This post originally appeared on the Organizational Communication Research Center blog for the Institute for Public Relations.
In our recent business transformation roundtable with 20 senior leaders from a wide range of industries, participants agreed on two points: major transformations are happening with greater frequency, and effective communication is critical to any transformation’s success.
A recent McKinsey study corroborates this belief, concluding that transformations are 8x more likely to succeed when senior management communicates openly and across organizations about the change. Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer finds that trust is an increasingly crucial factor in business transformation success: “Business is now expected to be an agent of change…. 72 percent of respondents say they trust their own company…. Building trust is now the No. 1 job for CEOs, surpassing producing high-quality products and services (68 percent).”
So goes the dilemma many senior leaders face: They understand the success of business transformation hinges on effective internal communications. They understand employees want and expect to trust their company’s leaders. They want employees to serve as ambassadors for the brand externally in the market. But they also understand that trust is not automatic, particularly in times of nonstop change. So how to bridge the gap quickly, given the speed of change and velocity of information flow reaching employees each day?
Given this context, digital communication seems like a fast, efficient way to manage change communications and solve the “one-to-many” problem. The challenge with relying solely on digital communication is that it’s only effective when a foundation of trust already exists. However, the collective wisdom of our roundtable participants agreed that digital communication alone cannot solve an underlying trust issue.
In fact, research shows that even the best-laid change communication plans are often ignored, resisted or even counter-argued. Further, messages gain (or lose) credibility with an audience based on how trustworthy and credible the messenger is perceived to be.
How do business leaders, tasked with business transformation, manage outreach effectively and build requisite trust? They start by humanizing the message and the messenger through high-touch communication strategies.
Trust is based on human connections, not technology, and requires face-to-face contact whenever possible. High-touch strategies, like live meetings and CEO listening tours, form the cornerstone of transformational communications strategies and place trust-building front and center in the transformation process.
Of course, digital and social media tactics are powerful communication tools for extending a leader’s reach. Dr. Rita Men, Chief Research Editor of the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center (OCRC) recently shared research on the benefits of CEOs using social media to connect with employees. First, responsive leaders (those who demonstrate willingness to listen) are seen as better communicators than assertive CEOs. Second, leaders who use social media are seen as more responsive. Third, companies who use social media well tend to have better relationships with their employees. The evidence is clear: high-touch, personalized communications builds trust and improves internal communications generally.
It follows that complementing high-touch, one-to-one strategies with high-tech social platforms and mobile apps, like Bonfyre, can extend individual trust-building interactions to broader, many-to-many digital communications.
Gagen MacDonald is helping a global biopharmaceutical leader with a large-scale business transformation. Responding to intense competition, accelerating scientific advances, and emerging market opportunities, the company knew it had to transform its entire operating model to maintain its industry leadership role. Partnering with the team at Gagen, the company focused not simply on the necessary operational changes, as many organizations are inclined to do, but rather on human transformation—on building employee understanding of the necessity of change, its significance to the company’s future, and its importance to the flawless delivery of critical medicines to cancer patients. We soon discovered though, that the process of human transformation hinged on one key element.
Initially, we agreed that to effect the desired changes, we needed to set the goal of making leaders’ role in communication easy and simple, giving them one place to go for the support they needed to communicate to their teams about the transformation. But we soon realized that in order for the group of 250 leaders to drive change to all employees, those leaders themselves first had to trust. They needed to hear from the CEO and the company’s leadership team directly to build their own trust in the message and gain enrollment in the “why” of the transformation.
We had accounted for the high-tech, but we couldn’t drive the needed behavior changes—a more collaborative, enterprise mindset among employees—until we addressed trust. And trust could only be built face-to-face in high-touch, dialogue-style communications starting at the top of the organization.
Infusing this “big learning” into our communication strategy produced extraordinary results: the company held costs flat while increasing investment in R&D, it saw a 7 percent increase in year-over-year revenue, and it maintained a high-level employee engagement of 81.4 percent. And these are only initial results—transformation work is ongoing, with great momentum.
Establishing trust is foundational for any transformation project, and face-to-face communication is a best-fit tool to lay that foundation of trust. It’s on that foundation that you can balance layers of high-tech, digital communication tactics to extend your reach and maintain a sense of personal engagement.