“Plus ça change,” French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr penned in 1849, “plus c’est la même chose.” Even if you’re no francophone, you probably recognize the translation: The more things change, the more they stay the same. And while Karr probably wasn’t talking about the office, research suggests that more people managing teams could take a lesson from Karr.
For leaders and managers who need to communicate change, a recent report from the Academy of Management offers a new idea for rallying a team around a new plan. The best way to talk about change is to focus on what’s not changing.
What research says about how we accept change
The findings are based on two studies first published by management researchers in 2019. In the first, researchers surveyed pairs of about 200 employees and their managers at companies that had recently announced a change—like an expansion, a merger, or a new leader. Workers ranked how certain or uncertain they felt about the change, along with what their manager had communicated would remain the same, and managers ranked their report’s support for the change.
The second study the researchers ran was experimental. In a series of trials, nearly 200 international business school students received a letter telling them about changes in the degree program. In one version of the note, the letter explained that the program would take a new direction in the coming year. “The new program and philosophy of teaching will be different from what we are used to, and will therefore require adjustment,” the letter read. “In short, changes are inevitable.”
But in the second version, which other students received, additional lines were inserted. “In short, changes are inevitable,” the letter repeats. It doesn’t stop there, though. “But do not forget: Despite these changes, that which has always characterized our programs...will remain characteristic of our programs. It is only their expression that will change,” it continues.
By emphasizing the ways in which a shared vision wouldn’t change, like in its shared aims or values, the researchers correctly hypothesized that the students would feel less uncertain about the program’s future and be more open to its changes.
Why we should communicate what doesn’t change
In analyzing the results of the two studies, the findings were clear: After learning about changes ahead, those who had received less communication about what would remain constant felt more doubtful about the change—and were more resistant to it. In contrast, the people who had received assurance that some things wouldn’t change were more likely to support the shifts ahead.
“People in general value a sense of coherence, consistency, or continuity over time,” the authors write. When people feel uncertain about change, they add, the more they feel worried, rather than excited, for what’s next. But when leaders share a vision that links the future with the past, they concluded, we’re all more likely to embrace it.
They name this approach a vision of continuity—or choosing to communicate not just how things will change, but also what will remain constant.
“Everything we’ve learned about leading change is that you have to sell change in terms of what’s going to be different and what’s going to be good about change,” one of the authors says in the report. “But what leaders don’t realize…is that part of selling the change is being very clear about what stays the same, the valuable things that won’t change, [and] the core things that make the organization what it is.”