Monday, June 11, 2012

The character of communication: a new study reveals how leaders usecommunication and change management to build sustainable performance

Communication by P Shanks
Communication, a photo by P Shanks on Flickr.
Whether it's about the business or the employee experience, there needs to be a sense of direction and steps to follow.

In a challenging and dynamic business world, success depends on establishing a dear path to navigate through complexity. Organizations and their leaders wherever they are and whatever business environment they face--must be able to chart the right course and deliver results.

We know intuitively--and research confirms--that effective leaders can create true competitive advantage. Leadership is the top global driver of employee engagement, according to the Towers Watson 2010 Global Workforce Study. High employee engagement, in turn, translates to better financial performance: In Towers Watson's Global Normative Database, companies with high employee engagement generate operating margins nearly 1.5 times higher than companies with low engagement.


Specific directions vary according to each company's strategic imperatives, but regardless of focus, the best leaders create a clear path forward for their people. Towers Watsoffs 20112012 Change and Communication ROI Study sheds new light on how leaders are using change and communication

processes to demonstrate these leadership characteristics.

How do you do it?

According to Towers Watson's Global Normative Database, highly engaged employees at high-performance companies rate leaders as having these characteristics:

* Principled--driving the company from a shared set of guiding principles by clarifying values, operating with integrity in everything they do and showing an unrelenting commitment to the customer.

* Agile--managing the challenges of ongoing change effectively; and supporting the organization to evolve in new and innovative ways.

* Trustworthy--stressing fairness in decision making and empowering people in their roles.

Leaders who are seen as demonstrating these characteristics use communication and change practice to produce:

* Clarity--conveying the direction of the business along with ways they can contribute to the enterprise.

* Confidence--following a disciplined process for changing and communicating to create greater certainty, confidence and engagement among employees.

* Community--building a sense that employees and leaders are in it together and share both the challenges and rewards of working.

The Change and Communication ROI Study demonstrates that effective change and communication practices also help the bottom line. Organizations that are highly effective at both communication and change management are more than twice as likely to outperform those that are not effective at either. This holds true in any industry, region or economy.

Creating a clear direction requires conveying a consistent story about the business; creating greater certainty, confidence and engagement among employees; and building a shared experience across diverse audiences.

Creating clarity

Leaders at highly effective organizations demonstrate their integrity by being clear about the future with their employees, even when markets or strategies are in flux. Whether it's about the business or the employee experience, there needs to be a sense of direction and steps to follow. With help from communication professionals, leaders must stand on firm values and point the way forward.

The study found that just over half of participants are effective at these fundamental practices. Most organizations continue to rely on one-way electronic media, such as email or intranet pages, while relatively few ask senior leaders to deliver messages about the organizational culture and values. This is a missed opportunity: Senior leaders and managers are ideal conduits to build common understanding around culture and values.

Organizations that do communicate effectively use a mix of media--including interactive electronic media and social networking--to reinforce messaging from the top among increasingly diverse and selective audiences.

Leading with confidence

As the world grows more complex, demands more numerous and media more varied, the basis for agility is fundamental, even old-fashioned. The best organizations see an opportunity, build a plan, and are disciplined in following it, measuring results and making course corrections. They engage stakeholders in the process, especially managers and leaders. By taking these fundamental steps, they reduce the level of uncertainty, indicating that someone has a firm hand on the wheel--which breeds confidence.

Leaders who deliver confidence have a significant impact. Employees at highly effective organizations are 2.5 to three times as likely to report that their leaders are authentic and transparent in delivering messages when compared with organizations with low effectiveness. In addition, their leaders are accessible and responsive to employee ideas. Creating a dialogue with employees takes time from a busy leader's schedule. However, the data show a good return on this investment (see chart on facing page).

The most productive organizations follow a disciplined process for change management and communication to create greater certainty, confidence and engagement among employees. Communication professionals can help the organization set a course, correct along the way and apply what they learn toward future efforts. When compared with companies with low change management and communication effectiveness, those that are highly effective at change management are nearly five times as likely to create an integrated communication and change management strategy--and more than eight times as likely to continue to exhibit new behaviors and use new skills after changes are made.

Building community

What do leaders do to build community? First, they recognize that a shared experience and purpose are important to the business. They understand that building trust requires an ongoing conversation. They do not shy away from connecting with employees, and they have the courage to address controversy.

Most organizations aren't fully leveraging leaders to create community and grow trust. Two-thirds of all participants in the study report that they are using leadership visits to create a shared experience among employees, although most seem to be focused on business results. While business results are important, integrating new employees and seeking key feedback about the company's plans and progress also help build a long-term, trusted relationship between senior leaders and employees.

Of course, a healthy community cannot be driven simply by leadership. It emerges over time from a myriad of interactions. Social media extend existing social networks beyond face-to-face interaction and enable audiences to segment automatically. While social networks are ideally suited to building community within an organization, overall just over half (51 percent) of the study participants use it for this purpose, and only about one-third of those find it effective. Not surprisingly, among companies that are highly effective at communicating, we find a higher frequency of use and effectiveness. Social media are also well suited to support collaboration, and here we find a similar trend across all organizations.

How do you make communication training effective?

Many organizations are training leaders on communication and change management, yet few find it effective. Here are some guiding principles that characterize effective training:

* Stay focused and be specific. Document learning objectives, tie them to organizational goals, and build content around those objectives.

