What does ‘humanizing change’ really mean?

Here’s how to fuel successful organizational transformation using empathy, engagement, and connection.

Most stories about organizational transformation focus on the extreme cases: either ‘change happens’ (and greatness follows) or ‘sh*t happened’ (a cautionary tale for leaders). 

But the truth is that most transformations fall somewhere in between. In other words: ‘Meh’ happens’. In fact, research by Bain & Company found that 20% of major change efforts fail completely, 68% settle for less than 100% of their stated ambition, and just 12% meet their goals.”

Change is inevitable — success is not

Whether it’s adapting to market trends, leveraging new technologies, or restructuring to gain efficiencies, most organizations must evolve to stay competitive. Yet, even if strategies are sound, transformation entails great risk. 

Effectively implementing new strategies requires organizations to make its people the catalysts for transformation. In simpler terms, success depends on humanizing change. At the heart of organizational change is the imperative of fostering employee buy-in and engagement to accomplish that organizational change. Employees are not merely cogs in the machinery of an organization — they’re individuals with emotions, concerns, and aspirations. Empathy, clear and consistent communication, and promoting connections are key to engaging and empowering people to be catalysts of change. 

Humanizing change is a choice. If you don’t humanize the change for your people, inevitably they are dehumanized by it.

‘Humanizing change’ is not a buzzword — it’s a requirement

Humanizing change is a strategic imperative for organizations looking to successfully navigate the complexities of transformation — all the way from idea to outcome. In doing so, organizations not only embark on new strategic objectives with more momentum and buy-in, they also foster a culture of collaboration, innovation, resilience, and continuous improvement. 

According to Bain & Company, authentic engagement is the single most important factor in a successful transformation. True engagement can only happen when people are represented in the change itself, when the change is communicated in clear and meaningful ways, and when the change is supported by connections that enable people to navigate the process. While transformation journeys may seem painful and fraught with potential failure, there are a few principles of humanizing change that will help create engagement:

1. Make people the catalysts for change

Adopt a people-centered approach to implementation to align and engage the organization. Consider the new strategy from the perspectives of employees and stakeholders and use those insights to inform communication and implementation. Big change can’t happen without a big vision, but there will be little change if your people don’t see how all of this matters to them. 

  • Create ownership: Mitigate resistance and foster a sense of agency by involving employees in decision-making, showing that they are valued
  • Give meaning: Solicit feedback, address concerns, and demonstrate how the proposed changes align with the company’s vision and values
  • Cultivate buy-in: Actively recruit influencers and advocates who can help seed and lead the change in various parts of the organization

This may sound like the employees are running the show. But the employees aren’t “in charge,” per say, but are involved. And that goes a long way.

2. Communicate with clarity and empathy

‘Message sent’ is neither ‘message received’ nor ‘message understood.’ Communications must be easy to understand, accessible, and emotionally engaging. While data and statistics are important, they usually don’t resonate with people on an emotional level. Visual storytelling, on the other hand, connects compelling change narratives and shows scenarios to explain the rationale and its potential impact on individuals and the organization.

  • Develop a foundational change story: Distill your strategy into a narrative for key stakeholders so that it captures their attention, expresses empathy, and inspires action
  • Leverage visual, story-based communications: This can include various storytelling materials, digital experiences, presentations, videos, or interactive workshops to help people understand and care about the strategy
  • Communicate a consistent story at appropriate altitudes: Do this for each audience, speaking to their concerns and aspirations — you need to enable people to see themselves in the change and to understand it

Remember, change documentation isn’t change communication. Your communications must give meaning to the change (an inspiring message), while the documentation is only a manual (an instructive message). Try to think of the last time you were inspired by a set of instructions, and lead with empathy instead.

3. Create opportunities for greater connection

When people within an organization feel connected with each other, they are far more likely to become catalysts of change. Ultimately, this connectedness of people correlates with an organization’s ability to transform.

  • Organize immersive and inclusive experiences: Help employees bond with each other and collectively commit to change
  • Promote knowledge-sharing and inspiration: Establish centers of excellence, enable learning and sharing 
  • Support wayfinding: Help people navigate change by answering critical questions like, “Where do I/we fit in the story?”, “What does this mean for me/my team?”, and “How can I/we ?”

By delivering personalized messages and connecting its people, organizations can employ empathy to build trust and credibility throughout the change process. Humanizing change is not a separate program — it can be integrated into consultancies’ existing transformation strategies, bolstering engagement impact.

“If you want to go fast, go alone,
  if you want to go far, go together.”

— African Proverb 

History is not on your side — so make sure your people are

Research by McKinsey & Company found that, “The potential for value loss in a transformation begins as early as day one, and the largest share of value is lost during implementation.” 

Evidence abounds that transformations usually fall short of their goals, but there is a growing body of research that shows that “people are the catalysts of successful transformation” and engagement is the most important factor in humanizing change.

Engagement lies at the heart of this approach, and organizations that communicate effectively and promote connections across people see better results. To that end, Heidi Grant Halvorson’s book Reinforcements makes a great point: “Even though we hate to ask for help, most people are wired to be helpful… [but] we do a poor job of calling in the reinforcements we need, leaving confused or even offended colleagues in our wake.“ 

As a leader, you want your people charging forward with you, rather than tumbling in your wake. Not only must you ask for everyone’s help, you must give them the agency, tools, resources, and encouragement to help each other. 

In successful transformations, people are not only the catalysts of change, they are the change.

Image: Illustration by Chris Roettger / Tremendousness.