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The role of communication in
Wim J.L. Elving
Department of Communication, Amsterdam School of Communications
Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to provide a conceptual framework for the study of
communication during organisational change. Although there is an enduring interest in studying
(internal) communication during organisational change, there is still little or no empirical research on
Design/methodology/approach – In this conceptual paper a framework is presented on how to
study communication during organisational change and how communication could prevent resistance
to change. The framework leads to six propositions in which aspects of communication, such as
information, feelings of belonging to a community, and feelings of uncertainty, have an inﬂuence on
resistance to change, which will affect the effectiveness of the change effort.
Findings – A distinction between the informative function of communication and communication as
a means to create a community was made. In the suggested model communication has an effect not
only on readiness for change, but also on uncertainty.
Originality/value – This framework can be used by researchers and practitioners to study, guide,
frame and model empirical research into this area in the future, and can be used to compare different
change programs, within different organisations, to study the contribution of (internal) communication
in the success or failure of the change.
Keywords Organizational change, Corporate communications, Competences
Paper type Conceptual paper
“The only thing constant within organisations is the continual change of these
organisations.” This line is widespread and famous within organisational and
management literature. Organisational change has become a topic of many textbooks
and other scientiﬁc and management literature. Despite this growing attention and
research, still many of the efforts of organisational change fail. It is computed that at
least more than half of all the organisational change programs fail, reach a deadlock, or
do not reach the results, which they initiately were aiming at (Bennebroek Gravenhorst
et al., 1999). There are many reasons for the failure of so many organisational change
efforts, such as the organisational culture, the timing of the change effort, and the role
of change-agents (Bennebroek Gravenhorst et al., 1999). In this paper I will focus on the
role of communication during organisational change.
Communication is vital to the effective implementation of organisational change
(DiFonzo and Bordia, 1998; Lewis and Seibold, 1998; Schweiger and Denisi, 1991). “The
general importance of communication during planned change has already been
empirically demonstrated and generally agreed among practitioners” (Lewis, 1999).
Poorly managed change communication results in rumors and resistance to change,
exaggerating the negative aspects of the change (DiFonzo et al., 1994; Smelzer and
Zener, 1992). “The empirical picture that is slowly emerging indicates that
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communication process and organisational change implementation are inextricably
linked processes” (Lewis, 1999, p. 44). Why communication is important during
organisational change is also demonstrated by the model of the dynamics of planned
organisational change (Robertson et al., 1993). Robertson et al. state that the change
effort is dependent of the ability of the organisation to change the individual behavior
of individual employees. If organisational change is about how to change the
individual tasks of individual employees, communication about the change, and
information to these employees is vital. Communication with these employees should
be an important, and integrative part of the change efforts and strategies.
Although the general conclusion about the importance of communication in
organisational change is demonstrated and agreed on, speciﬁc communicative actions,
approaches and effects are still left unexplained (Lewis, 1999). Armenakis and Harris
focus on how to develop messages and distinguish ﬁve different message domains
within change communication (Armenakis and Harris, 2002). Clampitt et al. (2000)
focus on the strategies used by managers in communicating organisational change.
Lewis (1999) focus is on which medium is used in communicating change. The
ﬁndings, recently published in this journal (Daly et al., 2003) support also the picture
that internal communication is important in communicating change. Others, focus on
the constructional phases of change, where communication is vital to mutual
understanding of the problems organisations have to face in order to meet the
challenges, and need to change (Bennebroek Gravenhorst et al., 1999). These empirical
contributions clearly help to understand the process of communicating organisational
In this paper I will focus on the purposes or goals organisations have with
communication during organisational change, which could help of a better
understanding of the process of change, and vital communicational efforts
organisations should make. Therefore, I will present a model and six propositions of
how to study communication during organisational change, which could guide
empirical research. It is about how a designed or planned change effort is
communicated within the organisation. This brings a limitation within itself, that is
that the focus is on communicating the designed or planned change effort, regardless if
this effort is a developmental approach or a planned approach. I will not go into the
phases where diagnosing problems, mutual understanding of the problems, which
makes the change necessary. Communication in that stages is vital as well, but will not
be the focus of this paper.
In order to have an effective change, it is necessary to ﬁrst deﬁne this effective change.
