Change Management: 6 Things You Shouldn’t Say, and 6 Things You Should

There’s one clear fact that any successful business must accept: change happens. Although the concept of change might be exciting, the actual execution of your change strategy can be challenging.

Change is a complex process with many variables and moving parts, your workforce being one of the most critical. You can have the best change management strategy in place, but if you unintentionally alienate the people involved, it will fail.

This is why a change management strategy that promotes open, clear and transparent communication between all parties is essential to the success of any organizational change. As a leader, it’s not only up to you to initiate and manage the conversation, but you also need to balance your team’s concerns with the direction your organization wants to take. This doesn’t necessarily mean making concessions, but simply to keep the dialogue going.

Oft cited studies have showed that 60 – 70% of change initiatives don’t succeed as expected*. There is some debate as to whether that number is as high as originally thought. However, regardless of the number, we do know that for the majority of cases, this happened due to lack of people engagement and accountability on the part of management.

So how can you increase employee engagement and increase the chances of a successful change? Here’s what I’ve found to be the top 6 phrases not to use during the process…and 6 phrases you should try instead.

  1. Don’t say: “This will be easy.”

Even if your workforce recognizes the need for change, it’s never an easy process to go through. If you have people who are resisting change, the job becomes even harder.

In either case, telling people that change will be easy might be met with skepticism. Remember – you’re privy to a lot of information that your workforce isn’t, so your perspective of the process is a lot different than theirs. By saying change will be easy, they may perceive your outlook as naïve, misinformed, or disconnected from their concerns.

Do say: “It’ll be a challenge, but we’ll get through it.”

Your workforce will appreciate your honesty and transparency about dealing with change, as well as your confidence that the pain will be only temporary. Be ready to provide the supports and the ears to listen to any issues that may come up.

  1. Don’t say: “Don’t worry about it. Everything will be fine.”

Very few things sound as dismissive as this phrase.

The first thought running through your team’s heads might be, “How do you know?” Sure, we hope that everything will be fine but frankly, who knows what problems will arise in the process, or what the end result night actually be? The longer and more complex the change initiative, the less likely you will be able to predict the end result.

Do say: “Here’s how we’ll get through the change process.”

Map out how you will handle any risks and uncertainties that might arise. By getting your workforce involved, you’ll be able to manage expectations as the plan is implemented. They’ll feel more confident knowing that you have a plan to deal with any issues that might come up.

  1. Don’t say: “You need to get on the ‘train’.”

This phrase will only result in shutting down further dialogue with your team. You’ll risk creating resentment with people whose resistance to change just got stronger. You might even convert some believers into non-believers!

The truth is that people don’t have to get on any “train”. Everyone has a choice. You could put the most innovative systems, supports, and accountability measures in place, but your people will ultimately decide for themselves whether they will engage with the change.

This is a hard principle for leaders to accept, but it’s true.

Do say: “I want to hear your concerns about this change.”

By demonstrating an honest interest in people’s concerns about change, you’ll demonstrate a willingness to engage with your workforce. This will also give you the opportunity to coach, support, and solve any problems that get brought up.

You may not be able to satisfy everyone’s concerns, but your efforts will still be recognized and remembered by your people.

  1. Don’t say: “These are all the positive reasons you should go along with this change.”

“Positive” is relative. What’s positive to you might not be positive to the rest of your team. The change will be much harder if people think the impact on them will be negative.

Do say: “Here’s why we’re making this change and here is the impact.”

Openly discuss the positive aspects and listen to and address any concerns. Providing a balanced approach builds trust and shows you aren’t out of touch with the reality of the change – whether it’s good or bad.

Remember – addressing the concern might not mean solving it, but your people will at least be happy that their thoughts were acknowledged.

  1. Don’t say: “Trust me.”

Even if you have a long, trusting relationship with your people, trust depends on much more. With a number of unknown variables that can happen during change, you’ll need more than just relationship trust to get through the change process.

The concept of trust is more complicated than trust in a single person or organization. Trust comes through action and information, not through a plea that might suggest you have something to hide.

Do say: “Is there anything I can do to help you manage the change?”

People want to know what’s going to change, what’s going to stay the same, what they still have control over, and what they won’t. Trust alone won’t answer those questions. Dialogue will.

Offer open, honest conversation about the change. If you do, your people will be more likely to develop trust in you and the change process ahead.

  1. Don’t say: “We are going to find efficiencies.”

This is a scary one that sometimes gets translated to “job loss”. This is what happens if it’s not clearly stated what you mean by “finding efficiencies”, how the change will affect them, and what the collateral effects might be.

We tend to use cushy words that tend to soften the blow of what’s really going on. Whether or not job losses are ahead, you’ll be creating a climate of fear, doubt, and uncertainty, which no one wants in the workplace. And the resistance to change will get even stronger.

Do say: “Here are the inefficiencies we’re looking to solve.”

Be completely clear about what this means, identifying which inefficiencies the change will solve, as well which efficiencies won’t be affected. Your people will appreciate your candor.

With honest, open communication, you’ll be able to alleviate many of the doubts and concerns that arise during workplace change. And by using these 6 recommended phrases, workplace change may just go a little easier for you!

*Kotter, J.P. (2008) A sense of urgency. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Senturia, T., Flees, L. and Maceda, M. (2008) Leading change management requires sticking to the plot. Bain and Company.

Beer, M. and Nohria, N. (2000a) Cracking the code of change. Harvard Business Review, Vol.78, Issue.3, pp.133-141.