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Is Empathy Key to Successful Change Initiatives?


Wed Aug 08 2018

Is Empathy Key to Successful Change Initiatives?

Leaders know that even though organizational change begins at one single point, it must catch on like wildfire to be successful. Unfortunately, the research on change initiative success rates is not optimistic. McKinsey estimates that 70 percent of change initiatives do not achieve their goals partly because of employee resistance. A 2014 Deloitte study had an even bleaker outlook, calculating a mere 4.5 percent success rate for change initiatives attempted for the 15 years prior to the study.

When you are trying to implement organizational change, people may be justifiably concerned. They ask: What do these changes mean really? Will there be cuts or reallocations as a result of this change? Is my job safe?


Whispered conversations from a worried workforce become the norm, and productivity wanes as everyone wonders why. So how do you as a change agent put your company in a better position to succeed? You want to make sure that you approach this change with communication steeped in empathy.

Handling Difficult, Change-Centered Conversations

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen in my consulting is that people almost always focus on the negative how and what during a difficult conversation. How a person’s work is lagging. What a team is doing wrong. How a group’s output is slowing down the company. You get the idea. The trick to approaching difficult conversations is simple: focus on the why. And or most difficult conversations you’ll encounter, the why is to better them as employees and not break them down as human beings.

What does this look like when the difficult conversation is around change? Remembering the why will always stay the same. Focus on the big question first: Why is this change happening? Be as transparent as you can because it eliminates uncertainty and kills anything could even partially look like deceit while pushing openness and honesty.

When companies just assign tasks and ignore the reasons behind them, it’s natural for those directly affected by change to come up with their own. When concern is on the rise, productivity wanes. Focus is scattered, collaboration is disjointed, and the transformation you sought out is nearly impossible to achieve. Transparency eliminates that.

Focus on Stories, Not Spin

As a change agent, your most important job in delivering the news is telling the story of the change. What will it look like for the company when it works? For the department? The teams? For each individual? What will a typical day look like? What will be the new challenges the individual will face? Most importantly, what role will their specific team or department play in advancing the change? Make whoever you are speaking to an indispensable part of why this new initiative will be a huge success. Narratives really hit home when you make your listener a part of the winning team.


The caveat to the story is the “spin.” Telling the story of how great everything will be when cuts are on the horizon is deceptive and will only hurt the company in the long run. Your story should be based on the facts that you can give, not the claims that will pad morale.

Explaining what the change is and the benefits of said change is just the first step. Being a storyteller and painting a complete picture answers a lot of those whispered questions floating around about the change. Storytelling adds a level of comfort and security that will result in higher productivity and company success.

When Total Transparency Isn’t an Option? Be Honest

No matter the size and scale, transforming a culture is a daunting task. Everyone needs to buy into those changes in order for the new strategies to be advanced. Unfortunately, the thing most people need in order to really get on board, transparency, isn’t always going to be an option for change agents. You know the bigger picture, but you may not be able to share it in its entirety.

When you can’t be transparent, be honest. Be completely open when discussing the topics you can share, and be candid about what you cannot. People will understand that not every piece of information will be available all at once. Respecting the process will be a lot easier for them, though, since you’ve told the story of the change and focused on the why.

No matter what the initiative is, buy-in and support will start with how the change agents handle messaging. When you approach that job with empathy by minding your communication and remembering that you are dealing with human beings, change management plans will have a greater foundation for success.


Sharon Steed will be presenting Cultivating Empathy in an Evolving Workplace at the ATD TalentNext conference. Join her in November 7-8 in Seattle.

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