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Change leaders need information and empathy

In an earlier post I mentioned some research I have been conducting for two years with more than 200 leaders through a Change Leadership program. I then unpacked the first three of five things leaders need while change is occurring:

  1. Visibility of the future state.
  2. Involvement in the plan and its deployment.
  3. Acknowledgement of the additional work change leaders puts on top of business as usual leadership.
  4. Information and respect for their integrity about keeping information confidential (when required).
  5. Empathy for a tough job dealing with employees who are upset, angry and a danger to themselves.

In this blog post I will unpack the last two items in terms of practical strategies that can be considered by leaders and change managers alike to ensure that those who are key to the change (leaders) are suitably supported and focused on achieving the benefits required.

Information

Leaders at all levels need access to information to successfully fulfil their duties as change leaders. One of the biggest areas of complaint is that leaders at middle and local levels do not receive the information they need. This often is a result of a lack of a clear communication cascade method occurring in the organisation, or that cascade methods are not being followed consistently. For largescale change, sometimes parts of the business may lack awareness due to their senior leader not promptly passing on information in a form that is useful for line managers to use or absorb.

One organisation I worked with had a situation where due to the change, an email was sent and that was seen as the responsibility of passing on messages was complete. No follow up on whether the message was received or understood and actioned.

The other area around information is also the perception in some cases that we will not involve leaders until the senior echelons have decided on the final model, which invites assumptions to fill the vacuum created. For some leaders, this lack of inclusion and involvement is a sign that there may be a lack of respect for their integrity about keeping information confidential (when required).

Key strategies therefore include:

  • Sign confidentiality agreements if necessary around key change projects, or include a clause in standard leader employee contracts about to reflect specific details in change situations as opposed to general clauses around business as usual.
  • Let leaders know for the program of information release and the reasons behind why specific information may not be released.
  • Ensure that there is a specific leader support directory or accessible secure area where more detailed project information is available for access. This is separate to the general change material that is accessible to all staff.

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another’s feelings. It is a key aspect of emotional intelligence which, in my view, is a mandatory competency of all those in leadership positions. Leaders at all levels need a degree of empathy from their peers and senior leadership for a tough job dealing with employees who are upset, angry and perhaps in some circumstances a danger to themselves. At times there is a reflection that as a leader you have a ‘tougher skin’ than your staff so that therefore you can absorb more stress.

What leaders going through change have expressed they need is a degree of empathy. In some cases, this means access to confidential psychological support. Thankfully many companies have arrangements with employee assistance programs that provide counselling and coaching services.

Good practice organisations also acknowledge and use change managers to act as coach and make appropriate referrals. They will also ensure that the most senior leaders in an organisation also have the skills to be able to balance both the soft and harder skills in leadership and be able to listen to their other leadership layers and be able to provide practical support and advice.

Being a leader at any time can be very challenging. That is why a lot of people aspire for leadership roles due to wanting to excel, wanting to make a difference and wanting to bring results. But many leaders privately have expressed to me that they also want an emotionally aware and intelligent CEO and senior leadership team, where having an emotional response is considered a strength and not a weakness.

Psychologically, leaders can be impacted in a number of ways through change:

  • Lack of sleep and fatigue due to worry.
  • Personal guilt when hearing of the impacts on their decisions on people’s personal circumstances.
  • Physical responses such as headaches, stiff shoulders and necks and stomach complaints (the churn I feel when I walk in the door).
  • Some disengagement and perhaps unplanned sick leave.

It is sad that often this is not discussed among senior leadership cohorts and is instead kept behind closed doors or personal networks, giving the impression that is not okay to have an emotional response at work unless it is happy, indifferent or angry.

So key strategies can include:

  • Lead by example, if a leader has good emotional intelligence and is able to express emotional thoughts and feelings, it will be more likely others will feel safe to do the same also.
  • Ensure there is a dedicated psychological service for leaders, not just general staff.
  • Provide regular check-in processes for leaders and their line managers, which includes a personal check-in, not just task reports.
  • Involve leaders as part of the assessment of areas of resistance so that they are aware of what types might emerge and strategies to deal with these if they arise.
  • Promote in-change processes, self-care, and space to do this.
  • Senior leaders talk in real terms about emotions and that change can be a challenging time for leaders as well as staff and that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of personal resilience.

I really enjoy working with leaders to change the change agility and culture of their organisations to be supportive places to work. Having options like this in place also means that the reputation of the organisation as an ‘employer of choice’ is a benefit to the organisation’s bottom line.

admin
Elissa Farrow is the founder of About Your Transition, a business specialising in strategy development and implementation, the Director of Ethics of the International Institute of Project Coaching and the Global Secretary for the Change Management Institute. With extensive experience in strategic organisational change, portfolio, program and project management in the public, commercial and not-for-profit sectors, she has assisted organisations in increasing their delivery maturity by implementing enterprise-wide methodology and building the capability of the people who use them.
has written 41 articles for us.