Change management: 4 tips for leaders on embracing human nature

Humans naturally resist change, but change is unavoidable right now. Consider this expert advice to help your teams transition with confidence
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Organizational change continues to speed up and deepen, accelerated by the uncertainty and new demands brought on by the pandemic. Technology executives and their teams are almost always key to these changes because these days, most major organizational changes have a large technological component.

The simple truth is that this puts you, as a tech leader, in a difficult position because for most people, most of the time, change is hard.

Our anti-change wiring

Blame people’s reluctance to change on our experience as a species. Until quite recently in human history, change has generally been dangerous; the safest course of action was to return to the known. If there was a famine, you wanted to get back to eating regularly. If there was an invading army, you wanted to get back to peace and prosperity. In most cases, returning to a previous set of stable conditions was the way to go.

But today, organizations need to change on an almost daily basis to stay competitive and to take advantage of the most effective new ways to operate. And as you’ve probably experienced, these changes don’t always work well.

CIOs encounter a lot of this built-in historical fear of change, and adoption can be slow at best. Here are four ways to increase your chance of making a successful change:

[ Want more on change management? Read How to hire change-ready people: 8 signs. ] 

1. Balance information with empathy

Too often, technology leaders focus all their communication about change on the details of the change itself. While this information is critical, by itself it won’t address most people’s underlying fear and hesitation.

As you communicate the change, acknowledge what may be challenging about it (for example, the change will take time, involve behaving in new ways, or seem awkward at first), and let people know how you’ll support them through these challenges.

2. Explain why change is happening

Because most of us are wired to think the status quo is the best option, we need good reasons before we’ll consider changing. This is true of almost everyone who’s being asked to go through an organizational change.

Think about why your company is making the change, focusing on the groups that will be most affected. Try to find compelling reasons that are relevant to these groups. For instance, if the most affected groups are users of a new system, how will that system ultimately benefit them? Will it automate some of their work, saving time, or will it help them be more responsive to their customers? Perhaps it will give them better access to information that’s key to their success.

3. Sketch the future

One of the main reasons that change is scary for people is they can’t imagine what the post-change future will be like – and most of us have a pretty significant fear of the unknown.

This is a perfect opportunity to use your skills as a leader to sketch a picture of the post-change future; it will go a long way toward reducing people’s fears and help them start to imagine that the change might be beneficial. For instance, you might say, “When we have this new customer complaint platform up and running, it will be much easier for customers to tell us what’s not working, and we’ll have ways to respond to them faster – and to more often make the changes they request.”

4. Make it two-way communication

Finally, thanks to our historical change-is-danger wiring, when people first hear about a change, they often assume it will be difficult, costly, and weird. This doesn’t mean they’re change-resistant; it means they’re normal human beings. And having someone listen to them as they work their way toward understanding that the change could be easy, rewarding, and normal is enormously helpful.

As you’re building your change plans, be sure to create lots of opportunities at the beginning for people to share their initial disquiet. Once you and your change team have listened to everyone thoroughly, they’ll be more willing to hear about how you and the company will help them learn how to do the new thing (easy), the benefits you believe the change will bring (rewarding), and how people they like and admire – including, one hopes, you and other leaders in the company – are using this new approach and liking it (normal).

Every indication is that the pace of change in our lives will continue to increase. As a technology leader, if you can help others accept and respond well to necessary change, this will support success for yourself, your team, and your company. It’s the best path to a successful, satisfying personal and professional life in this era of nonstop change.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting, and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. For over three decades, she’s served as a consultant and advisor to top executives at today’s leading organizations, including Amazon, Spotify, Charter/Spectrum, and the Yale School of Public Health.