* Mix it up. Everyone learns differently, so a mix of learning experiences provides better results. Build a curriculum that includes self-service (e-learning, book summaries, articles, videos) and classroom-based programs. Above all, keep it fun and interactive.

* Take breaks. For instructor-led training, limit each module to 90 minutes. With e-learning, keep it to no longer than 45 minutes.

In their book Manager Redefined, Thomas Davenport and Stephen Harding note that as a leader, "your job is to lead your organization to the promised land of marketplace advantage. This means looking behind every tree and under every rock for a competitive advantage."

The Change and Communication ROI Study indicates that effective communication and change management practices are core to that advantage. The best recognize that the demands and pace of change in business don't always (or even often) coincide with employees' needs and capacity for change. Effective business leaders know this. They understand the benefit of hearing the perspective and counsel of communication and change professionals--of being not only informed of employees' readiness for change and capacity for training, but also educated in the nuances of message, media and manager support that mark successful change efforts.

Principled, agile and trustworthy leaders use effective communication and change management practices to create a clear path and build sustainable performance. Helping leaders improve their effectiveness in communication and change makes good business sense.

Finding the link between communication and effectiveness

Towers Watson's 2011-2012 Change and Communication ROI Study looked at data collected in April and May 2011 from 604 organizations in various regions around the world. Industries represented included manufacturing, financial services, health care, IT and telecommunications, and the public sector.

Most questions in the survey used a five-point Likert or effectiveness scale. Where high and low effectiveness were compared, the study showed how many of the organizations designated as having high or low change or communication effectiveness responded to the item with a 4, a 5 (agree/strongly agree or effective/highly effective) or a yes answer.

Defining communication and change effectiveness

Highly effective firms represent the top third of study participants, with the highest overall communication effectiveness or change effectiveness scores based on their responses to the survey items that measure these areas. Less effective firms represent the bottom third of participants, with the lowest overall effectiveness. Researchers looked at the financial performance of the companies in the highly effective group to measure the relationship between financial performance and communication effectiveness.

Assessing effectiveness and performance

In order to conduct the analysis, participants were divided into three groups based on their self-reported financial performance relative to their peers'. The three groups are defined as follows:

* High performers are those organizations that report performing substantially above their peer group.

* Average performers are those that report performing about the same as or slightly above their peer group.

* Below-average performers are those that report performing slightly or substantially below their peer group.

Using this information, Towers Watson confirmed the strong link between change and communication effectiveness and better financial performance:

* Companies that are highly effective at communication are 1.7 times as likely to be high-performing financially than companies that are not highly effective at communication.

* Companies that are highly effective at both communication and change management are 2.5 times as likely to be high-performing than companies that are not highly effective at either.

Effective leaders are authentic, accessible and transparent

The Towers Watson study asked participants to describe the
communication skills among their organization's leaders as follows:

Leaders at my organization are:

Overall High Low
communications communications
effectiveness effectiveness

Authentic in delivery
of messages 49% 72% 24%

Accessible and
responsive to employee
ideas or questions 49% 71% 28%

Transparent in
messages to employees 42% 66% 19%

Creating a dialogue
with employees 41% 63% 21%

Note: Table made from bar graph.
Leading through change

Leadership activities, such as those noted below, are among the primary drivers of overall change success, and they are most important during the planning phase of a change initiative. While most of the study participants reported that they're effective at finding executive sponsorship for a change, only 32 percent are effective at creating strong employee motivation for making the change happen. Given this insight, it's not surprising that less than half of participants are able to keep their change initiatives on schedule and on budget. Rational and tangible activities--like documenting a vision or creating a project plan--are important and relatively straightforward for most. Leaders and managers may need extra help with the emotional elements of change that are key to motivating employees to embrace new behaviors.

Effective companies engage in leading activities to drive effective
change management

Study participants were asked: How effective is your organization
at the following?

Overall High Low
change change
effectiveness effectiveness

Developing a clear
vision of desired
organizational change 48% 84% 19%

Creating strong
employee motivation for
making organizational
change 32% 67% 9%

Finding executive
sponsorship for
organizational change 56% 85% 26%

Creating an integrated
communication and change
management strategy 37% 72% 15%

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Effective companies involve the communication function early in the
change process

It's important to note that change work is not owned by the C-suite.
Data show that communication and change management professionals play
a critical role. Highly effective firms recognize this fact and
involve the internal communication function early in change planning.
Study participants were asked: When your organization makes changes,
at what phase does the internal communication function first become
involved in the decision-making process?

Overall High Low
change change
effectiveness effectiveness

the problem
or opportunity 14% 22% 9%

approaches to
the issue 26% 29% 20%

Selecting the
approach to
the issue 10% 11% 6%

Planning the
implementation 20% 18% 22%

the change
Only if a
problem arises 6% 2% 10%

Not applicable 7% 5% 13%

Note: Table made from bar graph.
learn more Download the 2011-2012 Change and Communication ROI Study and an addendum on effective change management at

Kathryn Yates is Towers Watson's global practice leader for communication and change management, and is based in Towers Watson's Chicago office. She has more than 25 years of experience in communication and operations management.

Source Citation
Vallas, Sara, and Kathryn Yates. "The character of communication: a new study reveals how leaders use communication and change management to build sustainable performance." Communication World May-June 2012: 23+. Communications and Mass Media Collection. Web. 11 June 2012.
Document URL

Gale Document Number: GALE|A288428898

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