Leading change by putting empathy in action

It’s a big deal when you ask employees to work a different way. Slack experience specialist Eri Sakunaga shares tips on leading change effectively

Image Credit: Josh Cochran

Change at work is not experienced as a single moment in time. It’s a continuous journey that requires a community of teams and people to make happen. A variety of events can be the catalyst for change within an organization: a transition in leadership, restructuring, a merger or acquisition, or even an update to existing systems or processes. Whether the change is big or small, when organizational transformation is triggered, leaders must steer their teams with strength and empathy.

When new customers start using Slack as their new way of working, we know that this change requires a shift in mindset, and that individuals will process the change differently. People aren’t going to just change their behaviors overnight. This is where our team of experience specialists comes in.

We deliberately refer to ourselves as “experience specialists” rather than “change management specialists” because we focus on how the change will affect people’s day-to-day work and beyond. In other words, we work with customers to manage the entire change journey, not just the initial implementation. That’s how we make sure alterations in habits and behaviors actually stick, whether your organization employs 10 people or 200,000.

Start with empathy


There’s a common phrase: “People might forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.” When we introduce Slack to a new company, we believe in creating a positive, memorable experience so that employees associate those good feelings with using Slack. In our case, we want to show them how much more productive Slack helps them be in their daily work.

Christina Kosmowski, Slack’s VP of Customer Success, has discussed how an empathetic change management process caters to employees of all kinds, and we fully champion that attitude. Empathy fuels connection, as renowned researcher and storyteller Brené Brown has noted. In business though, “empathy” can too easily become a buzzword. How do you actually show empathy in action in the workplace when influencing behavioral change?

Here are a few key ways to lead change with empathy:

  • Explain the “why.” It sounds obvious, but many times leaders can forget to really define why there’s a change, how the change ties back to the overall company vision and mission, and what results they anticipate as a result of implementing this change. If you don’t offer this context in the form of a compelling story, it’s easy for employees to drift back to their old ways of working.
  • Listen. It’s so important. As experience specialists, we often refer to Stephen Covey’s quote: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” When we lead workshops with a select group of new or existing users, we listen to how they work today, and we pay close attention to their pain points, challenges and must-haves at work. Then, as employees are coached on how to use Slack, we try to mirror their own words so we can show that ultimately we are tailoring an experience for them. That resonates powerfully.
  • Think big picture. While leadership often approaches change based on metrics, percentages and potential cost reduction, the majority of employees will not be moved by the language of statistics. More than anything, employees want to know how their work is going to change, and why. So, in addition to keeping an eye on success metrics, know that introducing a new change requires a hefty amount of compelling storytelling as well.

Combined with the baseline knowledge of how to show empathy in action, here, as we see it at Slack, are the four elements of leading change so that new behaviors actually stick.

A map showing the journey to leading change by putting empathy in action. Pit stops on the road include: Assess employee sentiment, create user profiles and personas, co-design your approach, listen to employee feedback and iterate often

1) Approach with an employee-centric mindset

People get attached to their processes, especially if it’s something they created over time, whether on a team level or as an individual. It’s a big deal when you tell someone, “Hey, I actually need you to do this thing a different way.” This can easily be read as a critique of their process. Even if the change may seem small, the mental and the cognitive work of adapting is no small feat.

Traditional change management comes from a services perspective. It’s based in a more transactional, one-size-fits-all approach of applying  a broad framework that’s agnostic of employee sentiment or feeling. This approach doesn’t allow for an opportunity to think from multiple employees’ perspectives or incorporate user sentiment.

We aspire to create an almost emotional component when leading change so that employees can grapple with and accept change in their own way. This is an example of empathy fueling connection. Why exactly is connection important at work? It cultivates a sense of belonging; you’re building a community. As Charles Duhigg explores in The Power of Habit, community drives change, which helps form new habits.

2) Take a persona-driven approach

Once our experience specialists interview employees, our team summarizes those responses by creating distinct “profiles” of typical user types, based on characteristics such as their role within the company, technical proficiency and details about how they work. Then, we have a brainstorming session with our customers because, of course, our customers know their people best.

