Empathy: How it Can Help You Become a Better Change Leader

“I thought I came here today to learn more about myself, in order to help me do my job to manage change. What I really learned was empathy for other people, which will help me partner with others to lead change.”

This revelation was shared by a Change Intelligence (CQ) workshop participant, and one that I’ve heard many times from many others.  The definition of CQ is the awareness of one’s change leader style, and the ability to adapt one’s style to be optimally effective across people and situations.  As a person builds awareness of their own style, they naturally become aware of other styles of leading change.  The Heart-oriented change leader gets exposed to Head-oriented change leaders, increasing their awareness of the need to make progress toward the goal while taking care of the people. Head-oriented change leaders get exposed to Hands-oriented change leaders, increasing awareness of process and tactics in addition to vision and strategy.

At times, due to how we are hard-wired as humans, “different” can be perceived as “bad” – in the same way that “change” can be perceived as “threat” when we first encounter it – no matter how pro-diversity or change-friendly we might be deep down inside.  What I’ve often observed, in myself and others, is that once we become aware of other styles, we can initially judge them negatively.  For example, I am a high-Heart-and-Head change leader – the Champion change leader style.  Early in my career, I looked down on high-Hands Executors, criticizing them as “plodding” and “pessimistic.”

However, over time, particularly once I realized that some of my early change projects were veering off-track because of a lack of focus on the details, I began to see the value of efficient planning.  What I once perceived as plodding I began to appreciate as keeping a firm handle on activities, deliverables, issues and risks, so nothing got dropped out.  What I once perceived as pessimistic I began to appreciate as a realistic appraisal of resource requirements and timing targets.

I’ve seen such a realization occur time and again in the change leaders I coach – no matter their industry, functional expertise, or hierarchical level.  I refer to this as the “judging to valuing ladder” as we transition from being an “aware” to an “evolved” change leader:

What happens when people step up the ladder is that they begin to empathize with a much wider array of people than they may have in the past.  They begin to understand the journeys others have been on, and appreciate that they are honestly trying to do the best they can capitalizing on their strengths.  That is a huge mental shift, because so often, to the “unenlightened change leader,” the strengths of other styles can seem very frustrating and even detrimental – like my initial judgment of planning as plodding and realism as pessimism.

When we are able to “get out of our heads” (or “hearts” or “hands” or whatever our dominant style may be), magic happens.  As the old saying goes, “it’s amazing how when we change, others change too.”  When we look at people with new eyes – with respect and gratitude – it’s a palpable gift to them.  We “show up” very differently to them as well.  At the top of the judging to valuing ladder, the door to new possibilities for partnership opens.

To put these insights into practice right now, I invite you to ask yourself:

Is there someone you are working with who you find frustrating?  Looking at them through the lens of empathy, could they be honestly trying to do the right thing, but just in a very different way than you would?  Might they possibly be leveraging strengths that they genuinely believe will lead to successful outcomes, but those strengths may not be ones you value?

Is there someone you are working with who you are trying to influence in a positive direction, but not getting traction?  Consider that perhaps you have been communicating with them in a way that works for you, but not in a way that they can truly “hear.”  For example, as a high-Heart-and-Head Champion change leader, I tend to get excited by the “what” and “who” of change – that is, the exciting new vision and engaging with people to get there with urgency.  To connect with high-Hand Executer change leaders, I need to incorporate “how” messages.  If I don’t, then they will be stuck ruminating about “how are we going to make this work,” and often view me as a “cheerleader” not a “champion,” because I have not helped them see the path from current to future state, which is what they need to know to connect with my message.

Is there a change initiative you are leading in which you are stuck and not achieving the results you aspire to?  Study the strengths of change leader styles that are not your own, ones that are less typical or even uncomfortable for you.  Can you try out one or more of these strengths, flexing some new muscles in areas you have traditionally been weak, or under-valued?  Is there a colleague you can reach-out to who is strong in critical aspects of the change process that you are not as skilled at, or just do not enjoy?

