Communicating change – whales or dolphins?

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place’ – George Bernard Shaw

This quote points out a potential problem pervading the quality of our communication with others. Communication is about creating a shared understanding between communicator and recipient, enabling (greater) knowledge of a specific idea between two or more people. But as Shaw implies, effective communication is about more than just the transferal of ideas – it’s about making sure those ideas are correctly comprehended by both people. If the recipient misinterprets or fails to grasp the ideas being presented to them, shared understanding will not be forged, and communication has not actually transpired.

Effective communication is important in the workplace. Research shows that it positively correlates with many organisational factors like employee commitment, performance, and job satisfaction. But it’s also imperative during organisational change. This is because, unlike regular organisational strategies, processes, and norms – which employees will already be familiar with – change constitutes a journey into the unknown. And with the unknown comes a lack of knowledge. And with this lack of knowledge comes the need for a solid understanding of the change process to be established in the minds of the people involved – something which can only be forged through proper communication.

So how can change leaders effectively communicate change, ensuring that their ideas are cemented and a shared understanding is facilitated?

David Feeny proposes the concept of ‘whales vs dolphins’ when considering communicating change. This analogy comes from the different ways in which whales and dolphins breathe.

Dolphins typically surface frequently but briefly to breathe, taking in only small bursts of air. On the other hand, whales typically surface rarely, taking in large amounts of air, and spend a lot of time submerged and out of sight.

In Feeny’s terms, the whales’ behaviour demonstrates the exact strategy that change leaders should aim to avoid during organisational change. Communicating occasionally to dump sizeable chunks of information on those involved in the change, and then disappearing for a long while before recommunicating, will not allow for chances to iron out any issues in misinterpretation or miscommunication. Passing on information every now and again, and remaining inaccessible in-between, does not necessarily mean that a mutual understanding and knowledge will be established.

Instead, like dolphins, communicating little and often during the change – and making sure the communication is mutually understood – will ensure that everyone is continually on the same page. Leading change means leading your employees down the path of transformation – and frequent, visible guidance will ensure a smooth journey.

Thus to implement a successful change, change leaders must be aware that people interpret ideas and information in different ways. PRINT® can help them establish an understanding of these differences by giving insight into people’s unique Unconscious Motivators®, which influence our behaviour and responses to specific situations. By understanding how different employees are likely to understand and respond to what is communicated, change leaders can adapt their communication styles and messages to suit all those involved, so that everyone accepts and learns from the communication on good terms.

A good example of a PRINT® who would need consistent communication during change would be a PRINT® 6, whose Unconscious Motivator® is to be safe and secure. Since change would disrupt their normal routine, to them it may constitute an ‘assault’ on their security – meaning they’d be more likely to resist it. Sticking by them and frequently communicating the change process and its benefits would help to overcome this change resistance and achieve their support.


Our Head of Consultancy and Learning, Clare, is attending the Agile Business Conference on the 6th October, and will be leading a round-table discussion on how change leaders can overcome change resistance and implement successful engagement strategies. If you’d like to attend this event, email to get your tickets now. There’s only a couple of weeks left, so make sure you book quickly!


For more information on how PRINT® could benefit yourself or your organisation, email, visit our website and social media, or sign up to our mailing list. If you’d like to bring PRINT’s benefits to organisations and businesses, we offer Accreditation courses enabling in-house coaches and learning & development professionals to become certified PRINT® coaches.