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“It’s not the strongest species that survives, not the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” The words of Charles Darwin could not ring more true in the post-pandemic economy. With the onset of Covid, and now with on-going hybrid work models, came a demand for entirely new business structures, remote solutions for working together and the acceleration of digitalization in all areas of the organization. From simple Zoom meetings to the necessity of new technologies to hire talent, establish effective work flows and collaborate. Leading employees through change when stress levels and fear were high, managing  teams remotely, and balancing the need for technologically advanced solutions with the “human factor”  required empathy and understanding in times of crisis. Driving change in an organization has never been easy, in the past years it has left many leaders simply overwhelmed, frustrated and lost.

Even without the pandemic related pressure to drive rapid change within organizations, the success of change management initiatives has always been low: Back in 1996, Harvard Business professor John Kotter in his book “Leading Change” stated that 70% ​​of all organizational change efforts fail due to 8 predominant reasons:

  • too much complacency
  • failing to create sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
  • underestimating the power of vision
  • under communicating the vision
  • permitting obstacles to block the new vision
  • failing to create short term wins
  • declaring victory to soon
  • neglecting to incorporate changes firmly in the corporate culture

As organizations emerge from a 2+ year state of panic, stress and uncertainty, there is another limiting factor to change initiatives, described by Navy Seal veteran, bestselling author and leadership expert Brent Geelson as “combat fatigue”. With employees, managers and CEOs already strained and burned out – how can change be successful now, how can organizations continue to adapt in order to not only survive but thrive during these tumultuous economic times?

Change Management Is Now People Management

The pandemic profoundly shifted the nature of change organizations suddenly had to navigate. In the past decade, significant changes companies were facing were often enterprise transformations such as mergers and acquisitions, revamping specific business functions, or outsourcing parts of the operations. Covid and the post-pandemic economic reality has forced them to adapt and course correct in entirely different ways, with completely new urgency. This includes restructuring the workforce into a functioning hybrid work model, dealing with budget cuts, less human resources and hiring freezes, along with a need for accelerated digitization and automation. Leadership roles are suddenly a lot more about people management than about task management, requiring their upskilling and reskilling to match the demand of these new roles.

So how do you successfully manage change during times when people are already fatigued, burned out, stressed and overwhelmed? How do you close the leadership gap, overcome the mental effect and operational strain of a high percentage  of employees resigning, and how do you create a new corporate culture that is crucial to giving teams a sense of connectedness, purpose? And how do you successfully navigate change initiatives in a predominantly hybrid workplace setting without being exclusionary to those who still work remotely for the most part?

The 3 Most Relevant Skills To Manage Change Successfully

There are many theories on what is required for effective change management. The “Emerging Leaders” group at the University of Rochester for example lists establishing a strong leadership team, recruiting from within, making a plan, designating a point person, holding organization wide meetings to communicate the change initiatives, educating and explaining as well as prioritizing tasks, creating a transition team and keeping operations going through these transitions.

Whilst these are important strategic elements to successfully drive change, they don’t address the major hurdles of getting everyone on board, to get buy-in and support on all levels of the organization. People skills such as active listening, empathy, self-awareness and emotional intelligence, communicating clearly, being able to lead through tough conversations and situations, creating connection and belonging between all people involved are equally, if not more important for change initiatives to be successful. 

  1. Clear Communication – Even In Difficult Moments

Change is never easy or comfortable. How fast we are able to adapt to change and to what degree we are willing to be “uncomfortable” is highly personal, as research has shown. This is where clear and skillful communication comes into play – being able to have tough conversations in a way that everyone feels heard and understood, remains open and is willing to accept feedback. It means being able to speak up when a lot is at stake without avoidance or overreacting in the moment and possibly affecting one’s reputation and trust. “Communicating” also includes listening from a place of openness, empathy and seeing things from “the other side of the bridge” so the people we are communicating with are feeling heard.

  1. Communicating With Empathy

Studies on organizational change across the board emphasize that communicating empathetically is crucial in order for change initiatives to be successful. The problem is: most leaders don’t know how to do this! A survey by Catalyst found empathy a strong catalyst for innovation, engagement and inclusivity  – only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders reported their ability to innovate compared to 61% of those with empathetic leaders. 76% of employees with empathetic leaders reported being engaged, compared to only 32% amongst those with less empathetic leaders, and only 17% of employees with less empathetic leaders found their workplace to be inclusive, compared to 50% of those with empathetic leaders. However, another study conducted by DDI found only 40% of leaders were considered empathetic. The good news: scientifically, empathy isn’t something people are or aren’t born with – it is more so a skill that can be learned!

  1. Creating Culture

Establishing a strong company culture and incorporating change initiatives firmly within this culture has proven equally important for effective change management. Company culture is defined by employees’ connectedness, a sense of belonging as well as a climate of Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and psychological safety. A healthy company culture isn’t about corporate events and mission statements on the wall – it is about everyone in the organization feeling heard, their feelings being valid, considered and safe to be communicated. Organizational culture is dependent on and built by leaders possessing all the people’s skills listed above, in order for companies to be able to adapt to the workplace reality of today and face any future challenges.

Change has to begin with people – without their buy-in, without them feeling heard and understood in the challenges arising throughout change initiatives, these projects  will inevitably fail. In the past , people skills or soft skills, as they were called until they were recently renamed to “power skills” were nice-to-have competencies when it came to management roles. Even the significance of a corporate culture for the longest seem to be reduced to company outings and social gatherings, when time and budget permitted. The pandemic profoundly shifted what organizations now need to focus on in order to keep and attract the best and brightest, overcome the great resignation, win the war for talent and thrive in the tumultuous economic times of today.