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02 Dec, 2021

Empathic communication in leading complex transformations

Empathic communication in leading complex transformations

More than ever before, we have been introduced to the concept of change management, but... are we aware of the importance that its correct application assumes in the management of increasingly complex transformations?
Are we conscious of the reasons behind the high percentage of transformation initiatives’ implementation failures? And, do we have the perception of the importance that empathic communication assumes in implementing change processes? 
We hope that this article will provide you insights into these questions and make you reflect on how communication is happening in your transformation’s management.

Change management: what and why

Shortly, we can say change management is a discipline that consists of applying a structured process and a set of tools to lead the people side of change and achieve the desired outcome. In other words, it helps individuals, impacted by a change, make successful personal transitions enabling them to engage and adopt it. The words "personal” and "transitions” are intentionally highlighted, because, as research continuously provides further evidence, if human nature is not considered in a transformation process, we cannot successfully implement any change.

Although distinct from project management (that concentrates more on the technical side of change), both are closely intertwined disciplines, necessary to implement organizational changes. We can even claim that change management is a crucial part of project management. Its application translates, in general, into the guarantee that there is a workstream usually called "change management and communication", which ensures that the people involved in the transformation initiative know what is going to change and have the necessary skills to operate in the new reality. Therefore, it is expected that conflicts are avoided and that everyone's collaboration in the change process is achieved.

There are several models, software, and certifications for managing change, which support change management agents’ ability to manage projects, manage people, and guide an organization through a period of transformation. The demand for roles such as "agile coach” and "change management expert” is also a growing reality.

Although there is still room for improvement, the truth is that the relevance of this discipline in the reality of the companies has been increasing over the years. And… what are the reasons behind this trend?

As we all have been experiencing, we are living in a context with levels of disruption never experienced before. Therefore, we need to be adaptive and agile, so that we can remain responsive to change. Darwin's statement – "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, it is the one that is the most adaptable to change” – nowadays, more than ever, this is particularly relevant. Also, John Kotter, one of the most well-known specialists on leadership and change, claims in his book "A sense of urgency” that "change is shifting from episodic to continuous (…) with huge implications for the issue of urgency and performance.”

Nevertheless, if there is a discipline dedicated to managing the human side of change, highly recognized as needed, and if it has been increasingly considered in organizational change processes, why does the distressing 70% figure of organizational transformations failures remain?

Why does change management fail

The authors dedicated to studying this subject unequivocally refer to eminently human causes
  • Culture not aligned with the mission
  • Non-sharing of the vision
  • Not enough training, or resources
  • Lack of communication and transparency
  • Absence of involvement in decision making

Research also suggests that leaders play a decisive role in managing change. They should be the engines of change buy-in. 

In the Forbes’ article "1 Reason Why Most Change Management Efforts Fail”, Brent Gleeson - a Navy SEAL combat veteran, motivational speaker, and leadership coach -draws attention to a "very critical roadblock standing in the way of bringing a change vision to fruition…”, which he calls "change battle fatigue”. According to him, this is "the result of many elements such as past failures plaguing the minds of employees and the sacrifices made during the arduous change process”. As he points out, "when a transformation is poorly led, fatigue can set in quickly”.

Gleeson not only expects a 70% of organizational transformations failures’ rate increase, but he also mentions a research from IBM which points that, despite the already mentioned need to lead change properly, "(…) our ability to do it is shrinking.”

So… where are leaders failing, to cause peoples’ discouragement, fatigue and giving up of change embracement?

Empathic communication as the key factor in managing change

The research that supports the creation of our consulting offer - namely the Fluid program -, and our experience, lead us to the following conclusion: there is a capability, which cuts across all the human causes listed above (and often determines the success of underlying the change initiative), we truly believe it is not effectively put into practice – that is the communication.

In recent research, communication often appears in the top three of the critical skills in the leaders of the future. An interesting piece of data, from the fresh Gartner annual Chief Data Officer (CDO) survey, shows the importance of communication (as well as other soft skills) in management roles. As stated in the article that published this survey, "93% of respondents to this survey reported that effective communication is critical to success. Influencing, engagement and communication planning are paramount".

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, communication is generally present in all the guidelines of the change management and project management disciplines. The workstreams that manage transformations typically consider communication plans. But... is it enough to send emails and provide training on the transformation in place?

We don’t think so. Especially if you consider people as your organization’s most valuable asset. Engaging, equipping, and supporting people, during times of change, implies something highlighted by José Tolentino Mendonça, a university professor: in this context, each change leader needs to "personally assume communication as a task, in its deepest dimension”. As this author points out, we often hear that we live in a society of communication, but, and this is the crucial insight, "this does not automatically imply that we are competent communicators. On the contrary…”. He believes that this era of communication – everywhere and always on – "led to a reduced commitment in the personal responsibility of communicating with meaning”. This Portuguese writer invokes, as an actual form of illiteracy, completely disregarded, "the ability to have an experience of full communication with one another…”. 

In our perspective, Tolentino Mendonça’s highlights relate to a capability identified by researchers in the field of communication as very challenging to exhibit - empathic communication. It implies being aware of the reactions and feelings of others and understanding them and is key to create connection (a key performance behavior of Fluid´s Leadership model). Exhibiting this ability takes a lot of effort and energy. It requires great attention and focus, which is very challenging in today's organizational realities. Empathic communication is crucial in a change management process, since, as creatures of habit, we have difficulty incorporating new changes into our routines, no matter how beneficial they are for us, because we tend to do the things that make us feel good, secure, comfortable and spend as little energy as possible. 

(If you are a reader curious about biology, you can research about "homeostasis” and you can further understand the mechanisms underlying resistance to change).

Therefore, it is key that leaders leading change create awareness about how challenging it is to communicate in an empathic way and about the crucial role this ability plays in understanding the people change resistance process. As highlighted in Gartner’s survey mentioned above, the "modern approach to change management requires a deeper understanding of how your stakeholders think and feel…”

Summing up…

  • In the current context – characterized by unprecedented fast paces of change and a 24/7 connection – the change management discipline plays a decisive role in supporting organizations when addressing this challenge
  • Change management focuses on putting in place robust communication plans, to support the people-side of change
  • Even adopting this discipline, transformations continue to show high levels of failure due to human causes
  • Our research and experience show that behind the human causes underlies an ineffective use of communication. This means struggling in putting into practice a communication focused on understanding others – empathic communication
  • Empathic communication is key to understand people resistance to change and to provide appropriate and meaningful answers that will involve them in the change process, making them engaged, motivated, and aligned. This will lead to their mobilization towards a common and purposeful cause
  • To be an emphatic communicator requires being aware of its importance and investing time and energy to develop it. But… like everything that involves effort and dedication, it's worth it…

Are you ready to start this journey and make a difference in leading the change of complex transformations?

  1. Kotter, J. (2008). A sense of urgency. Harvard Business Review Press. Boston, Massachusetts.
  2. Gleeson, B. (2020). 1 Reason Why Most Change Management Efforts Fail. Forbes.
  3. Duncan, A. (2021). CDO Success Factors: Change Management and Communication Unlock Data-Driven Business Value. Gartner.
  4. Mendonça, J. (2021). Communication and solitude. Expresso Newspaper Magazine. Edition 2545, page 90.

Teresa Sofia Filipe, Head of Delivery