John Kotter: How to Communicate the Vision for Change

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leading Change" by John P. Kotter. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you effectively communicate your vision of change to your employees? What things should you avoid when you’re communicating the vision?

According to Kotter, once you’ve developed a sense of urgency, assembled a credible and empowered coalition to lead the change effort, and articulated a clear vision that can anchor every decision and action taken within the organization, you’re ready to sell the change project to the broader organization. 

Continue below for tips on how to communicate your vision for change.

Sell the Vision

The sheer complexity and scale of change baffles people and makes them fearful to engage or buy into the effort. Kotter argues that some of this can be attributed to people’s natural resistance to change—they worry that change offers no benefit to them, or that they will be made worse off.

(Shortform note: This ingrained resistance to change is closely related to the cognitive bias known as loss aversion. Loss aversion causes people to prioritize avoiding potential losses more than achieving potential gains, even if those losses and gains are equal. For example, if you receive a windfall of $500, it will probably bring you a certain measure of happiness. But if you then lost that $500, loss aversion would cause you to experience unhappiness far greater than the happiness you felt upon receiving the money. This cognitive bias creates a strong propensity toward conservatism in decision-making and a desire to keep things as they already are.)

Avoid Jargon

When communicating the vision for change, leaders should avoid using overly technical or industry-specific jargon, even when they’re communicating internally. Not only is jargon hard to understand, but it can alienate people who aren’t familiar with it, leading them to feel shut out and ignored.

Instead, leaders should strive to be clear and concise in their language, articulating the vision plainly, clearly explaining why it’s important, and outlining the changes that are going to be made in order to bring it to fruition.

(Shortform note: The tendency to use jargon is not just something seen in the business world—it’s also a significant problem for the scientific community as it struggles to convey its ideas to the general public. According to one study, the use of overly technical language in scientific reports and articles undermined participants’ confidence in science, made them feel locked out of the discussion, convinced them that they were “bad” at science, and made them less likely to read scientific materials in the future. In fact, to help researchers make their publications more accessible, one Israeli researcher created an online tool called the De-Jargonizer that rates and assesses the accessibility of scientific texts.)

Foster Open Dialogue

Kotter encourages the leaders of the change coalition to foster an open dialogue regarding the vision and strategy for the organization’s future, even from people who may disagree with that vision and strategy. Leaders should create an environment where feedback and input from all employees is welcome.

This empowers people in the organization and gives them a sense of ownership in the mission. This will encourage buy-in and foster commitment because it makes people feel that they are helping to guide and shape what’s happening with the organization, rather than simply being dictated to. Once people feel they’ve been heard and listened to, they’re far more willing to commit to a course of action, even if they have disagreements—in fact, most people don’t expect full agreement with their ideas, they only want the respect of having their perspective considered.

(Shortform note: Not fostering open and inclusive dialogue can lead to a dysfunctional team. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni writes that dysfunctional teams—ones that fail to achieve commitment and lumber from one non-decision to the next—often develop when team members fear the kind of conflict and disagreement that Kotter encourages. When teammates haven’t had the opportunity to hash out disagreements through productive, ideological debate, they feel that their ideas haven’t been given proper consideration. It’s also harder to make any decision when you haven’t considered alternative points of view. If people feel that better alternatives haven’t been explored, they’ll be reluctant to move forward with a decision. The result is a lack of commitment—ambiguity about goals and confusion regarding individual responsibilities.)

John Kotter: How to Communicate the Vision for Change

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of John P. Kotter's "Leading Change" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Leading Change summary:

  • Why successful firms are those that can implement long-term change
  • A breakdown of the key steps for leading successful organizational change
  • Why change must be led by a team, not by a visionary individual

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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