- Leadership communication is key to successful change management
- The "chunking" method helps employees understand and support change
- Chunking helps comfort and creates focus for stressed employees
Change management is a core leadership demand, and an increasingly vital one. Whether leaders are repairing the damage the pandemic inflicted or positioning themselves for new opportunities, many are implementing new strategies, work styles, products -- some are even rewriting their missions.
The success of their change depends on their employees' ability to adapt. Worn-out, anxious people have limited capacity to absorb information about change, much less adapt to it or drive it with their teams. And right now, Gallup finds employees experiencing alarmingly high levels of stress, worry and burnout along with a record-high quit rate.
Indeed, Gallup's 2021 Work Experience Communication Survey found that about seven in 10 employees feel burned out at work at least sometimes. Half of employees indicate their lives have been affected or disrupted "a fair amount" or "a great deal" by the coronavirus situation, and a third say they have had to learn new skills as a result of their workplace's response to COVID-19-related disruptions, according to separate Gallup Panel studies from 2021 and 2022, respectively.
Leaders' Communication Has a Profound Effect on Employees
Communicating change in easy-to-understand portions helps employees process information, increases their ability to actualize change and improves their overall morale.
Gallup's Work Experience Communication Survey found that employees who strongly agree that their leaders help them see how changes made today will affect their organization in the future are significantly more likely to also strongly agree that their company has the speed and agility to meet customer and marketplace change and that they know what's expected of them.
They're also much likelier to be engaged and thriving and much less likely to feel burned out, stressed or that they have too much work to do.
Custom graphic. Among those who strongly agree with the statement, "Leaders help me see how changes made today will affect my organization in the future," significantly more are engaged, are thriving, and also strongly agree that their organizations are agile and that they know what is expected of them. In addition, they are significantly less likely to feel burned out at work, feel like they have too much to do, and feel stressed at work.
Moreover, the same study found that when employees strongly agree that their supervisor actively supports changes that affect their workgroup, their results follow the same pattern.
Custom graphic. Among those who strongly agree with the statement, "My supervisor is an active supporter of the changes that affect our workgroup," significantly more are engaged, are thriving, and also strongly agree that their organizations are agile and that they know what is expected of them. In addition, they are significantly less likely to feel burned out at work, feel like they have too much to do, and feel stressed at work.
In this situation, change management's traditional multi-channeled, repetitive approach to communication may not be effective. Many leaders find they get more traction using a change management method that curates communication into short, tactical "chunks."
Just Enough Information: Chunk Each Message So Employees Can Absorb It
To chunk information, leaders start by sharing the big picture to introduce the concept of the change, and then quickly follow it with a short-term focus on the nearest milestone. That directs employees' attention where it needs to be -- on their own near-term performance and behavioral expectations, and on where to get help during the transition.
Many leaders find they get more traction using a change management method that curates communication into short, tactical "chunks."
Sometimes called microlearning, "chunking" is a concept introduced by cognitive psychologist George A. Miller (and often used by UX experts and instructional designers) to solve a communication problem: The more variables in a message, the less accurately the audience remembers what they heard.
Chunking also solves memory problems by dividing an information set into pieces and then regrouping the pieces into a meaningful whole. This format makes the material easier to remember and therefore easier to act upon. That's significant for change management initiatives with multiple variables -- like a big workplace shift or a new, overarching business strategy.
Consider a leader who is engineering a hybrid workplace. Because people tend to think, feel and act at the most local level -- especially when under stress -- her message chunks should deliver the most near-term, most local and most important aspects of the shift to hybrid, along with behavior "guardrails."
"We're ready to start our hybrid work structure. Our goal is to keep quality and productivity near our same past levels as we transition, but most importantly we need to concentrate on keeping customers engaged as we transition. You'll meet with your manager this week to talk about your and your team's WFH schedules and your expectations. So when you meet, please spend time talking about what you need and what the team needs to do to meet our customers' needs during this change."
Although this leader was speaking about the new hybrid work strategy, she focused the main part of her message on serving customers during the transition. That's important. By keeping the outcome very clear, she set a "guardrail." That gave team members the right criteria to base their decisions on -- which affects their behavior -- in a format directed to each employee.
- Organizational change: we're going hybrid
- Individual's expectation: focus on customer engagement
- Individual's objective: maintain productivity
- Individual's action: discuss change with manager
Chunking information helps employees focus on their upcoming hurdles, responsibilities and priorities in a changing environment. Knowing where to focus their energy comforts people, which can have an extremely positive impact on their leaders' change management initiative -- and on employees too.
Making Connections Between Chunks of Information
Chunked information creates a foundation of communication that leaders can build upon. The structure shouldn't change, although the new information should relate to the last communication:
- Organizational change: new change and its relation to prior one
- Individual's expectation: new expectation in relation to prior one
- Individual's objective: new objective in relation to prior one
- Individual's action: new action in relation to prior one
By communicating this way, leaders can pace the information at a rate employees can absorb while building on the information that employees have already received.
The chunking method makes information memorable and actionable, but it also makes employees more confident that they can achieve what their leader asks of them. This sense of achievement can have a halo effect over change itself: Confident employees learn that they can handle this change, and then they believe they can handle the next one too.
The chunking method makes information memorable and actionable, but it also makes employees more confident that they can achieve what their leader asks of them.
Say that a big financial shift is also on the horizon for the company that is going hybrid. That kind of situation, good or bad, can unnerve employees. In the next chunk, ideally within a month or two, that leader focuses the organization on the next challenge: revenue growth.
"Now that we're getting the hang of hybrid, let's start thinking about how we make and spend money. Profit is growth, and we want to keep growing. With the investment we made to support hybrid work, we need to trim some of our costs. So think about how your work builds our bottom line. Talk it through with your teams and manager. Where are you most efficient? Or least? Think about what you can do to prevent waste and be even more productive now that we're hybrid."
Chunking Helps Managers Operationalize Change
It goes without saying that managers must be able to respond accurately and individually. Managers operationalize change initiatives at the team level. But the manager experience, Gallup research shows, often includes multiple conflicting priorities, unclear expectations and incessant interruptions. And that obscurity trickles down: Among employees who do not strongly agree that their employer communicates a clear plan of action regarding changes that affect their work, 38% also do not strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work, according to Gallup's Work Experience Communication Survey.
Chunking information about change can disrupt those unhelpful patterns. Managers can operationalize workflow changes in small increments that workers can easily absorb. For managers with limited time and bandwidth, that is a relief. And because leaders will communicate information chunks sequentially, they will necessarily communicate more often. They will probably have an avid audience too, as the organization will be waiting for leaders to share the next major action item to focus on. Just 17% of employees in the same survey strongly agree that "there is open communication throughout all levels of the organization."
This audience may be distracted -- people have a lot to cope with in times of change, which creates competition for their attention. Gallup audits can help leaders identify organizational "noise," burnout risks and communication gaps to help managers shouldering change management plans. In turn, those managers can connect change management messages from leaders to the team's daily work.
Change Management With More Speed, Less Friction and Better Results
Change happens with more speed, less friction and better results when employees adapt resiliently. Many cannot right now -- since the pandemic began, workers' daily stress and worry have reached the highest levels ever tracked by Gallup. Leaders must be sensitive to this.
Yet, the only way a company can improve is through change. Employees have to absorb new work styles, strategies and processes to get through these tough times and on to better ones.
Chunking information helps because it directs energy to the right tasks -- the tasks that move organizations to a better future. Achieving that future is, of course, why change management is a core leadership demand. A sensitive, logical, sequential approach to communicating change may be just what leaders need to succeed.