Tackling Change with Small Talk!

By Audrey Macnaughton

In our roles as managers and leaders we are regularly working with change and transition. From small improvements to big programmes of change, we are required to clarify the need, craft compelling messages to get engagement and work with people through the sticky points.

When we’re dealing with larger changes we’ve often carried out quite a bit of planning, crafted a vision with the all-important key messages, which represent the “why” to hopefully engage people. 

Briefing sessions are good stuff and get changes kick started with consistent messages along the way. But it’s the power of the “small talk” that reinforces the messages, irons out concerns and gets the plan “off the page”. I’m often minded of the phrase “people don’t back strategy, they back people”.

On the eve of the Six Nations, and closer to my heart the Calcutta Cup, I am reminded of a conference session I attended some time ago where Sir Clive Woodward former England and British & Irish Lions coach was the keynote speaker. He talked about his impact as coach when he did planned communication such as workshop sessions where the team would work out their strategies to different game scenarios and of course the half time talks when the pressure was no doubt on to get the key messages hammered home. 

He termed those interactions “big talk” but was clear that they were only a small part of the story. The power house and the real reinforcing activity was the “small talk”, what the captain said on the way out, what the team said to each other and how they responded to any uncertainty from their teammates both on and off the pitch. There was famously no room for “mood hoovers” in any Woodward squad.

How can we apply this notion to our work as change leaders and managers? 

Imagine a work scene. You’ve planned a change, carried out the launch session and everyone seems engaged. As people leave and get back to their work teams, they would be unusual if there were no questions and no doubts. The “big talk” was great but how is the “small talk” handled? 

Worth considering here that a lot of power to reinforce or unravel key messages is in the hands of the people who see and influence the largest number of colleagues…the team leaders and the direct supervisors. Getting them to be that captain running on at Twickenham, reassuring, geeing up, calming down and focussing the team would be the vison that springs to my mind.  

How do we get this going? 

The first step is to recognise and accept that “small talk” happens and is the cornerstone in getting change into action. Time spent on the big messages is great but make sure this isn’t at the expense of coaching the team leaders and supervisors to authentically handle the daily conversations. 

Next, make sure you brief and prepare the team leaders BEFORE the whole organisation or team. Put yourself in their shoes, after an all staff briefing they will get questions. If it is also new to them, they will rightly feel on the back foot and may respond to concerns “I had nothing to do with it” or similar. 

I’ve talked mostly about priming your gang of great daily leaders but you also have a role in the “small talk”. Visible and felt leadership lies in the frequent small conversations you have and allows people to explore the detail directly with you. Try not to be disheartened when you are inevitably having the same conversations over again, transition takes time and you’re already through that change curve, others are not.

I wonder what the small talk will be like at Twickenham tomorrow? Perhaps there will be other words that I can’t print here but may the best team in blue win!

Audrey Macnaughton is a leadership trainer and coach, and you can get in touch with her via audrey@2macs.com