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As a speaker/consultant I get to sit in on far more than my fair share of corporate meetings. And the same Shakespearean tragedy repeatedly plays out in those corporate-wide mandatory meetings.

One by one, senior management parade on stage delivering fine speeches on why a particular change is necessary and what benefits they hope to reap. In the closing scene, a scapegoat manager is cut from the executive herd to nervously ask the final question: “Does anyone have any questions regarding the upcoming change?” The response is a silence so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Why does this happen, and what are the consequences of this pregnant corporate pause?

It’s not that people don’t have questions. As I’ve sat in these meetings I can hear the real concerns buzzing around me as the VIPs pontificate from the podium. Yet when that fateful question is asked, a conspiracy of silence immediately descends on the audience as if a scurry of cats had taken all their tongues.

What’s going on? My guess, based on a large number of conversations with audience members over the years, is that everyone is reminding themselves of something along the lines of their Miranda rights (even if they’re not American): “I have the right to remain silent, anything I say, can and will be, used against me in my next performance review.”

Audience members aren’t stupid. They have assimilated corporate culture down to the marrow of their bones. While there might be some silent participants who just don’t like speaking up in public, the majority of others have learned that asking questions is at the very least the mark of a non-team player and at worst, insubordination.

Ask a thousand people what they think is the most important aspect of change management and they’ll answer almost unanimously, “Communication!” Yet despite this almost total agreement that communication is at the heart of successful transitions, there is some disagreement as to what it means to communicate.

Communication is more than posters, memos, newsletters and announcements. It’s more than just telling. It resides on the other side of informing. It goes deeper than an information dump. Communication by dictionary definition is a two-way street. It’s a dialogue.

If our corporate culture is such that people are reluctant to ask the topmost questions in their minds, then there is no communication, regardless of how many corporate meetings we hold, or how many pamphlets we print.

Assuming that the ever-present issue of job security has been addressed, the most likely question on everyone’s mind is, “Why should we change?” Not every organization perceives that question as a threat to management. Rather, it is merely a plea for more information.

If the question “Why should we change?” is perceived as a threat, then communication, that most important aspect of successful transitions, is absent. To use a commonly misused measure, our “Change Readiness Quotient” (CRQ) will be low or non-existent.

How does an organization raise their CRQ? Put simply, succinctly and bluntly…shut up and listen!

All kidding aside, this advice isn’t totally tongue in cheek. To create an environment where people feel safe to ask questions, it is necessary to let them speak without interruption. This means allowing them to speak their mind, expressing both their need for more information and, if they have them, their concerns regarding proposed changes. That covers the “shut-up” part of the advice.

The next part is more difficult for some managers than others. To listen also implies respecting what is heard. It implies listening with an open mind, being open to the possibility that the person speaking might actually have valid input that should be used to modify our plans for the future. A common compliant from many who choose to say nothing in corporate meetings is, “Why should I bother, they never listen anyway. Nothing I say will make a difference.”

Before we can communicate change, we must first create an environment where it is safe to communicate. Our employees cannot be our strength if they are reluctant to participate in the dialogue surrounding progress.

de Jager is a speaker who listens far more than he speaks. Read more of his work in the publications section of www.technobility.com.

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