Jamie Walters, founder and president of Ivy Sea, a San Francisco-based consulting firm, was advising a healthcare company whose management team had worked for months on formulating a slate of initiatives - mostly cost-cutting and restructuring moves - they considered vital to the business' future.
But virtually from the moment managers unveiled their plans, employees violently rejected them - largely because, Walters says, of the way management presented their proposals. "They were very dictatorial about it," she remembers. "They came out of their planning meetings and said, 'OK, you need to reorganize. These are your performance goals, and here's the schedule for when you need to have X percent cut from your budget.'"
Not once, she says, did the company's top executives try to allay the uncertainties that cost cutting would certainly spawn among employees. Without the commitment of staff, the grand changes these managers had spent so long conceiving were scuttled before they had a chance to work.
More often than not, this is exactly what happens to change initiatives: They fall flat. Indeed, Walters says, nearly 75 percent of all change efforts fail. While plenty of factors contribute to this high failure rate, one little-recognized reason is the language used by managers in describing that change. "Language is and has always been important in communicating change, because it's how we connect with people," says Walters, who is also the author of Big Vision, Small Business (Berrett-Koehler Publishers). "It's how we share information in a way that someone either accepts or rejects."