Getting the Message Across: Five Levels of Change Communications

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You told them… and they did the opposite.

You told them… and they ignored what you said.

You told them… and they got it.

People often tell me that change communications are the most challenging implementation task. Everyone knows that communication is necessary. But so much communication fails. People misunderstand the message, ignore it, or even counter it. That’s not how it should be.

Getting the Message Across: Five Levels of Change Communications image Five Levels of Communication 300x157
Getting the Message Across: Five Levels of Change Communications

Five Levels of Communication

This tool, the Five Levels of Communication, provides a simple, intuitive, and logical method for planning and implementing communication during change initiatives. Developed by Linda Ackerman Anderson and Dean Anderson of Being First and highlighted in their book, The Change Leader’s Roadmap, the Five Levels of Communication is the best tool I can recommend for change communication.

Level One: Sharing Information

Sharing Information can happen through an email, a presentation, or a memo. What’s important about Level One is that sharing information is all it is. We don’t know if people understand the message, if they like it, or if they’ll commit to it.

As a result, Level One communications are good for just a few things:

  • Informing people about a routine, non-critical issue. For example, if Security is going to test the fire alarms, a simple announcement email is all the communication you need.
  • Giving them advance notice of information that will be reviewed soon. For example, team leaders often send information about project progress before team meetings in which progress is discussed.
  • Following up on information shared in a meeting. For example, sending out notes after a meeting is a way of sharing information.

Level Two: Building Understanding

The problem is that many people stop after they’ve shared information. They think: “Email written, job done!” Not so. The next step is to build understanding.

At this level, communication becomes a two-way conversation. In small group meetings, breakout sessions, or Q&A periods, people explore the message. Through dialogue, they gain a better understanding of just what the message means. After all, when someone says, “Customer service is number one,” what does that really mean?

  • That the company will do anything in it’s power to serve a customer?
  • That staffers should customize every deliverable to the unique demands of their customers?
  • That they should drop everything when a customer calls?
  • Or just that they should be pleasant and respectful when interacting with customers?

Companies can mean any of these options–and many more–when they talk about customer service. Building Understanding helps ensure that everyone in the organization has a similar vision of what it means.

Level Three: Identifying Implications

Information shared, understanding built. Is communication complete? Not even close.

Level Three is Identifying Implications. At this level, people explore the practical, logistical, tactical, and strategic implications of the message. Does a new focus on customer service mean that the IT team needs to spend more time creating attractive user interfaces? Or that IT needs to better understand customer needs? Or that the IT team should accelerate development?

Through group meetings, conversations with managers, and discussions with peers, people identify the implications of the message. These conversations help them understand not just what the message means in general, but what it means personally to them.

Level Four: Gaining Commitment

Ideally, by the time people have identified implications, they’re on board. But maybe they’re not. When my boss reassigned me to a different office that required a one hour commute and a wake-up time of 4am, I got the information, I understood what she wanted, and I knew the implications. Was I on board? No way! I started job searching later that afternoon.

It’s important to get an overt, clear commitment. To get to Level Four, Gaining Commitment, people need time to reflect on the situation, talk with their coworkers and trusted advisers, ask questions, and test options. Level Four culminates with the direct question: Are you in? Until there’s commitment, there’s no way to know what the person is going to do.

Level Five: Altering Behavior

Throughout all of these levels, the focus is cerebral: do people understand and commit to the change. However, they might not change their behavior unless leaders move to Level Five: Altering Behavior. In Level Five, people receive coaching, training, and/or feedback on performance. They have opportunities to practice skills and experiment.

For many changes, this step isn’t necessary. Testing the alarm system, for example, requires only a minor behavior change: don’t leave the building when the alarm goes off. That doesn’t require practice or repetition. However, if significant behavior change is needed, it’s wise to take Level Five actions.

Try using this model on your next change. How does it work for you?

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