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7 Ways to Lead With Empathy During Times of Change

Topics: Career Advice
lead with empathy
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When was the last time you led or experienced a change at work? Consider this:

  • What was the change about?
  • When did it occur?
  • How effectively was the change implemented?

Many of us work in organizations that operate on the basis that the only constant is change. While the scope and nature of the change can vary widely, frequency of change has become routine. It’s likely we’ve experienced a workplace change as recently as the last few weeks.

When I facilitate workshops and ask teams how effectively a recent change in their workplace was implemented, I typically hear only one positive story. The rest are overwhelmingly described as challenges, highlighting elements that went awry.

When I probe further, what emerges is an unbalanced approach. In most cases, the business plan to introduce and navigate the change eclipsed the people transition that supports the individual process that goes hand in hand with the practical and operational aspects of the change. This leaves leaders scrambling to support their teams and missing an opportunity to invest in people’s emotions, an investment that is necessary for successful change.

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Why Lead With Empathy?

Missing the emotional side of change can impede progress in teams and organizations. William Bridges was the first to define the difference between change and transition. He views change as the tangible external situation and transition as the internal emotional process people experience. Without attention to this emotional process, the time to adopt the change will increase dramatically, or the change risks not being adopted at all.

Leading with empathy during times of change can help team members move through change expeditiously and effectively.

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman defined empathy  as “the ability to understand the emotional make-up of other people” and “the skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.” Brene Brown notes how empathy strengthens the power of connection. Leaders who lead with empathy can harness this connection to support team member transitions during times of change by asking yourself these questions and using these techniques:

  • Identify the Nature and Scope of the Change – What is the change about? Is the change big or small?
    • Lead with empathy by matching the amount of investment in understanding and providing support to the scope of the change.
  • Recognize Impact Differences – What is the impact on the team member as they view it? The change can impact team members differently and at different times, a small change can have a big impact. Bridges tells us there are three different stages of transition, team members may experience the impact differently at the starting point than after some time passes.
    • Lead with empathy by gathering information from the team member’s lens and communicating your understanding of their view of the impact.
  • Note Your Role – Are you the initiator of the change or are you supporting others through change? Team member expectations will be heightened if you are the initiator.
    • Lead with empathy by considering how team members view you and your role in the change and communicate recognition of your role.
  • Notice the Knowledge Time Horizon – When did you initiate/become aware of the change? Initiators of change have a natural tendency to invite team members to turn towards the change too early, before they are ready. Consider what you’ll signal to team members about how you have digested the change.
    • Lead with empathy by sharing when you initiated/became aware of the change and demonstrate your understanding of what team members may be experiencing as they initially learn of the change.
  • Accept Reaction Differences – What is your reaction to the change? How are others reacting? Recognize that reactions to change might differ and respect the differences. Reactions are an indicator that team members are digesting a change, and they may be temporary.
    • Lead with empathy by asking directly about their reactions, honor them and if different, resist the temptation to share yours or convince them otherwise.
  • Actively Support Emotions – What emotions do you observe team members experiencing? Supporting team member emotions is a precursor to getting the work done and completing the change.
    • Lead with empathy by prioritizing team member needs and be there for and with them during the transition. When communicating, use language that references their specific emotions.
  • Assess Experimentation – Are team members trying out the change or holding back? Invite them to begin to test it out and expect a natural blend of resistance and willingness.
    • Lead with empathy by communicating that team members may not be fully ready to embrace the change, normalize natural human tendency of resistance and invite experimentation and feedback.

As team members move through transition, some will progress in a straightforward line and others will zigzag. Leading with empathy will allow you to support them in the way they need.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you helped your team through a transition? We want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Patricia Bravo
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