Oh the Humanity: Let's Get Real About Change

Acknowledging that organizational change involves humans, and humans are messy and complicated, will increase the likelihood that your change program will succeed.

The frequency and pace of organizational change are accelerating at a rate that would have been unprecedented a decade go. As change guru John Kotter observes, we see evidence of this in everything from the rate at which new products appear on the market, to how people use technology to communicate. 

Organizations are scrambling to adapt, fearful of the spectre of obsolescence nipping at their heels.  And yet, the statistics have become a cliche: 70 percent of change projects fail, a figure that has remained stagnant for nearly 50 years. So what do we need to change, to get better at change?  

You can’t bypass humanity

Most workplace cultures have, since the dawn of time, followed a rationalist philosophy. They assume that people will act on the basis of logic, and as part of that, park their humanity at the door. Thus for years, organizations that have diligently mapped out the systems and process aspects of change, have misguidedly assumed that the logical rationale for the change, Kotter’s ‘burning platform’, would be enough for people to want to leap. And the change would fail.

Human beings will never stop being human. Any system that fails to account for human egos, insecurities and deep-seated need to avoid threat will fail to perform as expected; from Smith’s free market economics to Communism to the internet.

What fear of change looks like


Change is destabilizing. Work is often a significant component of an individual’s identity, and changes to their role, organizational relationships and work patterns make people at all levels feel vulnerable and exposed. The outward manifestation of this is often anger, disruptive behavior, absenteeism and turnover. This can not only put the success of the change programme at risk, but also future team cohesiveness and productivity, as individuals focus inward and trust erodes.

How we can do better

Leadership expert Ann Marie MacDougall observes that, “Today’s successful leaders require a strong foundation of self-awareness and change adeptness to navigate the emotional, cultural and personal drivers of both themselves and their teams”. 

Good communication is a key skill for all leaders, and for those managing change, or managing people through change, it is critical.

We have spent years managing major organizational change programmes and helping business and their people not just adjust, but thrive in a changing environment.  Based on our learnings, here are three of our top tips for guiding your people through change.

Know your audience

Individuals and teams respond to change in different ways. They may be influenced by their experience of past change, by group leaders or dynamics, and by personality types. Certain professions attract personalities who are dynamic and open to change, while others attract those who require more evidence of the need for change. Understanding how your people want to communicate, from choice of language to channel to the time of day, will show employees that you respect them and that the change is happening with them, not to them.

With five generations now in the workforce, together with increasingly culturally and geographically diverse workplaces, it’s essential not to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to communication. When planning your strategy, remember that your audiences may not align with your organizational structure. For example, could women employees, new hires or older workers be disproportionately or unexpectedly impacted? Do all your employees speak English? Do they have differing levels of education? Considering people as individuals will dramatically impact how well they connect with the change message.


Ask yourself the right questions; repeat  

Change management planning needs to be underpinned by human-centric questions, such as: How will the employees think and feel about these changes? How do the employees see the leadership of this organization? What will employees want to hear from us? What might employees hear from outside sources? What might their fears be? What might their hopes be?

Once you have answered these questions as a leadership team, be sure to fact check your perceptions and assumptions on an ongoing basis. While surveys and formal data gathering is important and has its place, from a human centric viewpoint, there is great value in leveraging opportunities to listen to what people have to say in informal interactions.

Don’t shy away from engaging in spontaneous corridor conversations. It’s surprising how often leaders are reluctant to informally ask people about their perceptions of a change programme. They can be put off by the thought of a strong reaction, or worried about being put on the spot without a planned response. In fact, when leaders become visible and engage in organic communication, positive outcomes for trust and engagement with the change increase dramatically. And leaders can gain valuable, unexpected insights that can benefit how they manage the change program.

Plan to succeed - but know what to say if you don’t

Think of change communication as being woven into your overall change strategy, rather than seeing it as a parallel workstream. It’s important to plan your communications approach not only for every major milestone, but also for those times when things may go sideways.

Change rarely goes perfectly to plan, and transparency should be a top priority for maintaining the trust and engagement of your employees throughout the process. Saying “I don’t know”, or “we made a mistake, but we’re working hard to fix it” will allay fears and encourage resilience far more than false confidence or radio silence.

We are moving beyond the age of rationalism to now understand that when humans show up to work, they bring their humanity along with them. Prioritizing people with human-centric change communications is a significant step toward increasing the success rate of organizational change.

If you’re preparing for or experiencing change, please get in touch to begin developing a strategy that will lead you to success. Our first hour of consultation is always free and we will be happy to discuss your needs confidentially.