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Communicating Change: Overcoming Resistance Through Empathy

August 26, 2021 Digital Workplace
Laura Pike Seeley
By Laura Pike Seeley

Anyone who leads change management efforts know they tread a perilous path. As Woodrow Wilson said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” While digital workplace professionals leading change across platforms, processes and organizational culture aren't looking to make enemies, good intentions alone aren't enough to challenge resistance to new ideas and initiatives. 

Successful change management is highly faceted. A critical element lies in messaging strategy, including the language and channels used to inspire, educate and receive feedback about change. How do you design a change management messaging strategy to transform potential adversaries into allies? 

Change Management Communications Start With Empathy and Transparency 

Empathy is the ability to identify and understand the perspectives and needs of others, and to respond to those perspectives and needs from a place of compassion. Empathy requires active listening, vulnerability and candor.

In the workplace, when you start from a place of empathy, you may find those people who are most resistant to organizational change have great pride in and love for their work. Some of their resistance may be in defense of their legacy. Your messaging therefore, should at no point suggest you have arrived to address deficits in their work or their work styles. Instead, consider emphasizing the “why” behind the change — namely, how the change will remove any problems in the organization's tools or processes which act as barriers to success. Another fear of this group may be a loss of clarity in their future role or fears related to job security as a result of the change. Clear guidance, detailing the actions they will be expected to take, and acknowledging their value in supporting change, can help allay these fears.

Balance any reassurances with transparency into the problems the change addresses. Don't hesitate to share why existing organizational issues put the business at a disadvantage, and how the proposed change or changes will help chart a better path. For example, if the issue is your teams are falling behind in maintaining skills that keep your organization relevant and competitive, you may want to institute skills testing and upskilling requirements. Focusing on how this initiative addresses an organizational failure⁠ — a lack of learning and development opportunities in a strategic area⁠ — rather than failure on the part of individuals frames the program as a service rather than a method of "fixing" a problem with the employees themselves. 

Related Article: Digital Workplace Change Management Requires a Multi-Pronged Approach 

Let Employee User Personas Act as Your Guide 

Employee user personas and profiles can act as a guide as you tailor messaging to different populations in the organization. Profiles and personas help segment your organization into categories of users, and can also be used to personify typical user behaviors and mindsets, including change readiness. These user personas and profiles should have been developed as a result of active listening and direct inquiry into the challenges users face, not merely observation of and assumptions about behaviors.

When it's time to communicate plans for change, start with "why" as Simon Sinek recommends. The "why" will be distinct for different groups of people. What are their pain points, and how will your work address these? Think of how your messaging to change-ready teams would differ from your messaging to those who are change-averse.  

Consideration for your audience should guide not only the content of your messaging, but also the mechanism of delivery. Meet them where they are, and use the tools and processes they've already embraced to connect.  

Related Article: Less Is More When it Comes to Communication

Take a Collaborative and Democratic Approach 

No one wants to feel like they are on the receiving end of an aggressive sales pitch. If your messaging uses hard sales techniques, it will put people on the defensive. In his book "Think Again," author Adam Grant recommends embracing complexity and leading with objections as you attempt to persuade others.

Do you know all of the objections to the change? You've already explained how the change is designed to improve employee experience and elevate the organization. Now it's time to anticipate⁠ — and lead with an acknowledgement of⁠ — known objections, risks and obstacles. By naming and addressing barriers to the change, they become not counterpoints to your arguments, but instead challenges to solve together through collaboration.  

When your audience begins to lean into known objections, or begins to raise further objections, it's time to actively listen and respond with further questions. Encourage conversation and ideas for improvement, and ensure your digital workplace supports two-way communication to allow for feedback and inquiry. 

Related Article: How Your Digital Workplace Design Can Support Psychological Safety

Storytelling Is a Powerful Tool 

Storytelling is one of the stickiest methods of communicating guiding principles and vision. Consider developing stories based on your user personas to demonstrate existing challenges and how the change you are proposing addresses them. By presenting highly specific but relatable use cases, you can take your audience on a journey from current to ideal state in a memorable way. Use familiar examples which ground your vision for improvements in known tools and processes.  

Any communications about the change initiative should have a clear ask of your audience. Include a timeline and call to action that defines next steps and describes how you will support them in taking these steps.  

Set Your Change Management Up for Success 

Ask yourself: will you approach change management as a problem solver or as a conduit for improved employee experience? The former can provoke panic while the latter can break down resistance. If you start with an acknowledgement of the difficulties of change, the realities of risk, and the unique challenges employees face in their work, you'll find employees more willing to embrace change.

Empathy and consideration for your users are foundational elements of change management. The change should serve your people and the business in equal measure. Crafting your messaging with the same eye toward employee experience is critical, and knowing what will improve employee experience means knowing, relating to and responding to your employees. 

About the Author

Laura is a corporate librarian and knowledge services professional currently serving as Knowledge Manager at HKS, Inc., a leading global architecture firm headquartered in Dallas. In this role, Laura helps guide the firm’s knowledge strategy by championing knowledge building and sharing, information organization and findability, and employee experience within the digital workplace.

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