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Professor Seeks Best Ways to Communicate Organizational Change


Travis L. Russ, Ph.D., found that business leaders often realize the benefits of consensus-building but fail to implement them on the front lines.
Photo by Patrick Verel

In business, change is not only good, it is often the difference between success and failure. But for change to be effective, everyone from mid-level managers to front-line employees must be on board with the new plan.

That is where Travis L. Russ, Ph.D., comes in. An assistant professor in the Fordham Schools of Business, Russ examines how leaders construct a vision for their companies and then communicate it to stakeholders.

“Sometimes leaders communicate their vision programmatically: ‘Here’s my vision, I don’t want anything about that vision altered, and I want it to be implemented as is.’ So there’s a high degree of fidelity between their vision and its implementation on the front lines,” he said.

“On the other side of the continuum is the participatory approach. Here leaders have some idea of how the organization should be changed but they recruit stakeholders to provide their unique input about the vision and how it might be best applied on the front lines.”

To learn how leaders at companies implement strategies for change, Russ draws upon 12 years of experience as a consultant in the private sector to gain access to firms such as Thomson Reuters, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, Macy’s and McGraw-Hill. So when he publishes papers such as “Developing a Typology of Perceived Communication Challenges Experienced by Frontline Employees During Organizational Change” (Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 2009), they accurately reflect corporate reality.

“It’s important that you go back and talk to the people who gave you the data, so you’re not researching in a vacuum,” Russ said. “They, of course, have every right to make modifications and to tell me whether I hit the mark or not. I want to ensure my conclusions reflect their realities.”

As with any field, Russ said, there are interesting paradoxes when examining the area of change communication. For example, in a recent study, he and his co-author found that practitioners vigilantly extolled the values of participatory change. What they actually practiced, however, was very different.

“While they said they saw the value of soliciting stakeholders’ input, their behaviors were more aligned with the philosophy of programmatic change. For them, asking for others’ input was merely symbolic as they would often dismiss or refute their input and march forward with their original plans,” he said.

One might expect that a manager who said one thing and did another would spark tension or conflict, but at this particular company, Russ found that not to be case.

“You’d think there would be some fallout and some push-back if people’s ideas weren’t necessarily heard. But there was a significant amount of appeasement taking place. Those leading the change initiative felt like they just needed to explain why the employees’ fears were irrational and why their concerns really weren’t valid rather than actually modifying the planned change based on the feedback received. Clearly, this is problematic,” he said.

“Research tells us that people prefer participatory approaches. Some presumed benefits include lower resistance to change, increased understanding, greater involvement and engagement, and elevated motivation. Still, while practitioners say that they think participatory approaches work more effectively, when push comes to shove, they’re more apt to apply top-down programmatic approaches. There are a variety of pressures that I examine in my research, from time management pressures to resource pressures to a lack of employees, a lack of financial resources or a lack of tools that limit the actual implementation of participatory approaches.”

Few managers are strictly participatory or programmatic, of course, and that gray area is where Russ focuses his research. He has found that while top leaders are decent at communicating to middle managers, those middle managers are not as good at sharing the vision with their workers.

“You sort of have two hurdles to overcome—communicating to the mid-level managers, and then having them communicate to their direct reports,” he said.

“I found that mid-level managers often withhold information for various reasons before communicating it downward. It might have been that they felt it wasn’t appropriate, that they didn’t want to overwhelm their employees, or that they didn’t agree with the change.”

A key aspect of whether any manager, whether high- or mid-level, asks for input, is the manager’s communication apprehension or how comfortable he or she feels communicating with others ina variety of contexts.

“Many organizations are confronted with the fact that they must change or die, and leaders know that. So they are under the pressure of implementing change. Are they more likely to ask for input if they’re under a large amount of stress? Probably not,” he said.

“But if you look at the flip side, they are apt to be more successful if they make sure that everyone is on board, involved and engaged. By soliciting people’s input, they can get an idea as to whether their new vision is actually going to work and thrive on the front lines.”


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