When do organisations evaluate a change effort as effective? This question, although
there is a clear trend on managers to examine their performance, little or no empirical
research is available on effective change. There is an immense amount of
practitioner-oriented literature on how to effectively manage change (Champy and
Nohria, 1996; Kotter, 1996). Common prescriptions for effectively managing change
include encouraging participation from as many employees as possible, addressing
their concerns in the change program, or ensuring that leaders act as role models for
the changes (Heracleous, 2002).
“Increasing scarcity of resources will put pressure on managers to examine their
performance in using resources wisely. The cry for accountability in management that
demands demonstrated results will be continued and intensify” (Garnett and Kouzmin,
2000, p. 62). This means that managers and organisations have to ﬁnd ways of proving
that the change-effort was effective and made sense. Using the model of dynamics of
planned organisational change (Robertson et al., 1993), an effective change will result in
employees who have successfully adopted the change. When employees have to
change, or are changing, low levels of resistance to change within the organisation
should exist, to make the change effort successful.
One purpose of communication during organisational change can be to prevent
resistance to change, or at least try to reduce this. When resistance to change levels are
low within an organisation, one could argue that the effectiveness of the change-effort
will be higher. Since an organisation’s functioning depends on the actions of its
members, the organisation can change only when members’ behavior changes
(Goodman and Dean, 1982; Tannenbaum, 1971).
Altering the work setting is a potent lever for inducing change in member behavior.
This notion is rooted in social cognitive models of behavior (Bandura, 1997; Porter and
Lawler, 1968). From this perspective, “all effective intervention activities must generate
change in the way targeted individuals actually behave on the job” (Robertson et al.,
1993, p. 622). Readiness for change is the cognitive precursor to the behaviors of either
resistance, or support for, a change effort (Armenakis and Harris, 2002). In this sense
the concept of readiness for change consists of both resistance to change and support
for change as a continuum with on one end resistance to change and on the other end
readiness for change. The assumption can be made that when employees are ready to
accept the change, and experience large feelings of readiness for change (or low
feelings of resistance to change) that the change effort will be more effective.
P1. Effective organisational change will be showed in low levels of resistance to
change, or high levels of readiness for change by employees.
Goals of organisational communication
According to Francis (1989) organisational communication commonly has two goals
(De Ridder, 2003). The ﬁrst goal of organisational communication should be to inform
the employees about their tasks and about the policy and other issues of the
organisation. The second goal is communication with a mean to create a community
within the organisation. Roughly, a distinction can be made between organisational
communication as a mean to provide information (“communicatio”) and organisational
communication as a mean to create a community spirit (“communicare”; Francis, 1989;
De Ridder, 2003).
In line with these goals, within organisational change we can distinct between the
information given about the change, and the sense of a community within the
organisation before, during and after the change. The information given by the
organisation about the change should address the reasons to change, and the worries
employees initially will have. The information given by the organisation usually comes
from management as the sender, and with employees as the receiver of information. In
this sense, common communicational theories of sender, message, channel, receiver
and noise could be applied to this communication. Speciﬁc aspects are if the
information of the change was in time, that the information was understandable, that it
contained no errors and so on.
P2. One of the main purposes of change communication should be to inform the
organisational members about the change, and how their work is altered
because of the change. This informative function of communication will have
an effect on readiness for change.
The second goal of organisational communication is to create a community (Francis,
1989; De Ridder, 2003). Organisational communication can be considered as an
important antecedent of the self-categorisation process, which helps to deﬁne the
identity of a group and to create a community spirit, which ﬁts into organisational
requirements (De Ridder, 2003; Postmes et al., 2001; Meyer and Allen, 1997). Creating a
community within organisations has theoretical foundations within social
psychological phenomena as social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978) and its sister
self-categorisation theory (Turner, 1985), often jointly described as the social identity
approach (Postmes et al., 2001).
The social identity is “that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from
his knowledge of his or her membership of a social group (or groups) together with the
value and emotional signiﬁcance attached to that membership” (Tajfel, 1978, p. 63).
Social categorisation can be described as the subjective order of social reality in terms
of social categories, or groups of persons who have a meaning for the observer. These
groups could be the social groups the observer has contact with (or is participating in),
or social groups in broader contexts such as men, women, Germans, Italians and so on.
Social categorisation inﬂuences our observations and judgments of persons.
Characteristics, which are stereotypical associated with the social category, are
attributed to the person, and associations who do not ﬁt in the original social category
probably would be ignored (Turner, 1985).
