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August 23, 2021

Managing Through Change? Employees Need to Know the Context


We all know that change is part of business and isn’t going away any time soon. Yet that reality can be hard on employees, who are constantly bombarded with so much information of all kinds that they can’t digest it. That’s why it’s so important to place any big change in context to help employees adjust.

By context, we mean the “why,” or the background and reasoning behind a change that needs to take place. For instance, the context could be industry or financial concerns that put pressure on the business. Most recently, the pandemic and racial unrest presented new and obvious challenges, prompting significant changes or adjustments to the overall strategy and approach for many businesses.

As leaders, part of our role is to create a shared organizational context. That involves painting a clear picture of why any change matters and why a particular strategy or vision is being pursued for the good of the entire organization.

This is an important message that I emphasize in my new book, Heart First: Lasting Leader Lessons from a Year that Changed Everything. In it, I share three key tactics for helping employees navigate change:

Strategies for Navigating Change

  1. Think ahead and draw clear linkages between the initiative and the business imperative driving the change – be sure to explain the “what” as well as the “why.”
  2. Paint a picture of what the change means to employees and spend time thinking about how they might react to that change.
  3. Create your own calendar of communication events and milestones to ensure you keep people in the loop along the way.

It’s also important to remember that based on what’s happening in the moment, the organizational context you provide may need to continually fluctuate. This may feel like a simple concept, but it’s one of the biggest mistakes leaders make – they often forget to communicate the why behind any decision.


Resist a Common Trap

There are several key reasons that leaders forget to explain the context, but one of the big ones is falling in this trap: “They already know it.” It is human nature to think others have the same information leaders have, so we skip critical details that provide context. It’s like a story where you’re on Chapter 14, and your staff are on various beginning chapters. It’s natural to forget they haven’t been privy to the discussions that leadership has, and therefore we need to start communication with Chapter One. That context is critically important, even if some have heard it before. Thank about it as “Once Upon a Time” in headline form – set up the situation and show the big picture so everyone starts with the same base of knowledge.

Remember the Relevance and “What’s in It for Me”

In setting the context for employees, it’s also important to answer one of the biggest questions on employees’ minds: What’s in it for me? Especially in a crisis situation, people have little patience for hearing about topics they don’t see as directly meaningful to them, things that may seem like distractions from getting their work done on deadline or under pressure. Serious times call for focus on serious issues. As a leader, you need to filter out what really doesn’t matter today and focus on what does. Taking that step as a leader is an exercise in putting things in context – the context of what’s most important for your business to succeed and grow.

As leaders and communicators, what creative approaches are you taking to ensure your teams understand the context and vision and are aligned on what to do?

David Grossman

“Heart First” is the leader and communicator playbook for moving from a period of crisis and change for business to become a successful, thriving and inspired organization. Click below to learn more about Heart First and order yours today:

Click to learn more and order a copy of Heart First

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