Daniel Goleman, who popularized “Emotional Intelligence” or “EQ” (which encourages us to hone our capacity to understand and manage our own emotions) has in more recent times developed the concept of “Social Intelligence,” to empower us to forge effective relationships with others.  In his words, “self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”

The first step in building Change Intelligence, or CQ, is in fact to look within, and become aware of own change leader style.  However, the true gold is when we can then build on this understanding to empathize with others, and adapt our style accordingly.  Thinking about all the tumult in our workplaces and our world, it can seem “scary out there.”  So many people are living and working in fear.  By developing and displaying empathy, we can not only help others and ourselves rise above that fear, but we also vastly increase the probability of successful partnerships and sustainable change.

When Change is Out of Your Control: What You Can Do

Have you ever experienced the shocking blow of an unforeseen major change in your organization? Three of my clients in the middle-management ranks of their companies are currently facing changes that were sudden, unexpected, and from their perspectives, out of their control:

  • An IT organization notified of the decision to outsource several major functions
  • A manufacturing division suffering the disappointment of a canceled major expansion
  • An insurance firm undergoing reorganization that will entail relocating a significant number of personnel to a different region of the U.S.

What can a leader to when change is “forced” upon his or her team? One of my favorite models to use in situations like these is called the “Spheres of Influence” from leadership guru Stephen Covey:

The Spheres of Influence is a powerful coaching tool for ourselves as leaders as well as a potent exercise for our teams during times of unwanted and involuntary change.

To use the tool, ask yourself and/or your team:

What can we control?  Regardless of your industry, your title or your specific circumstances, the answer to this is consistent. Typically, the answer is only ourselves – our individual behaviors and attitudes.  However, this is not nothing.  As the saying goes, “your attitude determines your altitude.”  Moreover, in times of change, leaders “walking the talk” speaks volumes, and role models for others.

What can we influence?  Although we cannot control the behaviors and attitudes of others, we can influence them.  In my 25+ years of coaching leaders at all levels, there has never been an instance where I did not observe that an individual’s circle of influence was greater than they initially perceived.  That’s the essence of Change Intelligence:  cultivating awareness of our own behaviors so we can more effectively adapt to influence others.  Often, an even small shift in our mindset or our approach will enable us to have a far greater impact than we had achieved in the past.  For example, by sharing neuroscience research that shows that giving people some sense of “certainty” during a change process – such as by informing people of a date by which a significant announcement will be made, even if the details are unknown – an IT Project Manager was able to convince her Director and peers to begin the communication process much earlier than they had planned.  A month after the announcement the director told the PM that the senior team was pleased with the decision to increase the communication cadence, since they perceived the tactic led to significantly less disruption than with previous reorganizations, giving people the degree of comfort they needed to continue focusing on day-to-day priorities even in the midst of significant uncertainty about their long-term roles.

What can’t we influence at this time?  Of course, this is often the easiest question to answer.  We may not be able to control the final decision to outsource, not expand, or downsize.  However, by answering these three questions – and then by reversing the order, and challenging yourself and your team to consider whether all the factors that seem “out of our control at this time” actually are, unseen possibilities often appear.  For example, the IT PM in the example above wasn’t able to control the ultimate direction of the senior team, but she was able to control – or significantly impact – the process by which the change was rolled-out in the organization.

Although the strategies I’ve shared thus far are very helpful in times of involuntary change, they are all reactive moves.  What can we as leaders do to proactively prepare ourselves and our teams to cope with the inevitable changes sure to come, since we know organizational change around the world is exponentially increasing in pace, scope, and complexity?  

Here are some practices to put in place today to set yourself up to take control of your future tomorrow:

At the individual level:  Build trusting relationships with your staff, peers, and managers.  Make it easy for others to be comfortable approaching you about issues and concerns.  Take the pulse of how people are “feeling” in addition to what they are “thinking,” and use your own and others’ emotions as data.  Mutually supportive connections will greatly increase your span of influence – relationships facilitate results. Also, when you build trust and connection during the “easy times,” the trust will be in place when the “change hits the fan.”

