The power of empathy within organisational change.

Because people are both the problem and the only solution.

When it comes to thinking about organisational change, the focus tends to be on the mechanics; structures, processes, logistics and practices.

Effectiveness, efficiency and minimising risk are the driving objectives. The pieces on the chessboard are moved around until there’s a picture that looks a lot better than it did before.

But something has been forgotten, arguably the biggest piece of the puzzle: the people.

Businesses are made up of them, they are the cognitive wheels that keep them turning, and whilst it’s often the case that they are the cause of many of the problems we face, they’re also our best bet at fixing them.

Ultimately, the driving force behind organisational change is personal change.


Often, when employees see consultants come marching through the doors, they view them with an equal mix of curiosity, fear and something akin to disdain.

There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. Consultants herald change, and it’s important to acknowledge that it’s in humans’ nature to resist.

When things shift away from the familiar and force us to move into unknown territory, our reactions are both psychological and, in some cases, physiological. We feel stress, anxiety and uncertainty, which manifest in one very common outcome; resistance.

The work we do at Undercurrent creates such resistance. We’re challenging organisations and individuals to undo what they know and to open their minds to new ways of operating and working that are entirely different, and maybe a little strange.

In an effort to build what we call ‘responsive organisations’, we’re actively sweeping away the hierarchies, fiefdoms and complicated reporting lines of old and replacing them with collaborative teams, cross-functional operations and distributed authority. But it’s not easy, for us or for our clients.

That’s why when people us ask what skills we cultivate to do what we do, the answer at the top of my list is empathy.

Empathy: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Resistance to change cannot be bulldozed, it cannot be persuaded and it certainly cannot be ignored. Instead, it should be dealt with sympathetically and positively.

Rather than simply addressing the symptoms (complaining, withdrawal, not attending meetings, not providing requested resources etc), an effort should be made to understand the root causes.

Only when you get to the bottom of why resistance is happening, can you truly empathise and help to move individuals along the path to change, in a way that engages them and makes them comfortable.

Below are some of the common causes of individual change resistance that we encounter within organisations:

  1. Comfort with the status quo — they know how things are done and the idea of moving to an unknown future state is scary.
  2. Highly invested in the current way of doing things — to date they’ve been successful and well rewarded based on the system they know, if this changes they could lose out in the future.
  3. Deriving power through control — some managers operate through hoarding information or people and may feel threatened by the flatter structures associated with collaborative working.
  4. Attributing credit or blame— moving away from top-down initiatives and towards task forces, means that there is no longer an individual decision maker responsible for successes or mistakes.
  5. Aided in the creation of the current culture— if they played a significant role in the last change management project or restructure, they may feel that their toes are being stepped on and their work undermined.
  6. Expecting more work — many people feel overworked and the concept of taking part in collaborative teams may initially seem to be adding to their plate, as opposed to lightening it.
  7. Reduced status and autonomy — many managers have worked hard to get to the positions of power which they occupy, reducing hierarchy and distributing authority is seen as a threat to their achievements.

(This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a starting point.)

At Undercurrent, we know that reactively managing resistance is futile and instead we take a much more proactive approach, starting with management.

Adopting a responsive operating model is as much about shifting mindsets as it is about shifting structures and practices, and nowhere are the traditional beliefs of ‘progress through promotion’ and ‘isolated influence’ more pronounced than at senior management level. So of course, this is where we begin and also where we get to flex our biggest empathetic muscles.

In a responsive workplace, managers must relinquish a certain level of control. Teams are designed to be autonomous, empowered and self-managing. Decisions are made at all levels and collaboration removes approval bottlenecks. So while their teams are off doing their own thing, the day-to-day work of management needs to evolve.

In an HBR article, John Kotter claimed that most organisations are over-managed and under-led and that ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ are two fundamentally different things. We emphatically agree.

That’s why altering the duties of senior executives to become more focused upon leadership and less on management is undoubtedly the most difficult and most important first step. They can be the ones cemented in their ways, but enlisting them as advocates is critical to success. When they demonstrate their commitment, that serves to cultivate willingness amongst the wider organisation and gets the ball rolling.

Often, these adjustments can feel challenging and annoying at first. They’re busy people with many responsibilities. They’re also just as sensitive to change and prone to resistance as their middle management teams will be. And in many cases, their habits, perceived securities and power dynamics can be even trickier to overcome. Once again, empathy becomes a core navigational skill.

Sometimes it won’t work, people will dig in their heels and point-blank refuse to take part. And that’s ok, it happens. Change can only take place through invitation, not through mandate, and it may be that you part ways for the time being.

But overall, don’t get bent out of shape if a little resistance comes your way and don’t give up.

Remember that structures, processes and logistics are all important when it comes to moving organisations into the 21st century, but that the largest and most influential lever remains the people.

It just may be that the ones who start off dragging their feet will be the ones who help you to sprint towards the future, if only you exercise a little empathy.