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Change leaders need information and empathy

Elissa Farrow
March 7, 2016

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.


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 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.

Elissa Farrow
Elissa is a founder and lead consultant for About Your Transition and has extensive experience in strategic organisational adaptation design, facilitation and delivery. Elissa has supported organisations to define positive futures and then successfully transform to bring lasting benefits. She has proven adaptative capacity and can successfully transfer her skills to different contexts. In 2018, Elissa commenced her doctoral studies through the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her published research is exploring organisational adaptation to the evolving field of artificial intelligence using qualitative and participatory research methodologies. Elissa is an experienced board director and considered a thought leader in her field having won a number of national and local awards for contributing to Women in Project Management and for Change Management Research.
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One thought on “Change leaders need information and empathy

  1. Hello Alissa
    I have been looking at how to build next generation housing that caters for the needs of each community around the world, While being extremely affordable practical and innovative.
    Looking at how this could be done I have finally come up with a plan of action that not only can help us deal with planetary degradation but help the planet cater for the 2.4 billion people projected to be here in the next 45 years.
    This is where I need your help.
    I’m looking to put together a team that ultimately helps put together other teams these in turn go through the processes needed for the projects to be completed. funding and built.
    I have an action plan but I’m no project manager/ processor and have recognized my role would be as a director. I have been researching for a few years and have a large number of research contacts and planning needs that must be met to make the whole thing work. I,m looking to utilize some of the 3 trillion dollars a year spent on aid and refugees along with some help from the around 1,000,000 groups and organisations trying to help in some way shape or form around the world.
    Towns and cities of the future made efficient educational , interestingly innovative with the base of practicality reached through design.
    crazy concepts that will work if a general processes action plan is implemented.

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