It has often been observed that communication creates the conditions for
commitment, and hence should be seen as one of its important antecedents (Foy, 1994;
Katz and Kahn, 1978; Meyer and Allen, 1997; Postmes et al., 2001). An meta-analysis
(Postmes et al., 2000) reveals that:
... employees were strongly committed if they obtained adequate information to perform
their task, and this information was presented to them via formal bureaucratic channels
rather than informal channels. Interpersonal communication with peers, and direct superiors
predicted commitment less than communication with more senior management did, and
communication with a socio-emotional content was less predictive of commitment than
formal communication was (Postmes et al., 2001, p. 231).
As Postmes et al., stated:
... people’s sense of belonging to the organisation does not primarily depend on the quality of
their informal and social-emotional interactions with peers and proximate colleagues, but it is
related more strongly to their appreciation of the management’s communication (Postmes
et al., 2001, p. 240).
This strongly relates both goals of organisational communication to one another,
because information is necessary, as Postmes and colleagues state, to create feelings of
Another factor that could inﬂuence feelings of belonging to a community within the
organisation is trust between management and employees. The dominant perspective
in literature (see Dirks and Ferrin, 2001) is that trust results in distinctive effects such
as more positive attitudes, higher levels of cooperation, and superior levels of
performance (Jones and George, 1998; Mayer et al. , 1995). Dirks and Ferrin suggest that
trust can work in two ways, as a main effect on workplace outcomes, such as
cooperation and motivation, or as moderator effect, “as it helps the individual assess
the future behavior of another party and/or interpret past behavior” (Dirks and Ferrin,
2001, p. 461). In that sense, trust guides the actions of individuals in ambiguous
situations; it will shape the perceiving of the partner, and in this way will guide the
individual response to that action.
Commitment and trust clearly are linked to organisational climate and
organisational culture. Organisational climate is deﬁned as: the shared perceptions
of organisational policies, practices and procedures, both formal and informal
(Schneider and Reichers, 1983). Organisational climate refers at the perceived
representation of the organisation’s goals and the means and ways adopted for goal
attainment. Research with organisational climate usually is about organisational
misconduct (Vardi, 2001), organisational identiﬁcation (Smidts et al., 2001), and has
links with ethical climates (Victor and Cullen, 1988).
In summary, communication to create a community within organisations shows in
for instance high commitment to the organisation of the employees, in trust of
employees with management, in organisational identiﬁcation.
P3. Communication to create a community, resulting in commitment with the
organisation, trust in the organisation and its management and
organisational identiﬁcation will have an effect on readiness for change.
Uncertainty and job insecurity
Uncertainty during change processes is typically about the aim, process and expected
outcomes of the change and implications for the individual employees (Buono and
Bowditch, 1993). Knowledge is not only a pre-requisite to the ability of inﬂuencing the
outcomes (Terry and Jimmieson, 1999), but knowledge about the motives for change
will also help reducing uncertainty and creating readiness for change. In that sense
effective change communication can be viewed as a mean to proper manage
uncertainty (DiFonzo and Bordia, 1998). Uncertainty of employees during change
processes will reﬂect on the implications for the individual employee, or the
environment that employee is doing his or her work in. It comes with questions like
“will I still have a job after this change”, “will I still have the same co-workers after the
change”, and “can I still do perform my tasks on the same way I used to do them”. In
this sense feelings of uncertainty are about the process of the change, the personal and
social consequences of the change.
P4. High levels of uncertainty will negatively affect readiness for change.
A special notion within uncertainty is job insecurity. Especially feelings of uncertainty
occur when the organisation is undergoing changes with loss of jobs. Job insecurity has
been deﬁned in different ways. Many have adopted a global view in which job
insecurity is conceived as an overall concern about the continued existence of the job in
the future (de Witte, 1999; van Vuuren, et al., 1991).
Job insecurity has three components (van Vuuren, et al., 1991), ﬁrst of all, it is a
subjective experience or perception. The same situation might be perceived differently
by different employees. Job insecurity also implies uncertainty about the future, for the
person it is uncertain whether he/she will be able to continue to work, or whether he or
she will be made redundant. Finally, doubts about the continuation of the job as such,
are central to job insecurity, these aspects of speciﬁc aspects of the job (changes in
income or position within the company) are commonly not seen as part of the concept
of job insecurity (De Witte, 1999).
