With BREXIT, a new UK Prime Minister and leadership challenges in the Labour party, leaders everywhere are aiming to influence the widest possible audience to embed their brand of change.
People say that they hate change. It can be quite brutal, be sudden and have personal impact. This kind of change is often debilitating and the consequences of it are what lead people to think that they hate it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even where changes, for all kinds of reasons, happen at pace, competent leadership teams are usually in a position to plan for and help people understand change and how they may adapt to it.
But whether it’s a change in leader, a change in Government, or an acquisition (and regulatory rules affect timing of communication), at what point in the change process do leaders actually sit down and write down what they want to say to the people that are going to be affected by the change? How do they reduce the risk of the message being misunderstood, or of not influencing people to follow them?
A simple change narrative is often one of the last things to get done, after every strategic option has been weighed up, after all the details have been thrashed out, after all the new appointments are agreed; we finally get down to how we’re going to explain this change to people that have never heard about it before. The timeframe is often quite tight and to paraphrase Mark Twain, “I didn’t have time to write a short note so I wrote a long one”, which might mean people never read or listen to the narrative, or it has no effect or worse unintended effects.
What is Ambidextrous communication?
Leaders, in fact everyone, have their own preferred style of communicating or trying to influence people. Gary Yukl and Cecilia Falbe asked, as part of their 1994 Academy of Management Journal article: ‘which influence strategies are most used, and what impact do these strategies have in terms of resistance, compliance and commitment’. Each are key questions for leaders communicating change. They found that most used styles were rational persuasion and pressure. The least used were consultation and inspirational appeal. Anyone want to guess which two are most and least effective at gaining people’s commitment to anything, and the most and least used? You guessed it; the least effective is used most; the most effective, used least.
Most adults are comfortable using only two influence skills. About half of the influence approaches defined in Yukl and Falbe’s study are appeals to another person’s ‘Head’ or thinking processes (rational persuasion, exchange, legitimating, and pressure); the other half appeal to another person’s ‘Heart’ or emotions (personal appeal, inspiration, ingratiation, consultation, coalition building). It might sound obvious, but if you want to influence more people, you have to appeal to Head and Heart (sometimes also referred to as Left and Right brain thinkers). Many elections are won and lost on the ability of the contenders to connect with the hearts of the voters and not just address their logic centre!
Which is YOUR preference for communicating or hearing about change? Head or Heart? Are you a Left or Right brain thinker? If you have ever completed one of the psychometric profiling tools like Clarity4D or similar, it will have highlighted some of your preferences, but even if you haven’t, you’ll probably be able to guess which ‘side’ is your natural and preferred one. You may not be a wholly Left or Right brained thinker or processor of information, but you are probably biased toward one or the other.
To be successful at influencing people, you need to employ ambidextrous communication in your thinking and influencing. Since it’s unlikely to be your natural state, you’ll need a way to adapt to it.
Ambidextrous communication – a narrative for change
As a leader you need to influence the widest possible audience with your message; people with different learning and information processing styles are looking for different things in your communication and often tune out the parts that don’t fit or appeal to them. Whichever is your own preference, and whatever change you’re aiming to achieve, here’s a way to think about it in four simple stages that covers Left and Right brain (Head and Heart) ways of thinking:
- Describe what’s changing and why (rational and left brained thinking – Head)
- Link the ‘what’ from step 1 above with ‘how’ this delivers a better future; it’s fit within your vision or the part it plays in delivering your strategy (right brained and visionary thinking – Heart)
- Describe how you have come to this point, how people like ‘you’ (your audience) have so far been involved in shaping the way in which the change will happen and how the audience can be further involved in shaping the road to the change. Describe how communication about the change will work from this point (right brained and feeling – Heart)
- The final step is important and often overlooked. The change may be large or small, complicated or simple. People will be trying to understand it and will be doing so at different rates, but they will quickly come to the point of asking “what does this mean for me? How will this affect my job, or my family?” So, explain the things which WILL change and WHEN, and the things that WILL NOT (rational and left brained thinking – Head). I summarise this sometimes, especially when the change is great, as: “That’s a lot of stuff changing, but what will actually be different for me next Monday morning?” Without real clarity in this part, people will make things up for themselves, and in this ‘social’ age, share it widely, leading to greater uncertainty, worry and resistance to change.
Whatever your audiences’ preference for communication, these simple steps help you craft a narrative that will appeal to, and influence, the widest possible number of people. Try it, or contact us to help you accelerate and deliver a compelling message for change in your organisation or business.
Simon Hardaker is an internal strategic communications expert and leadership coach and key Change Maker.