The Psychology of Communicating Change in Innovation

Photo by: Alan Turkus

Photo by: Alan Turkus

I first came across the Sally-Anne test in one of my college psychology classes. It’s a cartoon that can be used to test whether an individual (most commonly a young child or a person with autism) has, what psychologists call, a “Theory of Mind”— whether they understand that others have knowledge and beliefs different from their own and informed by different experiences. Most simply, it's the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.

Here is the test:

I fail this test myself once in a while when I say to my husband, “Don’t forget we have dinner plans Friday,” and he says, “You’ve never once mentioned that.” Sometimes he’s forgetful, but far more frequently, I forget to say things out loud. I mean, I knew about it— did osmosis fail me again?

This idea came to mind for me recently when thinking about how change is communicated in organizations. As the planner, orchestrator and implementer of change, you are deeply embedded in the challenge at hand: the strategy, the hurdles, the progress, and the likely outcome. Change may take weeks or it may take months or years, but whichever it is, you fully understand why that is the case. Being a change leader may not be fun or easy, but you have something that others in your organization may not have: complete knowledge of the who, what, where, when, why and how of the project.

While most change leaders know to send out periodic communications and ask for input, the big trick is knowing if and when that is enough. Consider two sides of the same situation:

Change leader: “I sent out an email to everyone two weeks ago with a project status update saying everything was on track. There just hasn’t been anything to report since then. We’re waiting on approval from another department, IT is working on estimated costs, and at our big meeting last week we really only got so far as making a plan for the plan. We’re meeting again next week. I’ll send out another email when there’s something to share since everyone knows as much as we do.”

Change recipient: “Two weeks ago we received a email telling us that everything was on track, but who knows what that means. I think they don’t want to commit to any deadlines because they’re afraid they may not be able to pull it off, and then where does that leave us? We all know they had a big meeting last week, but we haven’t heard a word about what decisions have been made. Are they afraid we’ll react badly? Maybe they’re changing course and just don’t know how to tell us? My friend told me the other day he heard they’re canceling the whole thing. I mean, what else would explain how closed-lipped they’ve been?”

The facts of the situation are the same on both sides, but the beliefs each holds about the situation are drastically different. While the change leader may think the approval wait time, the IT process, and the less-than productive meeting are non-news-worthy items and silly to share out, she may not realize that not having this knowledge is breeding skepticism, resentfulness, and an active rumor mill among the change recipients. Among change recipients, there is never a knowledge vacuum: if you don’t supply the truth, those within the system will create their own version of events (and probably a far less pretty version of reality). 

So help Sally out and share what you know. She wasn’t at the meeting. She probably wasn’t invited to it. And nobody likes losing their marbles. 

When have you seen organizational change managed successfully? Send me a message: @BreeAGroff