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The importance of empathy in organizational change

Written 26 March, 2019, 4 minutes to read

In a perfect world, positive change would not only be accepted but embraced. But we don’t live in a perfect world; in our reality, many people simply don’t like change. It’s unfamiliar, it’s unknown; it makes us feel uneasy and anxious, and as a result, we resist it.

Even when a change is clearly for the best, it still usually results in more planning, external participation, and moving away from the comfort of what’s familiar. And since companies need to be agile in order to stay relevant, this poses obvious problems for business. So what’s the best way to get your team on board with organizational change? The short answer: be empathetic

How empathy helps you introduce change

If you seriously want to drive organizational change, you need to communicate it with empathy – simply defined as the ability to understand the feelings of another. Many studies suggest that how information is conveyed is far more important than what information is conveyed. Not having empathy for your employees and how they feel about the change can cause it to fail – and similarly, successful change depends on your team backing it.

You can’t ignore resistance to change – nor can you plough ahead, guns blazing, and hope action demolishes any lingering opposition. Rather than trying to tackle the signs of resistance, you should make it a priority to understand why people are resistant; only then are you able to empathize in a sincere and meaningful way.

All too frequently, those responsible for implementing organizational change try to deflect or minimize negative reactions. There can be a consensus that people who doubt the change are “backwards” or “incompetent”, unable to grasp its importance. But often resistance is simply due to a lack of understanding, and it’s the responsibility of leadership alone to ensure the motives for change are known.

How to lead organizational change with empathy

According to experts, there are three basic elements of organizational empathy. These are:

1. Transparency.

No one wants to think secrets are being kept from them, or that information is being deliberately withheld. Keep people up-to-date with the goings on of the company and share news with them – it helps employees feel involved and valued, which helps drive interest.

2. Communication.

Frank, open communication is the key to understanding. This can apply to almost anything but it’s especially apt here! We’ve already discussed the importance of two-way dialogue for building a feedback culture, and it applies to driving change, too; employees should feel comfortable speaking to leaders about their concerns and opinions. They should never have to worry about the consequences of being honest.

3. Trust.

In this case, trust applies specifically to the whole company. It isn’t enough that senior staff are transparent and have open communication – it must extend to every single employee.

So what specific steps should you take to ensure you’re utilizing these three elements when driving change?

Respect every viewpoint

When you first communicate details of the change, share your company vision but be careful not to be too business-focused; you need to concentrate on the human component right now. Structure your communication plan around ideas that people will appreciate and relate to, but bear in mind they’ll probably have different ambitions and ideas to you. Make sure you communicate:

  • The motivation for the change;
  • What it means for the business;
  • What it means for individuals;
  • What you’re hoping to accomplish by the change;
  • How you’ll calculate success.

Ensure everyone gets the same news

There’s nothing like organizational change to get the rumour mill spinning. It’s important for everyone to feel they’re on the same page – the very last thing you want is people swapping stories and gossip, and spreading misinformation. Ensure you give every team member the same information at the same time. You can’t control your employees’ opinions, but you can control what information they receive.

If all the details of the change aren’t yet known, be honest with your team and tell them you’ll give further details once as you have them. Emphasize that you’re happy to answer any questions or concerns in the meantime – communication should always go both ways.

Always keep lines of communication open

Even once you’ve communicated the change and stressed that your door is always open, the communication aspect isn’t over yet. Open communication is the crux of empathic leadership, and it must be maintained every step of the way. You need to have ongoing communications with your team: set up regular meetings (with teams and individuals) and update everyone with progress and status.

Change is scary when it’s not understood, or when it creates a lack of transparency – that sense that information is being suppressed and the opinions of less senior team members aren’t valued. If you can develop – and more importantly, demonstrate – empathy for the people involved in your organizational change, not only will the change be accepted, but it can actually drive your proposal to success. Win-win.

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