Senders and Receivers – understanding why some communications work and others don’t
Many project leaders or project managers appreciate the
critical need for communications during change. In fact,
many project leaders believe that “change management”
equals “effective communications.” To complicate
matters, many project teams also believe that the
primary messages employees want to hear are centered on
the project (what is happening and when will it happen),
and that employees want to hear these messages from
In this tutorial, we will examine the concept of senders and receivers,
and uncover how project teams can undermine their own changes by
communicating the wrong messages with the wrong people. We will reveal
who employees really want to hear from, and how to make these
Defining Senders and Receivers
Every change can be viewed from the perspective of a sender and a
receiver. A sender is anyone providing information about the change. A
receiver is anyone being given information about the change.
Senders and Receivers are often not in a dialogue at the onset of a
change. They talk right past one another. What a sender says and what a
receiver hears are typically two very different messages. For example,
if a supervisor sits down with an employee to discuss a major
restructuring project within the company, the supervisor may be
enthusiastic and positive. She may cover all the key messages including
the business reasons for change, the risk of not changing and the
urgency to change the organization to remain competitive. The supervisor
may even emphasize that this is a challenging and exciting time.
However, when the employee discusses this change at home over dinner,
the key messages to his family are often:
“I may not have a job.”
“The company is having trouble.”
Copyright © Prosci and Bill Cigliano
The supervisor may spend 95% of the conversation talking about the
business and 5% talking about the implications to the employee. At home,
the employee is more likely to spend 95% of the time talking about the
impact on him or her personally and 5% on the issues facing the company.
The consequence is that much of the key business information
communicated by the supervisor to the employee in this first
conversation is not heard. It is overshadowed by concerns related to job
security and fear about change.
Many factors influence what an employee hears and how that information
is interpreted. Examples of these factors include:
- Other career or educational plans
- Situations at home or with personal relationships
- Their past experience with other changes at work
- What they have heard from their friends or work colleagues
- Their current performance on the job
- Whether or not they trust or respect the sender
Now multiply these factors by the number of employees who are the
receivers of change messages, and add even more variables as each person
could have a different change agenda at work. You can begin to
appreciate the challenge faced by many businesses as they communicate
about change to their employees.
Based on Prosci’s change management research studies beginning in 1998
and running through 2011 (findings are compiled in the report
Best Practices in Change Management - 2012 Edition), employees have consistently preferred two
primary senders of change messages. Much to the surprise of some
projects, the project team is not a preferred sender.
preferred sender of change messages is the person who the employee views
as “in charge,” typically a senior manager or executive. From this
person, employees want to hear:
- Why are we changing?
- What is the risk of not changing?
- How does this change align with our vision and business direction?
The second preferred sender is an employee’s
immediate supervisor. From
this person, employees want to hear:
- How does this impact me and our group?
- How will this change affect my day-to-day responsibilities?
- What’s in it for me or WIIFM?
- What's in it for us (our team or workgroup)?
So while some project teams have made an assumption that employees want
to hear about the “what and when,” the research data clearly shows that
employees only express interest in the “future state” once they have
built an awareness of why the change is happening, and have made a
personal choice to engage in the change. Any communications from the
project team about new processes, new systems or the project schedule
fall on deaf ears until employees have heard from their preferred
senders regarding the topics they care about most.
The reality of miscommunications and misunderstandings
The sender and receiver concept illustrates another very clear lesson
when communicating about change, even when using the right people to
communicate the right message: what the sender says rarely matches what
employees hear, especially the first time around. Many experienced
change management practitioners follow a prescribed communications plan
to share information about the change, including involving the right
people. However, many managers and supervisors do not assess what their
employees actually heard, nor do they understand how that information
was processed. They merely complete a required communication activity,
check off a box, and return to their already busy day. A poor assumption
is that “employees heard me and understood exactly what I meant.”
More likely, employees heard only a fraction of what was said, and their
translation of that message will be unique to their personal situation.
Some employees may have heard more than what was said, or will make up
answers to questions that they do not understand.
The answers they make
up are typically worse than reality. This information spreads through
the background conversations (or rumor mill) until employees are now
comparing “official communications” against what they heard from their
work colleagues or friends.
Implications for practitioners
What does this mean for change management practitioners? Realizing that
“what receivers hear and what senders say” is not always the same is the
first step to understanding that change management cannot be reduced to
a set of activities or steps without the addition of
thoughtful guidance on the part of the change manager who can scale, customize and adjust as
necessary. Understanding the underlying phenomena of communications,
including the sender/receiver concept, causes us to rethink our
traditional modes of communicating. Change management practitioners,
managers and executives alike must not only be clear in their
communications, they must also listen to employees to understand how
their messages are being received. They then must be willing to
communicate over and over again, and be willing to correct
misinformation that naturally spreads during change.
A common complaint from senior leaders is that they feel like they
repeating themselves. In reality, they may have given the same message
to multiple groups, but communicated to a specific employee group only
once. The most common error an executive makes when communicating about
change is not communicating enough. Your role as a change practitioner
is to coach executive sponsors to stay the course, be consistent, and
continue communications with employees from inception to implementation.
They play a critical role in building awareness at the onset of a
change, and reinforcing that change all the way through implementation.
Gone are the days of simply “kicking off the change” and leaving it up
to the project team to make it happen. Change practitioners should plan
on key messages being repeated up to five to seven times before they are
truly heard by employees.
A final lesson that can be learned from the sender/receiver concept
revolves around the mode or method of communicating with employees. For
more than 10 years, the research data clearly points to face-to-face
communications as the most powerful and most effective. Even in this age
of social media and electronic devices that never leave our side, the
basic elements of communication remain: only a fraction of the message
is carried by the content of the message. A primary component of
communications is carried in the tone and body language of the sender.
Credibility and respect are conveyed not simply through words, but
intent, and intent is sensed, not simply heard. As difficult as
face-to-face communications can be, they have stood the test of time as
being the leading channel for communicating about change effectively.
Change management communication is only effective when employees have
internalized the change messages and can begin the transition process.
They need the opportunity to hear from their preferred senders, to
process that information over time, and ultimately to make a choice to
move forward. Once this occurs, employees are prepared to hear more from
the project or change team about the “what” and “when.” Then they are
ready for training, ready for the details, and ready to make a positive
contribution to the success of the change.
In this tutorial series:
Module 1: The psychology of change
– understanding the guiding principles of effective change
- Module 2: Senders and Receivers – understanding
why some communications work and others don’t
Module 3: Resistance – understanding a
phenomena that is natural to all of us
Module 4: Authority for change – the role of
leadership during change
Module 5: How do the values of an
organization impact the approach to managing change?
Module 6: Incremental vs radical change
Module 7: The right answer is not enough
Module 8: Change is a process