From waterfalls to waves

woman standing in front on a waterfall

While few would doubt that communication is absolutely vital in times of change, a classic mistake is to implement it as a cascade from the top to the bottom of an organisation. Instead, it is more powerful to view communication as a series of waves that flow back and forth, creating a two-way dialogue. Three kinds of waves are needed during organisational change: information, inspiration and involvement.

These waves are relevant across all aspects of the change curve, adapted from the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

When people first hear about change, they are likely to experience shock, denial or anger. Because they have not truly listened to what changes are being proposed, productivity and self-esteem may drop as people develop resistance, caused by a sense of fear, panic, or sadness.


Therefore, it is important to make information (Head) available in many formats and enable people to access it as and when they are ready, as many times as they feel necessary. Because no single communication channel can suffice, the information should be easily accessible through verbal and written communication channels. This means, as people search to question or rationalise the change, they can find reassurance in the consistency of the message. As they find solutions for a way forward and accept the change, reattaching to the goals of the organisation, the ability to cope will return and productivity will increase.


Inspiration (Heart) relates to galvanising people behind a common goal and giving them a sense of hope for the future. One major challenge for leaders is they are often in the solutions stage of the change when they announce it to employees. This exacerbates the ‘shock, denial, anger’ first stage response to the change and leaders can then become frustrated by a less than enthusiastic reception. Many leaders recognise they can become impatient when they are driven to move forward as quickly as possible. However, this rush to the new can alienate those who still feel the pain of the change and, rather than speeding up the change process, can actually lead to decreased productivity.

Another common error in communicating change is to be critical of previous methods or systems. Employees were often part of creating those methods and systems so hearing criticism from senior management may elicit a defence response and cause people to become more resistant to any proposed change. By expressing “pride in the past, a passion for the present and a focus on the future,” leaders ensure defensive responses are minimised and employees can focus away from the pain of the change and towards the potential benefits.


Involvement (Hands) is fundamental to helping people move through the change curve. As a social species, humans can easily feel threatened and isolated by the potential change and its consequences. According to findings by Neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger, when people feel social pain through exclusion, it lights up the same part of the brain as physical pain. So when someone says they ‘feel hurt,’ they actually do experience pain.

Involving people in decisions that affect them, no matter how small, may alleviate those feelings and can lead to a reappraisal with an increased sense of autonomy and engagement.

Adopting a communication strategy that includes information, inspiration and involvement can dramatically improve the chances of change acceptance. It does take more upfront time to communicate the change using the waves approach; however, any time invested at this stage can limit the period of productivity loss and speed up the adoption of change.

It is vital that leaders recognise the impact of their words and actions then invest time to improve their own communication skills for the benefit of their organisations. Work on the change narrative, have the courage to involve everyone in the change process and be available and open for dialogue with people across all levels of the organisation. Using the waves approach of informing, inspiring and involving employees, can increase the chances of leading an organisation effectively through difficult times, keeping employees engaged and maintaining morale and productivity.

Susan will be facilitating a “Choosing and coaching for change” course in Brisbane on 20 November. Find out more on the QUT Executive Education website >>


Susan Goldsworthy

Author, change communications expert, leadership and executive coach.

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