Does leading organizational change sometimes feel like a battle with opposing sides working against each other with different goals and motivations? Wouldn’t it be great if it felt more like a dance partnership with different perspectives fully heard, and the partners working together toward aligned goals to make each other better?

In Think Again, Adam Grant described a good debate as not a war or even a tug of war, but “it’s more like a dance not yet choreographed, negotiated with a partner with a different set of steps in mind. Try too hard to lead, and your partner will resist. Adapt your steps to your partners’ and get them to do the same, and you’re more likely to find a common rhythm.”

This dance metaphor fits beautifully for leading change too.

The amount and speed of personal and professional change is greater today than ever. Striving to understand and adapt to all this change often leads to confusion, emotional stress, fatigue and can also lead to employee disengagement. So, what can leaders do to support their teams as they navigate this world of constant change?

I don’t propose a new formula or three-step plan, but foundational leadership attitudes and actions which connect us first as people and then align us to find the common rhythm of shared values and goals.

As change leaders, we’ve been taught to start with why, to build an internal coalitionand to create a compelling vision, all of which are very necessary. What I am proposing is a prerequisite to that work.

“Foundational leadership attitudes and actions should be inculcated to connect teams first as people and then align them to find the common rhythm of shared values and goals”

First, get a clear understanding of the needs, experiences and points of view of those we work with and lead. This is the foundation of effective change leadership.

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another”.  When we lead a change—big or small, we must first consider just how well we understand a “day in the life” of our key stakeholders. Before trying to sell our ideas or persuade others about the benefits of a change, we need to see the world through the eyes of those we are asking to commit to the change.

One helpful way to do this is borrowed from agile teams within the technology community who design tools to meet specific customer needs. An “empathy map”asks designers, and in this case change leaders, a series of questions toput themselves into the world of those they will serve and influence.

These questions include:

● What is their role and how much control or influence will they have in the change? Hint: the more input and involvementthey have in the change development, the more likely they will adopt the change.

● How different is the change from the way they work today? The greater the difference, the more the risk of resistance.

● What do they see in the work environment, what do they hear others say about the work, what do they say about their current work?  Is the sentiment positive, negative or are theyjust unaware?

● How do they feel about the current state?  Do they have a unique sense of ownership in the way work is being done today or are they frustrated by a painful process?

● What are their fears and needs, and what motivates them most? These are all leverage points to understand.

Once we’ve taken the time to ask these questions, have listened to our teams, and more clearly understand the full impact the change will have on them and how it can help them, we are much better prepared to tailor the change and change messages to meet them where they are and benefit them most.

I acknowledge some of the changes we lead are unavoidable, and we may have limited choices in how changes occur such as in a pandemicresponse or other changes guided by legal and regulatory constraints. But as much as possible, including input from and connecting the benefits of a change to the current needs, frustrations and motivations of our teams pays great dividends in change adoption.

As Simon Sinek explained in his September 2009 Ted Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, what drives behavior is not volumes of persuasive facts, statistics and data, but tapping into the emotion centersof our brain.

If we allow our change messages to be informed by and connected to the practical and emotional needs of our people, we“allow people to rationalize their decisions with the tangible things we say and do”.  The more we can connect the change “whys” to their individual “whys”, the more the changes become shared by all.

Listening to and empathizing with those we want to influence is a simple concept and helpful for any relationship. It’s simple, but it is not easy. It takes time and a great deal of intention to resist the urge to move too fast, to try to persuade based on our point of view, or to just plain mandate change. We may get compliance, but likely only for a while.

As St. Francis of Assisi and Stephen Covey have said, it is much better to “seek first to understand and then to be understood”. Now more than ever, our job as change leaders is to show we care as much about the people we lead as the results we achieve.