How Leaders Succeed and Fail at Communicating Change to Subordinates

Spending Review Briefing, Birmingham, November 2010.

[We’re pleased to welcome Timothy Hartge of University of Michigan-Dearborn, who co-authored an article published in International Journal of Business Communication, entitled “Leaders’ Behaviors During Radical Change Processes: Subordinates’ Perceptions of How Well Leader Behaviors Communicate Change” with co-authors Thomas Callahan of University of Michigan-Dearborn and Cynthia King of Naval Post Graduate School.]

  • What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

As a member of the research team and a former senior manager in the marketing and advertising for 35 years, I was always fascinated by what management communications methods and techniques propelled subordinates into action. Change being the constant in business, and so critical to management success, it seemed appropriate to look at effective communications and quantify what leadership communication behaviors worked and what didn’t during critical change periods.

  • Were there findings that were surprising to you?

What was a pleasant surprise, when we sat back to look at what we had done, to us, we seemed to quantify the meaning of “Walk the Talk”. Also, some surprising findings; the expectations of management, communicating frequently critical behaviors suchBPCQ/IJBC3.indd as providing resources, soliciting feedback and driving change, the results showed that this may lower subordinate perceptions of change. By not meeting subordinates’ expectations, the communications change messages are not successful in affecting change. In reality, not all subordinates believe that these leader communications behaviors are relevant or important. The high frequency of behaviors that they consider unimportant can result in lower perceptions of successful change.

  • How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

We believe that future research should focus on samples from a larger number of firms experiencing significant change. We believe a unique contribution to leadership communications is related to the validation and refinement of findings from qualitative research through quantitative methods. From the King, Brook, and Hartge. (2007) Interviews with senior executives, we derived communications, and behavioral factors that senior executives said were effective during times of financial and market crises and we tested that hypothesis. More work should be done to validate both of these contributions to the literature of management change communication.

The abstract:

This research asked 252 upper-, middle-, and first-line-level managers in organizations experiencing radical change to assess the effects of their own leaders’ communications and behaviors on their perceptions of the change process. Results indicated that the frequency of exhibition of most behaviors by leaders positively affected subordinates’ perceptions of change. For three types of behaviors, soliciting upward feedback, driving change, and providing resources, the importance of these behaviors to the subordinates’ moderated perceptions of the change process. Discussion of these results and their implications conclude the study.

You can read “Leaders’ Behaviors During Radical Change Processes: Subordinates’ Perceptions of How Well Leader Behaviors Communicate Change” from International Journal of Business Communication free for the next two weeks by clicking here. Want to know all about the latest research from International Journal of Business CommunicationClick here to sign up for e-alerts!

*Meeting image credited to highwaysengland (CC)


Timothy Hartge is participating marketing communications faculty at the College of Business, at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Intermittent Lecturer at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research focuses on leaders and how they make high quality connections (HQC’s), also, improving management communications during change, or transformation.

Thomas Callahan is an emeritus faculty at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. His research interests have included buyer-supplier relationships, employee pay, and retirement plans, educational and career choice, and leadership. He has been the recipient of the Scholarly Achievement Award from the Human Resources Division of the Academy of Management.

Cynthia King is assistant professor of Management Communication and associate director of the Center for Defense Management Reform at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. King’s research focuses on rhetorical criticism and discourse analysis of spoken and written texts, with an emphasis on the relationship between language and meaning in organizational contexts.

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