Kamini Maharaj

Leading Change with Empathy and a Values Mindset

As an organisational change management specialist, I have been reflecting on the relevance of change management theory during the Covid-19 pandemic. As the world deals with one of nature’s severest catastrophes of modern times, much will be written about our resilience, adaptation, intelligence, and resourcefulness as human beings during this crisis. Leaders across the spectrum; political, business, religious, various agencies and bodies of all sizes and affiliations have had to show up for arguably the biggest test of their leadership career.

As with any change, we will get through this, however as with any change it remains to be seen how well we navigate through it. In my work, I experience leaders who are generally very articulate in expressing the case for change with their organisation and succinctly, with deep clarity painting the picture of the new reality post the change. These leaders can engage and catalyse their teams towards a new changed future.

However, how does a leader build engagement, motivation, energy, and commitment to a future that is uncertain, a future that continues to unravel and unfold at an astonishing pace, such as we are witnessing with this pandemic? How does a leader remain authentic while also creating positive energy and engaging in the face of deep uncertainty and fear?

It is during this time that a leader is tested not only on what they do but also how they do it - a leader needs to apply the mindset of their organisational values and the literacy of empathy.

The Importance of Values and Empathy in Times of Uncertainty

It is during this time that a leader should turn to the organisation's values. We get a good sense of an organisation by reading their values to understand “how they do things around here”. Their values tell us about their attributes and the behaviour that they expect from their employees, it explains their culture. When values are successfully embedded, they become second nature to people within an organisation, but they are the most distinctive and recognisable aspect of the organisation to people outside. Whilst organisations have varying degrees of success in implementing their values and embedding them into their culture, in my opinion, an organisation’s statement of values remain their most valuable asset and investment. Values can set a company apart from the competition by clarifying its identity and serving as a rallying point for employees. But coming up with strong values—and sticking to them—requires real courage. This is especially true during a time of change. Values show the true character of an organisation, and seeing them lived during times of change, illustrates the integrity of the leader. As Peter Drucker once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Values do not naturally translate into culture; values need to be lived every day to become the way of being which then translates into culture.

Where the espoused values are not part of the culture, organisations can leverage their value statements during change to mobilise a cultural shift. It is during times of change that leaders must turn to the organisational values to dictate and define how the change should be implemented. It is also during times of uncertainty that a leader should turn to the organisational values to guide their actions, when they do not know what they don’t know, yet still need to act. If organisations are bold enough to commit to defining their values, then they should be proud to showcase them during times of change, and who better to role model them than the leader?

One of the most successful ways to manage change (and fear of the unknown) is to gain employees’ trust. A way to earning trust is to start by leading from a place of empathy. The real challenge of change management is working against fear, the ultimate vulnerability. No matter the change -- whether it is something big like navigating a global pandemic or implementing a new work process - people are often afraid of the unknown and the possible implications of the change. During times of change, employees worry about being perceived as anything less than professional and competent to deal with the change and hesitate to show any vulnerability. Taking a vulnerable approach to change management should go two ways, leaders should be willing to be just as open and engaged. It is my belief that when leading change, irrespective of the severity of impact and uncertainty, when a leader has a values-centred, empathetic mindset half the battle is won. When everyone is willing to show their vulnerabilities, real strength and great business transformation helps create an innovative and adaptive company.

When leaders approach changes from a human-centred, empathetic perspective, they are less likely to experience resistance. Being “empathy literate” is the ability to envision how people will think, feel, act, or speak about a change. This is a powerful tool for leaders to apply during times of uncertainty, where they may feel the pressure to have answers in a time of increasing unknowns. In addition to applying empathy during (change) solution design, it is also effective in stress testing change communication. When change communication displays empathy it is more likely that the leader builds trust and the change is less likely to be resisted.

When a leader is seen to show care, concern, curiosity and listens for meaning and understanding during times of change, employees remember not what changed but how they felt during the change. These become the war stories that live in the organisation long after the leader has departed and are recounted around the fireplace at company functions for years to come.

References:

  • The Secret to Leading Organizational Change Is Empathy, HBR, December 20, 2018
  • Make Your Values Mean Something, HBR, July 2002