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Why Change Management Must Lead with EmpathyChange within an organization is a constant. Businesses implement new strategies, adopt new technology, change leadership, launch new product or service offerings, and make significant staffing alterations over their lifetimes. Many business owners and CEOs struggle with the change management process and how to lead during times of adjustment. This is where they lean on the HR professionals in their organizations.

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It may be cliché, but it’s true that the majority of people do not like change. Even on our best days, most of us would say our immediate reactions to change, especially at work, tend to be fear, concern, or worry. The emotional reaction we all have to change happens whether the work development is positive or negative in nature. Even when things are moving forward in a positive direction, change brings new environments, extra planning, external input, and a shift from the regular comfort zone of our day-to-day roles.

How can HR professionals handling change management create a positive environment so new developments are taken well and handled in stride by the entire workforce? They can lead with empathy.

As the main organizational communicators, HR professionals have the ability to prepare, plan, and execute a change of direction with confidence while considering both the stakeholders’ needs and every person affected by upcoming changes. Change management, when rooted in empathy, can accomplish meaningful conversations with decision makers, reduce worry and uncertainty, and increase trust within an organization.

Gather All the Information

Once you are aware a change is upcoming, set aside some time with leadership to get the answers you need. At this stage, a meeting with the decision makers is important to get a detailed view of how they see this change being implemented and why it is being made in the first place. If possible, get them to share their views on:

  • Their vision for the new project or change
  • Why it’s happening
  • The factors that were drivers of this new direction
  • Possible unintended consequences
  • Impacts on both employees and customers
  • Expected benefits
  • How results will be measured

At this point, you should make clear what information is ready to be shared both with internal staff and external stakeholders like customers or contract workers. Approval of the key messaging and communication strategy is crucial to get early on, so you can feel confident drafting out your change management plan and know you have the endorsement of the leadership team to guide the transition.

Consider Every Perspective

While most business decisions are made with the bottom line in mind, as an HR professional, your change management strategy must pair ROI with a human element. Understand that, when talking to executives, they will have different goals and a different vision for this change. It is your job as an HR professional to relay their vision to the staff while addressing employee needs with management. Let them know that by considering these needs up front, they can save in the long run.

Once you have all the important details of upcoming changes, frame your communication strategy around messages that employees will understand and connect with. Try to make sure initial announcements or meetings discuss the following:

  • The reason behind an upcoming change
  • What the company hopes to achieve with this new plan
  • Exactly how organizational objectives will be achieved with this change
  • What it means for the company
  • What it means for the employees
  • What it means for the public/customers
  • How success will be measured throughout the change process
  • Key dates, timelines, and next steps

Have a Plan in Place

While executives or stakeholders may focus on the excitement or strain of an upcoming change, it is extremely important to have a detailed plan in place. Not only does this help HR direct questions from employees, but it also ensures management has given thought to how a change will play out and has made crucial decisions before announcements are made.

Your plan should be both strategic and empathetic. A strategy that takes emotions into account tends to lead to strong change management procedures that help HR on many fronts. Not only does it show employees you have taken their needs and concerns into account before jumping into a new direction, but it can also help down the road. Companies that treat their employees with integrity and are as transparent as possible tend to have better reputations, and attract and retain top talent. Even if your business goes through a negative change, with a respectful and well-handled change management process, employees will feel taken care of, even if they are leaving.

Decide on the frequency of communication, as well as both hard and soft timelines. Consider a variety of communication methods including email, social media, internal message boards, one-on-one, departmental huddles, and town hall meetings. Try to consider the types of questions people will ask and where they will likely have the most emotional response. Find answers to these questions early, and if you don’t have a clear answer, ask management for a response they would like you to use. Employees will understand that sometimes answers are confidential or are simply unknown.

The more detailed your plan and the more transparent you are during the change process, the better your employees will feel about the situation. If they feel you are in control and that there is a solid plan set in place, they will have greater confidence in any type of change.

You Don’t Need to Know All the Answers

Transparency during large shifts in business is also very important. If you have taken the time to get as much information as possible and answer all the questions you can, as detailed as you can, employees will understand if you say you need to follow up with them on certain points.

Employees expect HR professionals to be honest more than they expect them to know all the answers. HR professionals need to be comfortable saying, “I don't know, but I’ll find out and follow up with you.” Not knowing an answer to someone's question is simply an opportunity to go back to the leaders at your workplace and find answers, discuss with them how employees are feeling, and share where their questions are focused. Continuing to be this bridge between all parties involved is crucial throughout the entire change management process.

However, whether you are still on the hunt or have found an answer, remember to always follow up. Employees need to know they are being heard during large changes, so don’t leave them in the dark for long. Once you find your answer, if it’s a personal matter, discuss it directly with the employee, but if the answer is of interest to the entire staff, send a follow-up memo or set a quick meeting because it's also important that...

Everyone Gets the Same Information at the Same Time

Nothing can stop the office rumor mill or watercooler talk, but HR teams should do their best to make sure everyone is getting the same information at the same time. Change is hard on everyone, and once people suspect something is coming, this is when misinformation starts flying.

Even if you haven't set your plan in place, plan a time to discuss new developments with the entire staff with set dates detailing when you will have new information. Stress that your door is always open for anyone who has questions. The more you can control the flow of information and who is providing the information, the better your employees will feel, and you will begin to get a real idea of how the workforce is reacting to any news of change.

Keep the Lines of Communication Open

It is crucial to keep the lines of communication open, both between HR and employees, and HR and the management team. HR decisions are often driven by finances or larger business rulings, but HR professionals have the ability and access to add empathy and transparency to the equation, and this cannot be overlooked.

It can be a hard line for HR professionals to walk between the ROI-focused management team and employees worried about new changes. But ongoing conversations with the entire workforce creates transparency that benefits everyone involved. Change can be both an exciting time and a stressful one for all parties, so it’s important to maintain communication even when there are bumps in the road or other complications. Set up weekly meetings with the change management team, individual departments, and leadership. Progress updates keep everyone involved and allow for consistent communication among executives, department heads, and staff members.

HR professionals who consider the needs of every member of the company while creating a detailed change management plan set themselves up for success. With transparent communication and a focus on empathy, change doesn’t need to be scary—it can boost company morale and the bottom line.


Kaneez Jaffer

Kaneez is a Certified Human Resources Leader (CHRL) with an advanced knowledge of human resources and organizational structure and design. She has extensive experience with HRIS systems and understands the need to move HR from a transactional model to a transformational one. She has worked in the investment banking, insurance, and legal industries, as well as with large not-for-profit centres helping to simplify and streamline their internal systems. Kaneez is an expert in building relationships and affecting change in a positive and productive way. She acts as the key HR business partner at Apri Insurance Services Inc, managing the implementation of JungoHR, while providing expert advice and counsel on a range of HR matters. Kaneez holds a Graduate Certificate in Human Resources Management as well as a Certificate in HR Law for HR Professionals from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada.

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