P5. When organisational change results in downsizing, and loss of jobs, job
insecurity will have a large effect on readiness for change
Both described goals of organisational communication in itself will probably also have
an effect on feelings of uncertainty and job insecurity. Uncertainty will reveal when the
organisation did not communicated clearly what changes individual employees have to
adapt. Uncertainty can lead to rumors and other forms of informal communication. The
extend in which informal communication occurs during the change effort could be an
indicator of the amount of uncertainty and on the (lack of) quality of the information
given about the organisational change. So besides of direct effects of the informative
function of communication, and communication as a mean to create a community
within the organisation, I expect also an indirect effect on uncertainty and job
P6. Communication will have an inﬂuence of feelings of uncertainty and on
feelings of job insecurity.
The six propositions lead to a research model of the function of communication during
organisational change (see Figure 1).
The propositions made in this paper are that information of the change, feelings of a
community within the organisation which is undergoing the change, and uncertainty
have an inﬂuence on readiness for change. The variables on information could be
Conceptual model of
measured by asking employees about the quality of the change communication, by
reviewing the different messages and media used to inform employees about the
forthcoming change. Questions about the knowledge of the objectives of the change,
and about the expected results also could be included.
Feelings of belonging to a community could be operationalized in several ways. One
possibility is to ask employees about there commitment with the organisation they
work for, for instance using Meyer and Allen (1997) commitment questionnaire. Other
possibilities is asking employees about the communication climate, or measuring
feelings of trust between management and operating core. An alternative measure
could be organisational identiﬁcation. Finally, uncertainty and job insecurity can be
measured with standard questionnaires such as by Schweiger and Denisi (1991). These
variables will, as we predict, have an inﬂuence on readiness for change.
The effectiveness of the change will be more complicated to measure.
Retrospectively management and employees could be asked to rate the effectiveness
or successfulness of the change, but this may possibly be inﬂuenced by other factors as
well. The effectiveness of the change, or its success, is also dependent of the correct
diagnosis of the problems and the change itself.
Communication is not the only key factor of successful organisational change. The
actual design of the change and the strategic choices made within the design are of
course precursors of effective changes. As stated before, many of the academic
literature focuses on the constructional phase of organisational change. The aim of the
model presented in this paper, is not to give organisations a tool of creating effective
communication and as a result design changes that will make sense. The aim of the
model is more empirical, in that sense that it could guide future empirical research.
The suggested relation between readiness for change and the successful
implementation of organisational change has, as far as we know, never been found
in research, although numerous handbooks on organizational development (OD) have
(implicit) propositions supporting this relation (see for instance French et al., 2000;
Harvey and Brown, 2001). Although not original, the proposition helps in guiding
empirical research. It will also be hard to ﬁnd such a relationship because every
organisations has its own characteristics, just as every change process will have
particular goals and aims. It is, however, remarkable that in the huge amount of
literature concerning organisational change, no or little emphasis is brought on
evaluating organisational change efforts. Despite the growing notion of organisational
learning, and the continuous change efforts on various terrains of organisations, little
or no attention is made to evaluate previous change efforts and learn from those efforts
to design better changes in the future.
A managerial limitation has to be made with the community variables as suggested
in the model. A community already exists within the organisation. Trying to create a
positive climate will take, in line with organisational culture, a long time. Interesting
enough, from a communication viewpoint, day-to-day communication within the
organisation will contribute to this climate. Even considering mergers, the history of
the merging partners on the organisational climate level will have an inﬂuence on the
readiness for change of the individual employees.
A more empirical limitation is that it will probably take lots of time ﬁnding enough
organisations who are willing to participate in these kinds of research. Combined with
the special goals every organisation has, and the speciﬁc change these organisations
will undergo it will be hard to draw up general conclusions.
In this paper I tried to explain the role of communication during organisational change
by reﬂecting the goals of internal communication (Francis, 1989), and discuss them in
relation to organisational change. A distinction between the informative function of
communication and communication as a mean to create a community was made. In the
suggested model communication has not only an effect on readiness for change, but
also on uncertainty.
The model could guide empirical research, but as is the case in much applied
organisational research it is hard to ﬁnd organisations that are willing to participate on
the one hand, and on the other hand, limit the inﬂuences of speciﬁc characteristics of
the change which will be conducted at the speciﬁc organisation.
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