What a trip through an MRI can teach you about employee communications

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I recently had occasion to have not one, but two MRIs in the space of about five days (nothing serious; just proof you can hurt yourself golfing). In case you haven’t had the pleasure, those are the ones where they stick you in a tube for anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes and tell you not to move while a series of wailing, thumping, screeching noises fire off at very close range. It’s what being digested by a Dalek (sorry non-Doctor Who fans) must be like.

If you are the least bit claustrophobic or can’t stay still for more than a few minutes, it is a quite terrifying and uncomfortable thing. It pays to have a poem, a song or a nice, juicy problem to think about while you’re in there

My first MRI was on a Sunday afternoon and the technician was nice enough. He stood over me, reviewing the little questionnaire I had filled out in the waiting room and he led me into the machine room, popped me on the slidy thing, stuck some headphones on me, told me it would be about 20 minutes and loaded me into the machine.

I closed my eyes and worked on a dinner party menu until it was all over. He unloaded me, wished me a pleasant day, and off I went, feeling like a microwave entrée.

A few days later, same drill, but this technician was different. She sat next to me and made eye contact while she reviewed the questionnaire. While she made up the slidy thing with sheets, she told me what bits of my shoulder they were looking at, how long it would take, that it would be a series of images and why it was important to stay still. I hopped on the slidy thing and she propped a couple of pillows under my knees – which is insanely comfortable and a rather good way to keep people still.

She offered me an extra set of ear-plugs to go under the earphones and slid me into the tube. She asked on the intercom if I was comfortable (I didn’t know there was an intercom in there). Then she warned me the first round of banging and wailing would take about five minutes. I closed my eyes and worked on a challenging problem my client is having with change resistance following a big reorganization.

After each set of alarming noises, the technician came on the intercom to see how I was doing and to let me know what was next. She checked in with me again as I emerged from the tube, and again after I got dressed and was heading out.

Was it pleasant? Not at all. Was it better than the first time? Absolutely. Did I solve my client’s problem? Why, I think I might have, and here’s where I landed.

My client is a big professional services firm, which has recently done some reorganizing as part of an overall business transformation strategy. Some people were let go, some offices merged, you know the drill. Countless emails, slide decks, conference calls, webinars, lunch-and-learns, Sharepoint updates and newsletters later, engagement is tanking, people are leaving, productivity is in the toilet. Here’s what I think they need to do.

Close the power gap

That second technician, by sitting next to me, instead of standing over me, very subtly shifted the power dynamic to something much more equitable. She put herself on my level and looked at me, not at the clipboard. By making better use of front-line managers, and by training them to use simple techniques like small meetings, eye contact and real-time feedback, my client should be able to turn the tide of resistance on the front lines.

Bombarding employees with executive messages and executive events is a good way to reach a lot of people, but it’s also a good way to remind employees of the great gap between their power and executive power. Closing that gap by pushing communication to the most personal level possible makes the information more relevant and gives back a little bit of power so that employees can implement the behaviours you’re looking for.

Present the biggest picture you can

The first technician told me how long the MRI was likely to take., but he didn’t help me understand what it was going to be like. My first clue about the noises was when he stuck the headphones on and left the room. The second technician, knowing I had some recent experience with the scary noises, broke down the whole thing for me and asked if I had any concerns from the prior tube visit.

My client had done a great job of communicating all the bits and pieces of the reorganization and the timing, but they had not connected it all back to the bigger picture of the business transformation. The executive team breathes and sleeps the business transformation, but no so the front-line employees. The last they heard about it was a year and a half ago at a series of town halls.

We’re now working to make sure all communications about the reorganization map back to one of the outcomes from the bigger strategy, and we’ve started recirculating some of the original transformation messaging to bring everyone up to speed.

Make people comfortable

The simple acts of an extra set of ear plugs and stuffing a couple of pillows under my knees made all the difference in helping me relax before and during the MRI. Neither did anything to make it less horrible, but the concern for my comfort made it much more human.

We have this idea that people are afraid of change; I disagree. I think people are great at change but afraid of loss (also MRI machines). We love the kind of change that brings opportunity, novelty or prestige but we’re not so crazy about change that threatens security, power, influence and relationships.

Happily, we’re also pretty rational, so by helping people get comfortable or at least slightly less uncomfortable, we can open the door to a discussion about why and how the change will happen and we can find the places where there is a fear of loss.

In the case of my client, we’re helping to map those pockets of real or perceived loss by working with team leaders, HR business partners and employees directly through surveys and focus groups. So far we’ve learned that we have some work to do in terms of reassuring people about coming role changes.

Check in from the stakeholder’s point of view

The first time I heard the technician’s voice in the tube, I wasn’t sure if I had imagined it during the preceding noisy bit. But there she was, asking how I was doing. Was I comfortable, was I anxious, was I good for another bunch of banging, was I cold?

She did this between each set of images, and it reminded me of a fundamental thing about change. We need to check-in with our stakeholders as often as we can, and particularly in the spaces between change activities.

My client was doing this, sort of, but it was from the organization’s point of view, not the employees’ point of view. What they had defined as check-ins were really top-down updates about what had just happened and the results. There was no messaging for a front-line manager to ask how it was going from their team’s perspective. Were they comfortable, were they anxious, were they confused? This is really critical information. Just as that technician needed to know whether I was good to go or ready to push the little panic button and start screaming, organizations need to know if their people are updating their resumes or actively sabotaging the change.

My client is building manager toolkits that include diagnostic questions they can use to gauge sentiment and intention, and there will be new mechanisms for these managers to quickly escalate to get some help from their leadership.

When we check in from the point of view of the patient or the employee, we not only pick up on pending unpleasantness, but we also signal that we care, and we’re prepared to listen.

Update the small picture

Nobody likes the whiny kid who keeps asking if we’re there yet. Thank goodness for mobile apps with maps. Now you can hand that kid your phone and tell them to keep track on their own. Even adults love to know where they are. Look at the number of people who keep their navigation system running on their daily commute. They don’t need directions; they just need real-time updates on how long and how far.

Back in the MRI tube, the second technician made sure she told me at each check in, what was going to happen next, how long it would take and how long we still had before I would be done.

The same “are-we-there-yet” mentality exists in our workforce, particularly where we are chugging through a long initiative with a bunch of steps. In my client’s case, they were doing an okay job of helping employees understand what the bigger initiative was but they were not doing the best job of keeping them up to date on what was happening next in their area of the company. In many cases, the changes were largely done or there would be minimal impact for a few months as the reorganization shifted its focus; in other cases, they needed to be ready to start implementing some new processes very soon.

Working with the project management office (PMO), we are identifying and ranking where change is and isn’t coming fast, and from there we can provide specific messages for front-line managers in both cases. This should reduce the number of emails back and forth from employees and managers to HR, leaders, and the PMO and should drive good improvement in how quickly new behaviours are being adopted.

Organizational change has much in common with a trip into the MRI tube. They are scary, noisy, disruptive and often unpleasant, but also necessary for overall health. Going forward, I think I will include a picture of an MRI tube in my change communication kick off slides, just to remind me about how important it is to consider everyone’s experiences.

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Elizabeth Williams
Elizabeth Williams is the President of Candler Chase Inc., a consulting firm specializing in employee communications and branding. She is a survivor of more than 20 years in the telecom, financial services and technology sectors, and can often be found blogging about brands and speaking at conferences. She keeps meaning to write a book.