Alligator Jaws and The Change Communication Gap

“There’s a big gap here” said my colleague Sven, holding his arms in the position of a hungry alligator’s jaws.

“The top is what we’re doing…and the bottom is what our bosses understand.”

The alligator impression came on the back of another demand from “Above” to produce the same deliverable in yet another form of packaging, but it also reflects the challenge a lot of internal comms and change folks seem to be facing.

Part of the challenge may be our inability to frame our ideas succinctly enough for the technically-educated senior managers to whom we report.  Part of it may reflect these managers unease with altering a status quo that they are nonetheless on the record to change.  Or, more perniciously, there may be deep distrust of the more counter-intuitive approaches that are coming into fore – the social and behavior innovations which offer much promise in accelerating and embedding change, but present stark challenges to those who cling to a belief in hierarchical control.

The problem with counter-intuitive solutions is not necessarily whether they work, or whether they can be proven to work (with the successes of more enlightened practitioners adding daily to the knowledge base).  The problem is that embracing them means both to accept that conventional wisdom may actually be wrong, and to accept the risk involved in doing something that “just doesn’t seem right” even if there is proof and conviction on the other side of the table.

Having the courage of one’s convictions as a practitioner is necessary if we strategic communicators are to progress as a professional tribe.  But such courage alone is not sufficient.

The likes of McBostocenturebooz are all too happy to sell in old-fashioned, top-down, one-way cascade processes as “change communication”, and do so in a way that appeals more to executives’ sense of authority.

So, how do we win these battles?  I haven’t figured that one out, but I see two angles.  The first angle that could prove useful is that of risk management.  Intuitive, linear approaches like cascading seem to be de-risked, when in fact, they host the very risks implicated in many if not most change failures.  Their linear appeal papers over the ability of resisters, and particularly resistant middle managers, to subvert, sabotage and savage any changes, almost guaranteeing failure without embedding some upward accountability.

But the second angle is more tricky.  How can you sell “upward accountability” in an environment where the CEO likes to say “this is not a democracy?”

In my view the normal workplace is no less democratic than a traditional Western country.  Employees are allowed to make most of their own decisions. They associate and communicate mostly with whom they please, and ultimately make the decision of whether to show up for work on any day and whether to do their work or something else with their time.

But I view the workplace through the lens of my training as a politico and a social researcher who has come very late to corporate life.  Articulating it – and the modern tools and tricks of change communication – through the frame of a technically trained senior manager whose job is on the line is proving far more of a challenge, so far.


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