It’s no secret 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.

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.

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

How 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.

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 their 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, they were named the best airline for business travelers by Fortune magazine. Their employees were on board with the change, which was making a difference. How did Scandinavian Airlines do it?

All 20,000 of their 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 what the vision was for where they wanted to be. It told how “storm clouds” and “bad weather” had struck the business and how they faced challenges in being profitable. It described their competition and how their employees could help them 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.

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?

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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.

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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.

After the Initial Change: Keep Communicating

Remember, communicating change is not 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.

Are you interested in learning more about how to lead change? Explore our eight-week course Management Essentials and discover how you can effectively move your organization forward.

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.