At the team level:  Institute regular process checks on your team. Make room for “time-outs” in your meeting agendas to solicit input into what people see as challenges, and opportunities, impacting the group – and importantly, what they see looming on the horizon.  Schedule informal walk-arounds where you ask team members questions such as, “How do you think we’re doing?  What could we be doing better?”

At the organizational level:  Create multiple methods to both effectively communicate information from the top-down, but also to elicit feedback from the bottom up.  So often, executive communication regarding major changes is transmitted ineffectively, causing confusion and even fear.  How can communications be tailored to specific audiences in ways that not only help them understand they “why and what,” but also the “how and when” and a positive part they can play, enabling some sense of personal control, or at least influence.  The higher you go in an organization, the more difficult it is to get timely and accurate feedback about what is happening on the front lines and through the ranks.  One of the most important – and most difficult – roles of middle- and front-line managers is to demonstrate leadership courage by giving feedback to those above them in the hierarchy about how changes are being perceived and the impact they are having – including at times that the “emperor has no clothes” and that the senior team may need to change how it is operating (walking the talk, providing resources, removing barriers, etc.) to enable the change to take root.  Is there a courageous conversation you can facilitate right now? One that would have a positive impact for you and your team today? One that would enhance the possibility of effective upward influence for the future? I invite you to take 5 minutes today to identify 1-2 actions that will bring the greatest impact to you as a leader, to your team and for your organization and then schedule time to execute. Once you do, send me a reply to let me know how it went.

Leadership Unplugged: Finding Solutions and Inspiration for Change Initiatives

A few years ago I put myself through a 360-degree feedback process in which I requested developmental input from peers, clients, staff, friends and family.  The strongest “needs improvement” area that emerged was “Work-Life Balance.”  Written-in comments indicated that people were not concerned that I neglected family or friends – but rather that I did not make time for myself – for reflection and rejuvenation.

That feedback really stunned me, especially because it was consistent across all respondents, including clients with whom I do not typically share too much about my personal life or habits.  I took it to heart, and engaged in a lot of soul-searching, resulting in changes to my personal and professional routines.  One of the most important changes was to schedule downtime – no devices, no distractions, no companions – and to step outside my normal environment to take a walk in nature (that is, if we weren’t in the midst of a polar vortex!).

I share this because it was during one of those scheduled downtimes that “CQ” was born.  As I was walking, I heard this phrase bubble up into my conscious mind: “you know your IQ, you’ve probably heard of EQ, but what’s your CQ?  Isn’t that what’s missing from our leadership toolkit that’s causing the high rate of failed change:  the lack of CQ, or Change Intelligence?!”

The rest, as they say, is history.  

After inspiration, it’s just a matter of implementation!  (Well that, along with a couple of years of hard work and support from partners like everyone reading this newsletter, of course!)

We all “know” intellectually about the importance of solitary time-outs, but how many of us really hold them as “sacred space” not to be scheduled over when the inevitable urgent crisis of the moment arises?  

These “Aha moments” – from the apple falling on Newton’s head while resting under a tree to a major breakthrough in the design for the Hubble Telescope that originated while the engineer was taking a shower – so  often occur while we are taking a “creative pause.”

Note that I didn’t go on my walk at fateful day when I conceived of CQ thinking to myself, “I’m going to invent a ground-breaking innovation right now while strolling around the lake” or anything to that effect.  The point is to deliberately disconnect even from one’s own “intentions” – to intentionally set aside the challenges and problems of the day and simply to let the mind wonder where it will.

