization as a whole?

Make answering these questions central to your change communication.

By answering these questions, employees will have a better understanding of why organizational change is imminent, which is critical to success. Clarifying the motivations behind organizational change helps team members reach a mutual understanding, allowing everyone to work toward one shared vision.

Right now, for example, businesses around the world are coping with challenges brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) and a temporarily stalled economy. To survive this sudden disruption to business as usual, many companies have been forced to undergo rapid organizational change initiatives, such as embracing remote work. Firms that have successfully adapted have been transparent in their efforts and communicated a clear vision for employees to rally around.

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2. Tell a Story

The vision—where you want to be as an organization—is part of a larger story that involves you and your business. Telling a story enables everyone to envision where the company needs to be, but also where it currently is and how to transition.

Take the example of Scandinavian Airlines, as outlined in a Harvard Business School case by Professor Christopher Bartlett. Scandinavian Airlines needed to make an organizational shift in the early 1980s. The airline industry was struggling. The company was losing money at the tune of $20 million. The market was stagnant.

Through its change efforts, the company not only met its goal of increasing earnings by $25 million in the first year; Scandinavian Airlines increased them by $80 million. Within a couple of years, it was named the best airline for business travelers by Fortune magazine. Employees were on board with the change, which was making a difference. How did Scandinavian Airlines do it?

All 20,000 of its employees received a short handbook communicating the change, which centered around focusing on a subset of customers—the business flyer—to turn the company around. This was not your typical corporate communication. Titled “Let’s Get in There and Fight,” the booklet included characterizations of airplanes, complete with cartoons and large typeface fonts that highlighted where the company was and the vision for where it wanted to be. It told how “storm clouds” and “bad weather” had struck the business and how it faced challenges in being profitable. It described its competition and how employees could help it stay competitive.

Your strategy may not involve cartoons and large text like Scandinavian Airlines, but communicating the story of your change initiative can have a powerful effect on illuminating your vision.

Returning to the example of COVID-19, you might position your organizational change story much like a heroic tale. Social distancing is an immediate threat to your business, which you must rise to meet as an organization. It won’t be easy, but you have a plan which includes X, Y, and Z. Communicating change in this manner can allay some of the fear and uncertainty your employees may be feeling, while simultaneously rallying them around common goals.

3. Make Those in Your Organization the Heroes

Does your change communication strategy focus on telling the members of your organization what to do and what they need to change? Or does it inspire and enable them to be change agents as well?

In the book Winning ‘Em Over, author Jay Conger shares Scandinavian Airlines’ message to employees, which was:

"We have to fight in a stagnating market. We have to fight competitors who are more efficient than we are. And who are at least as good as we are in figuring out the best deals. We can do it. But only if we are prepared to fight. Side by side. We are all in this together."

Every employee received Scandinavian Airlines’ handbook. Everyone was able to understand where the company wanted to go and what role they played. Telling a story where the employees were not only part of that change, but could be heroes in the story, provided a rallying cry that allowed them to stand side-by-side as active players in the change initiative.

What can you do to make the individuals in your organization active participants in your change efforts? How can you make them feel that changing with the organization will make them the hero and not the victim?

Related: 9 Mistakes to Avoid as a First-Time Manager

Consider again the organizational change scenario spurred by the coronavirus. You’ve shared your vision for change and told the story of how you intend to reach your goals. By making your employees the heroes of the change story and explaining the specific roles each person plays, you can empower them to exercise agency in helping the organization meet its goals.

4. Chart the Path

Equip those in your organization to become leaders in your change communication. Once you reach a shared vision—one that your employees believe is good for the company—it’s your role to show the path that will get them there.

This became increasingly evident at Rakuten, Japan’s largest online retailer, according to a Harvard Business School case by Professor Tsedal Neeley. Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani wanted to change the very language of the organization. Instead of the majority of his company speaking their native Japanese, he wanted his 7,100 Tokyo employees to transition to conducting business in English.

This change was to support the company’s effort to become number one in internet services across the globe. In two years, Mikitani expected his employees to be proficient in English. With just a few months left to go in his change initiative, however, surveys found that a large percentage of employees, especially native Japanese speakers, felt afraid, frustrated, nervous, and even oppressed by the initiative.

Related: 3 Group Decision-Making Techniques For Success

The employees of Rakuten were not experiencing the change as something positive for them, personally. They may have believed it was good for the company, and possibly good for them, but they were finding themselves challenged and discouraged. If you were in Mikitani’s place, what would you do?

As a leader, you don’t need the change to be good for your employees every step of the way. Some change will be gruelingly difficult. It will involve scaling steep inclines and, for some, working harder than they have before. What can you do to increase their ability to keep going on this path?

While the initial change initiative shared by Rakuten was clear, there needed to be additional communication that would help employees chart the path. Rakuten provided funding for language learning programs, communicating to employees that the company was there for them. They would not have to make the change alone. Action, as well as words, were powerful tools.

In the case of shifting to remote work to combat the threats of coronavirus, your employees likely understand it’s essential for the company to survive. They know they have a role to play in the initiative’s success and there’s a clear path forward. But that doesn’t change that, for many, it’s an entirely new way of working—and that comes with challenges. In addition to communicating the initial change initiative, it’s important to make it clear to your employees that there are resources available to help them transition so they don’t feel overwhelmed or paralyzed into inaction.

Learn More about Management Essentials

After the Initial Change: Keep Communicating

Communicating change isn't a one-and-done effort. Be prepared to communicate not just once, but again and again throughout the change process. Restate the vision, retell the story, enable your employees to act as heroes, and chart and re-chart the path when struggles arise. Your organization will be more motivated and equipped to make that change effort with you.

Change is possible. Individuals make real changes every day. Organizations shift gears and become increasingly successful as a result. Your communication strategy can play an important role in enabling transformation and lasting impact.

If you want to improve your organizational change management abilities, enrolling in an online management course, like Management Essentials, can prepare you to handle any transitional challenge that comes your way.

Do you want to become a more effective leader and manager? Download our free leadership and management e-book to find out how. Also, explore our online courses Leadership Principles and Management Essentials to learn how you can take charge of your professional development and accelerate your career.

(This post was updated on June 26, 2020. It was originally published on December 11, 2018.)

Angela Fisher Ricks

About the Author

Angela is a member of the Harvard Business School Online Content Development Team, currently creating courses on leadership. She received her master's degree from Harvard University and undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University. Angela was a resident at the Harvard i-lab in 2017 and a semifinalist in the Harvard i3 Innovation Challenge. She enjoys kickboxing, playing the harp, and spending time with family and friends.