Why a human approach is the only response when managing change

By Jane Sparrow

These days it’s less ‘business as usual’ and more ‘change as usual’ as our corporate environments (and world!) are in a constant state of flux. It means that change management itself is almost a dying trade being rapidly replaced by schools of thought around change leadership, agility and collaboration.

For me, there’s one very simple thing that has always been at the heart of change. Human nature. Whilst it seems that everything in life is changing very quickly, mainly driven by rapid technological development, as human beings, we are not. Of course we do change and evolve but not at the speed of everything that is changing around us – we remain human at heart with basic needs to feel valued, communicated with and respected. Therefore, when we think about change and the fact that ultimately, aversion to change is a human condition, why do we try to manage it in a systematic, process driven way? This is undoubtedly the reason behind the fact that 70 per cent of change programmes fail…

Managing change through a human lens 

I recently worked with a major financial service organisation that was about to merge with another company. Essentially, they had been told that, as a consequence of the merger, their organisation wouldn’t exist much longer. I asked the leadership team how things were going and after 15 minutes of them talking about systems, processes, work streams and structures, I had to interject to enquire where the people came into it all. What’s the message people are receiving about why this is happening? What impact is it having on people? Each member of the leadership team had a different answer. The ‘People’ work stream wasn’t about how they were going to lead people, retain and manage their talent or keep people engaged and motivated – only how they were going to be TUPE’d across to the new organisation.

Like so many other organisations managing change, 90% of the conversation in the room was about the ‘what’ with nowhere near enough focus on the ‘why’ or the ‘how’ in human terms. The ‘why’ part of the story is so often lost in the eagerness to explain what is happening and what it means for the individual. However, the ‘why’ is the context and can make the difference between acceptance or rejection of change. The ‘why’ is rooted in the emotional and is the part that, as human beings, we actually crave the most.

Top tips on managing change in a human way 

It starts and ends with why, with some really important things in-between – here’s my top tips on taking a human approach to change.

Start and end with why

Wouldn’t it be simple if we could all respond in a rationale, systematic way to change? Ultimately, what makes us human is our emotional response to things. We all know the famous quote that ‘life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it’ (Charles Swindoll) and this is exactly why the ‘what’ needs to start taking more of a backseat in the context of change. There’s no perfect science to people, emotions or how we respond to change – but the one thing that unites us all is our instinctive desire to know why something is happening. Start and end here (on repeat).

The language of change

Often leaders and people managers feel they are aligned around a message or narrative around change – they then go out into the business and deliver that message in completely different ways. Spending time to explore and agree the language around the change that is happening is vital. It ensures the same tone, positivity around the message that will spread and demonstrates alignment across the business.

Train on responses to change

Ensuring leaders and people managers are equipped to deal with what are a wide range of very human reactions to change is an area that is hugely neglected. Leadership behaviour in the context of change needs to be far more intentional to spearhead a positive, human focused journey. Leaders and managers need to have both the competence and confidence to think carefully about the change they are leading. The process of change itself can be a great opportunity to develop your managers into better leaders and people managers.

Be specific about behaviour

Successful change will only happen if the human factor is carefully considered and managed but what does this actually look like? It means leaders coming into board or management meetings and talking about the human factor. It means investigating what is putting people into a fearful state and causing them to be defensive. It means exploring as a management team what the language around the ‘why’ is going to be so you know you have it right as a group. It means ensuring the comms element is well thought through and there’s a constant drum beat to keep people feeling informed, even if there’s nothing new to say.

Storytelling for change

When trying to engage people in a need for change and how the future will look and feel if we are to be successful in this change, consider storytelling to be nothing short of a superpower. In trying to win over hearts and minds for change, we need to appeal to both sides of the brain and making a rational argument alone will not achieve that. Stories that bring to life the current scenario and why this may need to change and examples that demonstrate the brighter future down the road will work powerfully in bringing people with you. Most people are not natural storytellers so making time to work with people leaders on this is essential.

Create space to be human

In times of change, we are wired to want to share, express, ask questions (sometimes the same one again and again) and just be together so that it is a shared, supported experience. Bringing people together, as informally as you can, to talk (and listen) with empathy, allow an opportunity for sharing of concerns and address any points that you are able to makes a huge difference to the way people feel (and perform) during change. In change, don’t wait for a reason to get people together, just do it, as often as you can.

Rally around a purpose you can control

There’s often much people can’t control during change – this can make us feel very threatened as human beings. Clearly acknowledging the uncontrollables and then rallying people around a shared purpose, however short term, whilst the change is happening can be very effective. This could be everything from focusing people on continued customer service during a big organisational change to coming together in a shared charity initiative – anything that unites the team in a shared purpose that is within their gift.

Use change as an opportunity for all

As humans we are instinctively wired around two things – opportunity and fear. If we look at change through this lens, we begin to see the importance of making people feel safe during change but also the potential value of using change as an opportunity. A global healthcare organisation I once worked with was due to lose one of their teams in the UK as the function was being relocated to Eastern Europe. A range of development opportunities for those who wanted to stay and assist with the transition was offered including inspirational speakers, a suite of training programmes and the opportunity to gain recognised qualifications. The team felt valued, engaged and motivated by the opportunity to develop themselves as part of the change.

Course correct in change

Head down and delivering the plan is the total opposite of what you need to be in times of change. You need to have your head up and senses (all of them) alert to live changes in the organisation (and teams) on a daily basis. What is resonating, what is sticking, what needs to be dialled up, what needs to be added to the plan (or culled). Agility in change is absolutely key and understanding that course correction (sometimes on an hourly basis) is required is essential.

Be the change

It might have come from Ghandi but it often gets forgotten. There is nothing more important in change (and organisational culture full stop) than walking the talk and role modelling at every level. If you’re not living the change – expecting others to, well, it’s just doesn’t compute does it. It’s one of the main reasons that 70 per cent of change fails – people talking a lot about change but not leading from the front in demonstrating what that actually looks like.

Within the three pillars of change – what we believe, how we behave and the tools we use[1] – far too much emphasis is usually put on the tools we use i.e. process, systems, action plans. Leaders need to give much more intentional focus to what the human impact of change is and what the human reaction is likely to be. We need to win hearts and minds by recognising we are emotional creatures and intentionally invest in leaders and managers to remind them of that. Leadership today is about building trust, investing in relationships and engaging people constantly, not just around a change plan. In order to master change management we need to get back to basics on human nature.

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