As a psychologist (and a human!) I know this can be intimidating.  A mind left to wonder often travels to scary places – where worry and fears run rampant.  Perhaps that’s why we seem to crave constant external stimulation and fill every waking minute with activity, whether or not it’s productive, meaningful or fulfilling.  I fall prey to these dysfunctional dynamics just like everyone else.  I have to remind myself that I’m a human being not a human doing, and that sometimes the fastest way to “get there” (achieve my goals) is to just “be here” (now, in the present moment, in the calm and creative white space).

Paradoxically, it’s often in the white space of creative pauses that we achieve significant breakthroughs.  New possibilities present themselves for vexing problems.  We see opportunities where before we perceived only roadblocks.  I invite you to ask yourself where in your current change initiatives do you feel like you are “pushing the string,” frustrated that no matter what you try, you’re not getting traction.  Consider that perhaps by stepping back, stepping aside, and giving the problem and yourself some space, you might arrive at an insight to help you move forward.

The fact that you are reading this blog post and have derived value from the CQ System is living proof of the transformative impact of intentional disengagement! Don’t forget to give yourself the gift of a mental holiday.  Yours could be a walk in nature, a quiet drive, a longer shower, a mindful meditation, or simply staring out the window.  Reflect upon whether carving out space in your schedule to check-out might be a winning way for you too to perhaps counter-intuitively power-down to speed-up realization of professional and personal goals and dreams.  Not to mention a feel-good experience for your body and spirit – and a way to rekindle your passion.  It worked for me!

Feel free to drop me a line and let me know of any insights or “ahas” that emerge around your change projects as a result of unplugging and taking time away.

Be a Change Leader – Not “Just” a Change Manager!

Unfortunately, most change-based training programs focus exclusively on “Change Management” and exceedingly few on “Change Leadership.”  Change Management is the methods and tools of change: and these are critical to get the job done.  Yet, being savvy in deploying a Change Management Toolkit is best viewed as a baseline competency – what we need to be nominally effective at a very basic level. What we need to be optimally impactful is to hone our Change Leadership capacity.  As an example, this is the distinction between drafting a Stakeholder Engagement Plan, versus being able to genuinely engage stakeholders at all levels, from the C-suite to the front lines and across functions and geographies.

Think Globally, Act Locally, and Panic Internally

When I train leaders in Change Intelligence, we spend a lot of time diagnosing and developing our strengths, blind spots, and coaching opportunities to enhance our competence and confidence – and reduce our stress and frustration.

Quick example: an IT project manager I coached had the epiphany that emailing a quick reference guide for a new procedural change wasn’t quite enough to encourage adoption by end users (in other words, he provided a training tool that helped the hands, but completely missed the opportunity to show people why the change was necessary from a business sense as well as to engage with them to communicate why they should care). In his words, “maybe it wasn’t them resisting – maybe it was me not leading – who knew?!”

The bottom line message of the CQ/Change Intelligence System is that what so often looks like resistance in others, is a lack of effective leadership behaviors in ourselves. We as change agents are not giving people what they need to “get it” (engaging the brain – the “what and why” – the vision and strategy), to “want it” (inspiring the heart – the “who” – the hopes and fears), or to be able to “do it” (helping the hands – the “how” – the training and tools).

Here are some provocative questions to inspire both your own personal self-reflection as well as coaching conversations with clients on your Change Leadership journey:

  1. Am I aware of my own emotions in the face of change?  Do I deny or explore them?  What are they telling me and how can they lead me to the solutions I seek ?  How can allowing myself to feel what I feel help evolve me into an even more powerful Change Agent?
  2. Are the leaders/sponsors of your change initiatives “doing as they say others should do?”  Are they catalyzing or crushing commitment?  Is there an opportunity for you to have a courageous conversation with a leader you are working with?  If so, what would that be?  If so, what’s stopping you?  What would you do/say if you weren’t afraid?
  3. People in organizations today are hungering for a sense of humanity – what can you do in your change work to keep the human element at the forefront?  Would it be worthwhile to not just create a Stakeholder Plan, but also an Empathy Map delineating change impacts?  Is the human element in change being considered at each step and decision-point along the way?