How to Assess Stakeholder Attitudes About Change

The first article in this series covered the stages of change and how to clearly define change so that everyone touched by it will know what’s coming, when and how it may alter their lives.

Now, we need to be sure we know how our stakeholders (employees, clients, customers, others) are thinking and feeling about the change. This gives us the information to create effective messages and delivery channels, and a more finely tuned sense of timing. Importantly, this infuses our change program with integrity and demonstrates that we respect stakeholders.

Owing to its importance and sensitivity, change requires communication that is multi-dimensional: integrating words, behaviors, body language, personal presence and culture to communicate key messages and engage stakeholders. This is a time for two-way communication.

You must know how the change will touch all your stakeholders. Usually this will differ by group, region and profession. You can discern how each group sees change through an ongoing, open, transparent cycle of dialogue where you freely share information, graciously take in information and generously demonstrate to people that they matter.

Start with individual and group interviews with representatives from each stakeholder group, beginning with the decision makers (directors), moving to team and project managers (mid-level), and including at least a representative sample of front-line workers.

Remember to choose stakeholders who possess real information, not just those with a particular title. For example, front-line employees usually have the richest information about customers, service issues, product quality, marketing effectiveness, sales challenges, trouble spots – and a whole array of areas that you need to know about for targeted change planning and communication.

Depending on the interviewers, and your organization’s culture, you might run into these issues:

  1. Your interviewees might not respond openly or thoroughly to your questions, for fear of supervisor reprisal, out of respect for authority, shyness, loyalty, or other reasons that could have to do with corporate culture and their own backgrounds.   They might give you partial answers, leave out details, or even answer falsely, ie, tell you what they think you want to hear.

For more reliable data, conduct peer-to-peer interviews. Team members talking to each other can be more natural and less likely to come across as an interrogation or a test of loyalty. Provide the peer interviewers a brief training session on how to ask questions and record answers.

  1. In collaborative or relationship-oriented cultures, employees might spill a lot of emotion and words, speak all at once or in heightened pitches and states. All these make it difficult to decipher meaning.  You’ll need to tightly facilitate and structure the sessions.

In addition to in-person data-gathering, you can use written channels such as email, newsletters and the intranet to report on progress of the change, and to share relevant numbers, facts and other data. For feedback and interaction, create a phone line and/or dedicated email address – just be sure to monitor and respond within 48 hours or sooner if possible.

Avoid hiding behind the above electronic methods, however – use them only as part of your communication system during change. They are too impersonal to be effective on their own.

Now that you have your stakeholder data, your executive team is eagerly awaiting the results. Take a deep breath. The path to leadership is paved with courage. With your unique perspective from the data and how it was collected, your job is to share the findings honestly with your executive team, warts and all. It needs you to recommend communication – and sometimes operational – strategies based on the information you received from stakeholders. Sometimes that means reworking the change strategy, timing, budget, or rethinking communication channels. That can be annoying, or even embarrassing, but don’t let it deter your transparency.

Change itself requires flexibility, which will pay off with stakeholders who are willing participants in the change because they feel heard and engaged. Stick with it. Change doesn’t last, but your new, desired future will.

Jaya Koilpillai Bohlmann's latest book is This Changes Everything: Transforming Your Life from the Inside Out.

Follow her at: @jayabohlmann