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Communicating change: “Me” before “we,” then “us”

5 min read


I can’t believe I’m going to do this. I’m about to share my secret weapon for change communications. When I tell you my methods you’ll say, “Right, I knew that all along.” But the real question is, do you apply what you know?

Early in my career, I worked at a heavy-manufacturing plant. We were implementing a new product line intended to improve quality, cost and competitiveness. In one way or another, everyone’s job would change.

The communication team was responsible for delivering a program to help the 2,000 employees support the new product. The changes touched all aspects of the process, including engineering, sourcing and building. Just about everyone would be affected.

On a shoestring budget, we developed a communication plan that hinged on building the big picture for employees. Each communication focused on a major component of the product and where it was built on the line. Month after month, engineers hauled in parts, tooling and diagrams, and we invited everyone to come learn how the whole thing came together.

Right away, I noticed a pattern. When the launch team talked with employees, no matter what job they did or where they worked on the line, employees wanted to know right away what was changing for them.

Standing in front of a large schematic, their eyes would zero in on the drawing. They would point to their “spot” on the line and say, “Did you fix how that part comes down from the mezzanine? That hoist breaks down every other day.” Their supervisors were no different. They would say things like, “How many people will I have here?” or “This process has been killing my quality numbers, what’s going to make it better?”

Once they understood how the change would affect them, good or bad, there was a noticeable shift in their thinking. Now they would ask questions that were about the team or department, “Did you get this bottleneck fixed? It’s hurting our quality.”

After team concerns were cleared up, they would move to the macro level, focusing on how the changes would affect the plant and the customer. Now they wanted to know what management wanted them to know all along. “How does this new product benefit customers?” “What will be our first-time quality at the end of the line?” “How much faster can we ship product to our customers?”

I call it the “me before we and then us” dynamic. It is actually relevant for virtually every communication process I can think of. After all, thinking of ourselves first is natural.

This dynamic, however, is most pertinent when we ask leaders to communicate and move a change forward.

If your company is like most large organizations, you rely on the “cascade” method of communications. You know the drill. Someone writes the talking points and Q-and-A, then corporate communications sends it out to the leaders and they are requested to communicate with their teams until all the people are informed.

Sound good? Well, maybe if you’re a faucet, but if you’re a human being, the cascade can be frustrating at best and ineffective at worst. Because remember it starts with the perspective of “me.” I, as a manager or leader, probably won’t be a good communicator or leader of change if I haven’t had the opportunity to understand the impact on me. I may even work against the change consciously or unconsciously.

But if I’ve had the chance to consider the change, view it through the lens of my own situation, I’m better able to be the leader and communicator I need to be.

Over my career, this simple lesson has guided my communication planning and counsel to leaders. In summary, I offer the following thoughts as you plan your next change effort.

  1. As a leader, fully consider the effects of a change for the critical audiences. Seek advice from people who know the audiences better. A vital part of leadership is to be aware of how a change affects others. While it likely won’t change the intent or desire for the change, it can help you anticipate reactions and think about how to respond empathetically. When you communicate effectively and respectfully, you can immediately strengthen relationships, build rapport and help drive success for an organization.
  2. Empathy is a powerful emotion. This isn’t a nice to-do. Given how people’s minds work, it’s a foundational step in the process of effective communication. Practice it, and it will improve your communications and change process.
  3. Before we ask leaders to be the face of a change, we must invest the time and effort in their understanding of the need. Leaders who communicate change must have first have processed that change for themselves before they can communicate effectively with others. This step is the doorway to an effective communication process — start to finish.

Gretchen Rosswurm is the vice president of global corporate communications and corporate social responsibility at Celanese, a global chemical company in Dallas. Throughout her career, she has advised leaders on communication strategies to enhance employee engagement and improve business results. Follow her on Twitter @GRosswurm.