Last week I said I wanted to understand the obstacles to widespread adoption of plain language. This post will explore organizational willingness. I wrote earlier that I intend to study this topic in detail next fall. But, to make the best use of my time, I’d love to hear from those who have been involved in plain language initiatives. In fact, I have far more questions than answers at this point.

Management research is the likely source of knowledge about what makes organizations (un)willing to adopt plain language. Although I am not a management scholar, I work within a management department in a college of business and have collaborated on research with several of these folks over the past 20 years. (I hope that’s somewhat more persuasive than saying I slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night!)  And the Journal of Change Management has been publishing research for 25 years at this point.

So what do management experts know about organizational willingness to change? First of all, research states that organizational change is often — or mostly — unsuccessful. I’ve seen statistics of between 40% and 70% describing how many organizational change initiatives fail. Is this accurate when looking specifically at plain language initiatives?

Second, research often describes the change process with three phases as suggested in 1947 by the father of social psychology, Kurt Lewin (aka “The Practical Theorist”): (1) unfreezing, (2) moving, and (3) freezing. Later research proposed additional stages but builds on these three.

Third, research shows that developing willingness among employees is a critical part of the unfreezing phase. To minimize resistance and create readiness for change, Armenakis and his colleagues argue that initial communication about the change must address five components. (How do organizations make these arguments about plain language?)

  1. Discrepancy: the organization needs to change.
  2.  Self-efficacy: the organization has the capability to successfully change.
  3. Personal valence: it is in everyone’s best interest to change.
  4. Principal support: those affected are behind the change.
  5. Appropriateness: the desired change is right for the organization.

I would love to hear stories about resistance to change in a plain language initiative. Do these five components help to explain how resitance was/wasn’t dealt with successfully?

Fourth, and not surprisingly, research has found that an organization needs transformational leaders — those who can attend to both tasks and people — to create positive employee affect and commitment about the change from the beginning. So, while organizational change may have to begin with the organizations’ top managers, it must be embraced by individual employees to succeed. That means leaders must help employees become willing to use plain language. You can listen to leadership expert and Forbes contributor, John Kotter, talk about change leadership in 2011. Because our language is so closely tied to our identity (more about that in a future post), I suspect that the kind of leader required to get employees to change their language is one rare individual. Could you tell me about your experience with top managers and their leadership in plain language initiatives?

I warned you I have a lot of questions . . .