What do these personas look like? If we are implementing Slack at a financial institution, we may refer to a persona of “Bob,” a banker of 20 years who’s been using email as his main point of communication and checks his inbox on his hourlong commute to work. We create a day-in-the-life profile like this so we can consider how Bob would react to a change in his work processes.

This profile is much different from that of “Maya,” a millennial who works in IT, is very used to technology updates and has many apps on her phone that she uses fairly naturally. She may not need too many guidelines or specific steps to follow because she can adapt well on her own. We understand that managing change for Bob vs. Maya is very different, but both users are equally important to the success of the business.

All of these nuances are key to understanding how people will experience change and whether they will be empowered to stick with it or not. Otherwise, if you don’t acknowledge these differences, both Bob and Maya are more likely to misunderstand or ignore directions.

Persona work allows us to dig deeper and take into account how each person will use Slack. With this base-level knowledge, we can then tailor our approach to help individual employees understand how they can use Slack to make them more efficient and productive at work.

3) Co-design your approach

We may be the experts on Slack but we are not the experts on understanding our customers’ employees. It’s counterproductive to show up, deposit our best practices and leave. With this in mind, we work together with our customers to co-design an approach to managing change together. When everyone is given an opportunity to offer input into a solution, everybody feels a sense of ownership in the success of the program. That’s why co-creation is so important.

By asking managers about their and their employees’ work systems, pain points and user sentiment, together we create an experience completely unique to them. It’s great when customers tell us Slack is so easy to use and that all you have to do is turn it on and go, but we wouldn’t be successful if we relied solely on this approach.

To help change take root at scale, we set in place several role models at work. We call them “champions”—managers, leaders and peer-to-peer volunteers who are well-trained on the change and can help activate their communities at work. Employees then feel like the change is coming organically and is supported by the wider employee base instead of receiving it as just an announcement from the top.

Champions help us calibrate how to most effectively introduce Slack to their fellow colleagues. It’s too easy to miss or even ignore a top-down directive regarding a change, but when employees have the support of their peers, they tend to accept new changes more. Additionally, champions can provide team members with more day-to-day support when needed.

4) Lead change with a flexible mindset


Just as employees are asked to adapt to new changes, we need to employ an agile approach to managing change. Empathy allows room for flexibility so that we can take in feedback and adjust. In these times, it’s wise to remember that the first solution is rarely the final one.

Work often takes place in fast-paced environments that require us to continually evolve and grow. That’s why we need to hear employees out at every stage and consider their perspectives, experiences and preferences.

Actively listen to what employees are saying, and not saying, in order to identify what they really need. Incorporate their feedback and your observations so they feel that their voice is heard. We encourage leadership to demonstrate an appreciation of employees’ reactions and reinforce how important their input is for continuous improvement.

Parting words: Commit to continuous improvement

When it comes to leading change, we know we can’t please everyone and that’s OK. Within nearly any organization going through change there will be laggards (defined in Diffusion of Innovation Theory as traditionalists, last to adopt an innovation). It’s important to demonstrate that it’s not the individual who has to change to fit the process but the other way around.

That’s why as experience specialists, we’ve reconsidered and diversified our approach to implementing change. By thinking through the many different ways that people receive and react to change, we’ve come up with a pretty successful way to make new habits stick. It boils down to taking the time for deep listening, researching thoroughly and showing a commitment to continuous improvement at every level of the organization.

Leading organizational change: A checklist

☑️ Understand that change is an emotional process and thus drive meaningful change with employee sentiment in mind.

☑️ Get to know your employees and how they work. Create personas and profiles that represent your company’s actual user population in order to help everyone understand their reactions to changes and how you can support them.

☑️ Co-design your approach. We partner with our customers on defining the best approach to leading change within their organization, based on data derived from user profiles and personas. A successful process rollout could look very different for teams within HR than say, sales. So tailor your approach accordingly.

☑️ Take an iterative, flexible approach to change that's feedback-driven. Ensure that you’re asking teams how they’re handling the change and be open to changing tacks if you discover that some teams aren’t managing as well. There are myriad ways to coach employees successfully, you just have to find the right fit for that person or team.

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