Recently, IABC Board member, Wayne Aspland, talked to Adrian Cropley, ABC about a pivotal time in his life and career. Here’s what Adrian had to say.
In my younger days, I spent 15 years as a volunteer with Scouts Victoria. During this time, I had the joy of working with a ‘pack’ (as they’re called in Scouting parlance) of 8 to 10 year olds as a Cub Scout leader.
While I didn’t realise it at the time, this experience taught me a critical lesson about change management and communication. It’s something I now apply every day in my role as an adviser to organisations going through change.
It’s a lesson about empathy. Remembering that you’re dealing with people, not numbers. Listening, not just talking. Trying to put yourself in the position of your stakeholders. And, very specifically, remembering that the more traumatic aspects of change (like redundancy programs) impact not just the people leaving, but the people left behind as well.
One day all those years ago, a nine-year old boy in my pack suffered the unthinkable – his mother passed away suddenly.
It just so happened that I was taking the pack to a Cub event the next day and I agonised over whether I should suggest that he doesn’t go. In the end, I felt that it was his decision and that I should ask, rather than advise, him.
To my surprise, he was resolute. He definitely wanted to go. In hindsight, I recognise that this was probably a great decision on his part. The event was an opportunity to escape what must have been a physical and emotional whirlwind.
When we all got together the next day, I couldn’t help but notice that the boy’s fellow Cubs were feeling and acting awkwardly. They knew, of course, but they didn’t know how to react. Should they openly discuss the tragedy with him? Should they leave it to one side and put on a happy front?
I’m sure this is something we’ve all felt at times when a friend or colleague has experienced a tragedy.
Later in the day, we were all sitting around talking when the boy and I decided to raise the issue.
“As you all know, your friend’s mother has died. We thought it might be good to talk about this. Does anyone have any questions?”
Immediately, everyone opened up and the resulting conversation totally changed the dynamic that had been in place all day. It became an opportunity for all the children – including the boy himself – to express and discuss their emotions.
20 years later, I ran into this young boy again. Of course, he was a fully-grown man by then.
He told me that the discussion we had that night was a life-changing event for him and he’s never forgotten it.
This experience taught me a very important lesson about change management and communication. As I said at the beginning, this lesson is about the important role empathy plays in change.
For change programs to succeed, your people need to embrace and deliver them. To use that well-trodden word, they need to be engaged. This applies not just to the people directly impacted by the change, but to the people around them as well.
People need the time to talk about the change that’s being put in front of them. Just as importantly, we, as change leaders need to listen to them and factor their thoughts and feelings into our planning.
A particularly poignant example of this involves the redundancy programs that so often accompany change.
There’s a saying that adults are just kids with bigger bodies. The fact that we’re not open with our emotions in the way children tend to be doesn’t mean we don’t have them.
And, sometimes (like during redundancies), we need the chance to share those emotions… even in the workplace.
As a result, I always advise my clients to give departing employees and their colleagues a chance to vent. Not just for the good of the people involved but for the good of the organisation as well.
Don’t order departing employees to clear their desks under the watchful eye of a security guard who then walks them out the door.
It’s demeaning – not just to the ex-employee, but to his or her friends and colleagues as well.
It’s heartless. It doesn’t give people the chance to share their feelings.
And it’s brainless as well. You might think you’re avoiding a counter-productive conversation but, in reality, you’re doing the opposite.
The poor treatment of departing employees is one of the key reasons why productivity tends to go down not just during change programs, but after them as well.
It also contributes to the well-documented decline in corporate trust. Why should people, including the employees who aren’t leaving, trust you when you go out of your way to show you don’t trust them?
So, when you have to make people redundant, don’t just pull the band aid off. Give the wound some time to heal. Let people get together. Give them time to vent, to discuss, to reconcile and to move forward.
It’s in everyone’s best interests… including yours.
Adrian Cropley, ABC, Fellow RSA
An accredited business communicator, and past global chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Adrian Cropley is widely recognised as one of the world’s foremost experts in strategic communication. He founded Cropley Communication in 2004, supporting clients with Change, Communication & Coaching solutions and recently launched the Centre for Strategic Communication Excellence, a Global training and development organisation, run for communication professionals, by communication professional.
With a career spanning over 25 years, Adrian has worked with clients all over the world, including Fortune 500 companies, on major change communication initiatives, internal communication reviews and strategies, professional development programs and executive leadership and coaching. At the IABC he implemented the IABC Career Road Map, kick-started a global ISO certification for the profession and developed the IABC Academy.
Adrian pioneered the Melcrum Internal Communication Black Belt program in Asia Pacific and is a sought after facilitator, speaker and thought leader. He has been a keynote speaker and workshop leader on strategic and change communication at international conferences in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Middle East, Malaysia, Singapore, China, India, Hong Kong, Thailand, New Zealand and Australia.
He has received a number of awards including international Gold Quill awards for communication excellence. Adrian is a member of the Program Advisory Committee for the RMIT School of Media and Communication, the Board of Governance for Sacred Heart Mission in Melbourne and a Director for Evolve Information Services.