Change happens from the ground up.

Which is to say, when people and behaviors change, only then do organizations change.

And while communication is crucial for leading change, it’s not enough.  Even those who are on board with a transformation often do not adopt the new behaviors necessary to support it.

So what’s the secret?

According to Patti Sanchez, writing for the Harvard Business Review, it’s empathy:

“In my work as a communication consultant, I’ve observed the same thing time and time again: how information is communicated to employees during a change matters more than what information is communicated. A lack of audience empathy when conveying news about an organizational transformation can cause it to fail.”

In my own work leading and supporting technical implementations and organizational change, I’ve certainly found this to be true.

It’s not enough to change a process or a business application and expect this to transform your business…

Real change happens with real people asking new questions and embracing new ways of behaving on a daily basis.  And to make that happen, you need to display lots of empathy.

Here’s how:

  • Share the goals and objectives, and create an emotional connection to the broader vision.  When people understand the reasons for a change — and are committed to the mission — they become less resistant and far more likely to adopt new behaviors that endure.
  • Listen, empathize, and absorb concerns. To listen with empathy, try to hear and understand the emotion behind the words. Hearing what someone feels, rather than what they say, allows you to address the true source of their concerns. That’s a crucial first step when you’re asking employees to get on board with a change plan.
  • Address questions and concerns head on, with as much transparency as possible.

Employees, stakeholders, and anyone affected by the changes will have worries — and they need to see that leaders understand their concerns and take them into account when making decisions.

  • Get granular, and keep your ears open.  How will the change impact specific jobs? What possible roadblocks, challenges, opportunities, and synergies are your employees seeing — and how can you mitigate or capitalize on them?
  • Solicit input and advice from all stakeholders at all levels of the organization. Your frontline employees will very often be directly impacted by technology implementations and other organizational change, and their enthusiastic adoption of new priorities, applications, processes, or ways of thinking is crucial to your success. Engage them early in the planning process, so they become invested in the success of the project.
  • Keep checking in. Feelings about and responses to impending changes will evolve over time. It’s important to have an ear to the ground, so you can address new questions and concerns as they arise.  
  • Leverage people who are already onboard with the vision. Create a change agent network of champions who will help propagate the message through your organization and let you know how the organization is feeling about the change. 
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate! No one likes to feel blindsided, ignored, or dismissed. Be sure employees at every level are clear both on organizational priorities, goals, and timelines AND on how, when, and why changes will be implemented in their own departments.

Recent data from McKinsey underlines what many change leaders have long known —  clear communication is one of the top indicators for successful organizational change.  However, the McKinsey data also reveals that — particularly with digital transformations — ownership and commitment are key. (In fact, organizations that report high levels of commitment are more than 3 times more likely to successfully implement the desired transformation.)

Leaders must be committed to the change — but so too must employees at every level of the organization. This is where clear and engaging communication — coupled with lots of empathy — has a vital role to play. 

Asking questions, listening carefully, and responding empathetically (in both word and action) help leaders activate commitment throughout the organization, bring reluctant employees on board, and create a change network that can see the transformation through to success.

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