Education, Experience and Empathy

Last night I had the opportunity to speak to a group of grad students at Clark University about change management. It was a great group and we had a good time delving into the real life challenges of change. About a third were there because the course was a requirement for their MIS degree program, a few because it happened to fit into their schedule and a few for some very specific reasons (one – notably – was there to learn about how he could help influence the political and societal change his native country is undergoing. How cool is that?).

The class was about half way through the course, had covered the major change models and was set to cover one approach in depth for the remainder of their time. I’ve always found change models to be super helpful in organizing your approach, preparation, timing and roll out of change efforts – the skeleton say – but I’ve also found they leave you needing help putting flesh on the bones. That’s kind of what we covered together in the class last night – maybe the heart and soul of change.

We talked about the central figure in any change effort: the employee. And not just “employee” in general but the specific human being – EVERY specific human being – party to the change. We came to the conclusion that humans are messy. They bring a whole host of characteristics to the workplace (we brainstormed a bunch: gender, race, ethnicity, geographic location, salary level, experience, family, performance level, commitment, satisfaction, technology savvy, and more and more and more). Each and every employee impacts and is impacted by change depending on their particular set of characteristics. As Professor Hinkle has been known to say: “Messy, messy, messy”. Multiply this mess times the number of people in your organization and then times the economy, industry evolution, technology, and management (to the nth degree) and you’ve got…what class?…Organizational Ch….? Right! Organizational Chaos!

We all know change is constant, and it’s unrealistic to think there is a beginning, middle, and end to a change effort. In fact, if there is one thing we regularly do too soon in change efforts – it’s end (More on that later). But we (the class) talked about how to keep an important goal in mind to navigate the chaos that is the constantly changing organization. The guiding light? The business goals. We talked about how important it is to carefully and clearly define and articulate the business goals in order to make change that supports those goals, is fair and is lasting.

One student told a story of his company laying off one of his co-workers as a result of a mandate that every department had to lose one headcount. Three weeks later the employee was back. Turns out the work he and the department was doing was critical to the business goal. These kinds of unproductive, embarassing, and potentially risky decisions can be avoided if your change efforts are constantly tested against the goals. Keeping the business goal front and center also helps to ensure fair decisions are made and that employees are being evaluated against a defendable constant.

Your deep knowledge of the business goal is key and a change manager – whether an external consultant, internal manager or human resources professional – needs three things as a strong foundation for effecting change:

Education: Know the business, know the business, know the business. This means have a grasp of economic factors, industry trends, business performance, client expectations and the like. It’s also handy to have some knowledge of change models, tools and techniques. Excellent communication skills should be a given – either inherent to the change manager or in the form of a communication expert.

Experience: We’ve all experienced change. Whether it’s moving into the college dorm for the first time or getting a new job or breaking a habit – we’ve experienced nervous butterflies, the challenge of setting expectations, the frustration of not being heard and more. Experiencing and observing your own reaction to change, learning about others’ reactions, and seeing through the ramifications of change efforts give you important insight into how to manage change successfully in the future. The value of the “post-mortem” is widely acknowledged yet seldom practiced.

Empathy: Remember our messy employee? The thing is, the employee doesn’t feel messy. It’s their life and it informs their world. We need to respect that as change agents and do what we can communicate in ways people can hear and understand and react and provide input. Keeping this in mind – the very front of our minds – will create good will, smoother change and faster more effective progress toward the goal.

The fact of the matter is, business is not touchy feely. The heart and soul of change management is empathy for the employee and dedication to the business goal respectively. Thoughts?

I want to thank the Clark grad students for their participation last night. We had a good time comparing stories and I definitely learned a few things myself!

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