We all know that communication plays a vital role in effecting change. But why is this? Research undertaken in the USA (Wilson & Gilbert 2005) provides some insight.
People are generally competent at telling whether a future event will be pleasant or unpleasant. But how accurate are we in predicting how happy or unhappy we might be? The research sought to establish how good we are in predicting the intensity of our emotional response to future events. For example, we may look forward to going on holiday after months of hard slog at work and assign a score of 8 out of 10 in terms of how happy we expect to feel when away. But what will our happiness score be whilst on holiday – the same, or higher or lower?
It turns out that, on average, we tend to overestimate how happy we will be when anticipating a pleasant experience – we will still be happy, but not as much as we thought we might be. So, in the holiday example above, the actual score on holiday may be a 7 – still happy but not quite as high as the 8 we expected. This is partly explained by the fact that in thinking of the positive experiences, we may ignore other factors that take the shine off the experience. For example, when thinking about a promotion at work, we may focus mostly on the increase in salary, status and other associated benefits, without taking full account of the additional responsibility and pressures that come with the role.
How do the results differ if we anticipate a negative experience? In such circumstances it appears that, on average, we tend to overestimate how unhappy we might be. People tend to find the negative situation they are in a bit more bearable than they anticipated. In some ways this can be explained by our motivation to recover from negative emotional states. If we are rejected for a job we may, without being consciously aware of doing so, attribute this to the fact that the role wasn’t appropriate for us in the first place, or that the organisation had a value set we didn’t like.
So, it turns out that we tend to overestimate how happy or unhappy we might feel. This is important to bear in mind when an organisation is going through a period of change. In such circumstances there is likely to be an increased level of uncertainty within the organisation, which can be interpreted as a potential threat by those affected. Feeling threatened can amplify our emotional response and even our rational thinking. When feeling threatened, an absence of information can make us imagine all sorts of outcomes and scenarios, few of which are likely to be valid in practice.
This is why effective communication is vital during change. Honest, consistent and frequent communication can reduce the level of uncertainty people face, even if the outcome is a negative one for them. It can limit, but not eliminate, the extremes of thinking and emotions people experience, reducing the emotional pain for those involved and helping deliver a better overall result.