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Corporate Re-organisation & The Five Stages Of Grief

By Henjo Guitjens, Creative Director at MSLGROUP in the Netherlands

When a large multinational client was planning a radical reorganisation, it was up to us to advice them on how to manage the change successfully. The project began earlier this year, and MSLGROUP in Amsterdam was in charge of the communications plan. While drafting it, we drew inspiration from ‘The Five Stages of Grief’ – a popular theory on coping with grief by the Swiss psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

The Change

Though it involved job cuts, this was not a ‘classic’ re-organisation case. It was a necessary adjustment of the company structure as well as its core culture. The company needed to adapt to meet the quickly changing demands of the market and this became the central theme in all communications – internal, as well as external.

There is nothing worse than hearing bad news via the media or third parties. The focus of internal communications was to announce the bad news to all 1,400 employees. We decided to convene a huge meeting, during which the management unfolded their plans to the employees.

Lessons On Communications & The Five Stages

During such a massive re-organisation, which involves mandatory dismissals, those affected will first enter the denial phase; being unable to accept what is happening. To deal with this, it is critical that the communications team conveys the unfortunate news clearly.

The next phase is often characterised by anger and resistance. This requires clear and straight-forward arguments, aimed at fostering understanding.

Then comes the negotiation. Here, it is vital to respond with a clear and consistent message. The following stage is often marked by depression and resignation, which makes it crucial to quickly offer them a new purpose and future prospects.

Ultimately, we see acceptance. Once this has been achieved, employees can start to work on a new future. Communications during such a process should not focus solely on the departing employees, but just as importantly on those who remain. They need to be motivated to contribute to the company’s new future.

The Five Stages Of Grief | Courtesy: Good Grief – Enterprise 2.0? by rwilsker/Jive Software

Following Up: Change Management

Various tools can be used to gauge the ‘temperature’ within the company, and to offer communications support to the line management. In this case, we were able to identify any negative perceptions at an early stage and deal with them instantly.

Meanwhile, the external communications team was focused on informing the commercial stakeholders and on stopping rumours and wild stories in the outside world. A key prerequisite for success at this stage is keeping communications lines between management and the communications department short and always-open.

After the announcement, monthly breakfast sessions were organised for the top management and level-1 management to facilitate an open dialogue to discuss and shape the company’s future. A special soapbox was designed as a symbol of the dialogue between the management and the workers. Now, MSLGROUP is advising the organisation on ‘freezing’ the change and restructuring. Tell us what you thought of our approach to this case and feel free to reach out to us for expert advice on how to communicate with your employees.

Henjo Guitjens is the Creative Director for MSLGROUP in the Netherlands, where he’s responsible for the development of creative concepts for a range of communication projects for clients, including Philips International, Rabobank, AXA, GDF-SUEZ, BP, Interpolis and several government Ministries. Originally a founding partner of Moodfactory, a Dutch communications agency specialized in multimedia solutions, Henjo also specialises in applying online communication for reputation management and employee engagement. Follow him on Twitter @Henjo_Guitjens

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