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Is the story key to driving effective organisational change?

Organisational change has become the new normal and I dare say the vast majority of us have gone through this in the workplace. And we need to get used to it because it’s happening all the time as businesses seek to adapt, evolve and grow. In fact, when looking at new hires and existing leaders’ skills, navigating change is now being considered increasingly as an essential. But how can this skill be developed in people, and what role can storytelling play for leaders and organisations in effectively managing change?

Change is hard!

We mustn’t underestimate this fact. As part of it, leaders and organisations need to recognise the human side of change, the psychological stages that people go through and how to support people through it. Often when we speak with HR professionals and leaders about their experience of change, the themes that seem to come up are that it’s exhausting, messy and confusing, but also quite exciting.

Now, as individuals we all deal with change differently depending on our past experiences, our trust in change leaders, how we perceive a given situation and our natural tendencies. What’s needed then above all else is a constant, consistent factor. In this case it is good communication. This can help to address any resistance to change and feelings of insecurity, cynicism and uncertainty.

The art of storytelling

So, how exactly should leaders communicate, and what does ‘good’ look like? Well, research shows that organisational change is significantly more successful when senior business leaders communicate the story of change clearly and regularly. But it’s not always as simple as just telling people everything. Leaders need to be able to cleverly structure their messaging and delivery to tap into how people are feeling and reduce the gap between what people think is happening and what they can see.

This is where a stimulating story can help. It can ‘cut through’ and get people to buy into change by appealing to both their rational side and their emotional side. This is what you need to engage (and win) hearts and minds when managing organisational change. And, in doing so, striking the right balance is crucial. By relying too much on engaging minds, it’s easy to get bogged down in analysing the ways to solve a problem rather than taking action (inertia can set in here). Likewise, focusing too much on engaging hearts could lead you down the wrong path for solving a problem if it dives straight into taking action without careful consideration or proper consultation.

Tapping into people’s feelings and appealing to their emotional side will help you to harness their energy and get the process of change underway. In securing this level of buy-in and emotional investment, people will naturally care more about the change being successful. And by using storytelling to harness their rational side, you will give the change a direction and focus meaning people are clear on the journey and their role within it.

4 steps to get your story straight

If you’re embarking on your own organisational or culture change initiative, we’ve outlined these four broad steps to help you get your change story right and, in turn, maximise employee engagement and buy-in to the change:

1. Context: “Know where you’ve come from”

  • Appreciate what’s come before. How has change been handled previously? What are people’s experiences of past change? How has this impacted how people perceive change now?

2. Rational engagement: “Know where you’re going”

  • Don’t just focus on what is going wrong. Identify and hone in on what is going right too
  • Avoid sweeping, general statements. Be as specific and concrete as possible when describing what needs to change
  • Make sure everyone is clear on the end goal – what you are trying to achieve and how you will know when you get there

3. Emotional engagement: “Tap into people’s feelings”

  • Identify the feelings that motivate people to get involved and help solve bigger and more challenging problems. Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change – you need to make people feel something
  • Celebrate small successes to boost momentum and morale. In doing this you break down the change into manageable chunks and provide crucial reassurance to people on progress

4. Behavioural engagement: “Embedding new habits”

  • Identify the specific habits (auto-pilot behaviours) that will have the biggest impact on achieving the desired change, as well as any habits you wish to stop
  • Make sure habits are easy to embrace and have an award attached to them
  • The environment and change story should be designed to support the formation of these new habits
  • Select and harness your change champions – those visible individuals in the business that can role model the change you want to see and tell the story you want communicated
  • Highlight where and when people are demonstrating the right behaviours and harness those influential people to make the right behaviours as visible as possible.

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